When Erika Hagberg started college, she thought she might want to be a doctor but quickly discarded that idea. She took journalism classes, business classes, music theory, history, calculus, economics, art history. “I had no idea what the hell I wanted to do with my life,” she said.
Twenty-some years later, now director of global sales for Google, Hagberg credits her wide-ranging liberal arts education with preparing her for a demanding business career.
It might seem counterintuitive — especially to parents looking at tuition bills. But Hagberg said she quickly learned that in the small classes at her small liberal arts college, she had to have done the work, be ready to answer tough questions, appreciate multiple perspectives and be able to explain her ideas effectively.
After graduating in 1997, Hagberg took what she thought was a placeholder job — working at AOL — and soon had the drinking-from-a-fire-hose feeling of learning everything possible in a fast-changing environment. Liberal arts helped teach her to be nimble and to speak up. “The pace of digital disruption is just incredible,” she said. “You have to be comfortable with that chaos.”
There has been a lot of skepticism about the value of a liberal arts education, a feeling that tends to spike during economic downturns, prompting many students and parents to seek training for a specific career. The Georgetown study finds that the return on a liberal arts education is not typically immediate — at 10 years, the median return is $62,000 — but over the decades of a career, it is solid. Only doctoral universities with the two highest levels of research activity, well-known institutions such as Stanford University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, fared better in the school’s estimated return on investment. The median 40-year return of $918,000 at liberal arts colleges is more than 25 percent higher than the median for all colleges, researchers found.
In Europe, higher education tends to be more directed toward specific careers, he said, while in the United States it’s more typical to have a major and a variety of other classes. “It turns out in an economy where there are a lot of changes . . . that combination makes you more flexible,” he said, “and gives you more opportunity in the long run.”
Critical thinking, writing skills, the ability to think across disciplines, the technical classwork, the internship experiences of students — all provide good preparation for the workforce and are things employers are seeking. Hagberg said her professors expected her to be actively involved in class, and that has helped her during her career: When she knows she has the right answer at Google, she speaks up. “We debate a lot, we challenge each other a lot in this industry,” listening to diverse perspectives and interrogating issues, Hagberg said. “I’m not afraid to have a voice.”