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Updated: January 22, 2024 Viewpoint

Viewpoint: Liberal arts' impact on the economy

It’s often said one of Worcester’s most powerful economic strengths is its number of colleges and universities. That’s true, but there may be something even more powerful higher education in Worcester can offer: the diversity of types of institutions, some of which are focused on career credentials, others on health care or engineering, and others still on the liberal arts.

A man in a brown suit
Greg Weiner

The liberal arts are often afterthoughts in the conversation about workforce development. It’s easy to understand, especially given shortages of specialized labor in growing industries. But liberal arts institutions, especially those of Catholic liberal education, should be seen as indispensable economic drivers.

Employers want to hire liberally educated people. That appears most clearly in the skills employers say they value, like communicating clearly, thinking creatively, exploring curiously, and disagreeing constructively. The way students studying the liberal arts acquire these skills is as important as the results. Few professors stand in front of a classroom and lecture on how to think or disagree. Rather, students in these disciplines learn through experience: They learn to think and argue by wrestling with great books, undertaking lab projects, encountering the subtlety that poetry and literature capture. They have the humility that comes from knowing how much we all still have to learn and the courage to think independently and act ethically.

[Related: Read the Wall Street Journal column from Assumption University President Greg Weiner about Catholic schools provide the education Jewish tradition prizes.

That is not to say institutions like Assumption University do not prepare students for careers. We do, by educating them liberally and in specific pre-professional disciplines. Yet, the highest economic value of a liberal education is it provides a foundation of enduring questions on which to build lives of meaningful work in a constantly changing economy. When I speak to prospective families considering Assumption, I ask parents how many of them are working in the same job, using the same technology, as they were when they were 22.

A liberal education, by contrast, cultivates the habits of mind-empowering students to adapt to change while valuing what is permanent. In Georgetown University’s database of lifetime return on investment for university degrees, Assumption ranks in the 94th percentile. Our students are gritty, determined, and educated to think.

All industries need that. They need technical experts but also managers. They need line workers but also marketers or accountants. A vibrant economic ecosystem requires a culture of entrepreneurship.

A sustainable and thriving economy needs more than the liberal arts, of course, and that is why the diversity of educational institutions in Worcester is so powerful. But it is a mistake to leave the liberal arts to the side. Whether they study the humanities or business, social science or nursing, these students will help drive prosperity by demonstrating the qualities in which they have been steeped: curiosity, purpose, creativity, leadership.

Greg Weiner is president of Assumption University in Worcester.

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