Key Questions

1. Does an undergraduate liberal arts education contribute positively to the development of these critical competencies in young people in the United States? 

2. Do any noncognitive benefits of a liberal arts education accrue equally to all college students, or do we see systematic differences by important social subgroups?

3. Given the pivotal developmental transition that coincides with traditional college attendance, do colleges generally, and liberal arts institutions specifically, fully leverage their opportunities to support students’ noncognitive development?

4. Finally, how might liberal arts education play a more impactful role in building the capacity of young people to take up the work of the 21st century?


As part of the Mellon Research Forum initiative on the value of a liberal arts education, scholars are considering a range of potential outcomes of such an education, including knowledge development and critical thinking, health and well-being, civic engagement, and the economic returns to college attendance.

This paper engages with some of the more intangible potential returns of liberal education related to the noncognitive development of young adults. It considers the question in a particular historical moment, amid widening socio-economic inequalities, geopolitical instability, and global environmental crises. Such a time calls for human beings who are able to recognize the partiality of their own perspectives; make sense of complex phenomena; direct their thoughts, feelings, and behaviors to act responsibly for the greater social good; and work effectively across social and cultural differences to solve pressing local, regional, and global problems. In other words, we need people with the qualities that liberal arts education espouses to develop: leaders, neighbors, co-workers, and citizens who are self-aware, empathetic, open-minded, agentic, committed to pro-social values and causes, capable of establishing and nurturing intimate relationships, and inspired by and able to achieve meaningful personal, community, and social goals.