Home Online Education Access and Affordability Seeking Stories…From Liberal Arts Graduates
Seeking Stories…From Liberal Arts Graduates

Seeking Stories…From Liberal Arts Graduates


I recently wrote about the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce’s new report, the ROI of Liberal Arts Colleges, which was generated from the database created for their broader report, A First Try at ROI: Ranking 4,500 Colleges. Despite experiencing a liberal arts education through my undergraduate history major at Duke University, something about the report bothered me. Ultimately, I understood what was causing my consternation. Around the time of my graduation in 1976, approximately 70% of my Duke class left for graduate school. While law, business, and medicine were likely the most popular choices, others also moved on to graduate schools in different areas of interest.

The methodology for the Georgetown researchers’ ROI calculation was to use median earnings reported to the College Scorecard at six, eight, and 10 years after students entered each institution. The reported medians were used to estimate earnings for years two through five, seven and nine. No growth in median earnings was assumed after 10 years. Using this methodology, elite schools where a high percentage of students graduate in four years would have an advantage over those where students took longer on average to finish. Schools where most students went on to graduate school might also be disadvantaged by the calculation if no substantial incremental earnings were calculated 10 years later. Additionally, adding graduate school to the accomplishments would add the cost of tuition and additional borrowing, since College Scorecard data reports only for students receiving financial aid.

So, if I replay my story using the Scorecard data, it runs like this. I went to Duke and graduated in four years. The current average annual undergraduate cost for Duke is $36,415, which represents tuition, living costs, books, and fees, minus the average grants and scholarships for federal financial aid recipients. Despite an overall four-year cost of $145,660, the median total debt for a history graduate there is $10,534. This represents the median cumulative debt of federal loan borrowers and excludes private student loans, Perkins loans and Parent PLUS loans, implying that my parents and I collectively paid $135,126 for my degree. I suspect the bulk of those funds came from my parents, whether from savings or Parent PLUS loans.

Median earnings for the 54 history graduates one year after graduation from Duke are $51,400. However, to complete my story, I matriculated in the MBA program at Tulane University immediately after graduation. I would therefore not have earned the $51,400 and would have deferred my student loans. According to the Scorecard, a Tulane MBA graduate will incur a median debt of $95,568 with median earnings of $78,200 one year after graduation, which would be year seven after starting if Duke were included in the liberal arts colleges’ ROI calculation (it is not, because it is a research university). The median earnings increase of approximately $27,000 two years later might be a win if I knew the year six, eight and 10 median earnings for Duke’s history graduates. The $95,568 in additional debt for my MBA requires a monthly payment of $1,114 compared to monthly earnings of $6,517.

Is this recounting of my educational pathway four decades later a reasonable representation of what most liberal arts graduates do after earning their degrees? Something tells me that using median earnings and debt may or may not be reasonable. My true story is far different and I will explain it for additional context.

The cost of my attendance at Duke was covered by scholarships, work study, a Basic Education Opportunity Grant (predecessor of Pell), a small contribution by my parents, and student loans. I graduated with $2,100 in loans. Tulane’s Graduate School of Business offered me a tuition fellowship and I graduated with $2,400 in loans. Regardless of how the cost of college is inflated from the 1970s until today, I seriously doubt I would have opted to pursue an MBA if it required me to borrow $95,568. Based on my BEOG/Pell eligibility, I doubt my family could have afforded the Duke costs, so my loan balance might be more or less than the median debt of $10,543. I might have reconsidered a liberal arts degree if another undergraduate degree led to better employment opportunities. Cost to the student and their family has to be included in considering explanations for why student interest has diminished in liberal arts degrees.

While I seek additional data to form a better construct, I’m interested in your story if you similarly earned a liberal arts degree. Did you go on to graduate school and incur additional debt? Did you never return to school? Or something different altogether?

Wally Boston Dr. Wallace E. Boston was appointed President and Chief Executive Officer of American Public University System (APUS) and its parent company, American Public Education, Inc. (APEI) in July 2004. He joined APUS as its Executive Vice President in 2002. In September 2019, Dr. Boston retired as CEO of APEI and retired as APUS President in August 2020. Dr. Boston guided APUS through its successful initial accreditation with the Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association in 2006 and ten-year reaccreditation in 2011. In November 2007, he led APEI to an initial public offering on the NASDAQ Exchange. For four years from 2009 through 2012, APEI was ranked in Forbes' Top 10 list of America's Best Small Public Companies. During his tenure as president, APUS grew to over 85,000 students, 200 degree and certificate programs, and approximately 100,000 alumni. While serving as APEI CEO and APUS President, Dr. Boston was a board member of APEI, APUS, Hondros College of Nursing, and Fidelis, Inc. Dr. Boston was appointed to the National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity by the U.S. Secretary of Education in 2019. He also serves as a member of the Board of Advisors of the National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment (NILOA), as a Trustee of The American College of Financial Services, as a member of the board of Our Community Salutes - USA, and as a member and chair of the board of New Horizons Worldwide. He has authored and co-authored papers on the topic of online post-secondary student retention, and is a frequent speaker on the impact of technology on higher education. Dr. Boston is a past Treasurer of the Board of Trustees of the McDonogh School, a private K-12 school in Baltimore. In his career prior to APEI and APUS, Dr. Boston served as either CFO, COO, or CEO of Meridian Healthcare, Manor Healthcare, Neighborcare Pharmacies, and Sun Healthcare Group. Dr. Boston is a Certified Public Accountant, Certified Management Accountant, and Chartered Global Management Accountant. He earned an A.B. degree in History from Duke University, an MBA in Marketing and Accounting from Tulane University’s Freeman School of Business Administration, and a Doctorate in Higher Education Management from the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education. In 2008, the Board of Trustees of APUS awarded him a Doctorate in Business Administration, honoris causa, and, in April 2017, also bestowed him with the title President Emeritus. In August 2020, the Board of Trustees of APUS appointed him Trustee Emeritus. In November 2020, the Board of Trustees announced that the APUS School of Business would be renamed the Dr. Wallace E Boston School of Business in recognition of Dr. Boston's service to the university. Dr. Boston lives with his family in Austin, Texas.


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