Is a liberal arts degree worth the price?

File photo of Ashoka University
File photo of Ashoka University


  • An undergraduate degree from new-age schools can cost 25-40 lakh. The payback is beyond jobs
  • New liberal arts schools are pricey. An undergraduate degree at schools such as Ashoka, Krea, Flame or JGU will be 6 to 10 times more expensive than courses at the Delhi University.

Coming from Palakkad in Kerala, Ritikaa TL was not confident entering college. She did not even score well in her first year. After 4.5 years of graduation, she now heads business operations at a fintech startup, Mool, in Gurugram. She attributes “wherever she is today" to her university education.

“The opportunities could not have come my way had I gone to a college near my hometown, even though there are some good colleges there," she says.

Ritikaa majored in history and international relations from Ashoka University, a liberal arts school in Sonipat, Haryana. She cannot write code or build an app. However, she is confident about her ability to “figure out what to do" even in areas where she is not technically trained. “Being able to question, think for yourself, communicate well—I don’t know how they teach you these skills, but you acquire them anyway," Ritikaa says. “Ashoka taught me how to swim, and swim fast."

Another liberal arts graduate is Akshaya Shankar, who majored in psychology from Krea University in Sri City, Andhra Pradesh.

Classes in progress at Krea University
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Classes in progress at Krea University

“The psychology I studied was academic. But the skills I indirectly picked up turned out to be quite useful," says Shankar. “We did not just take conventional exams, but were assessed through assignments like video essays, podcasts, and posters. These have come handy now."

Shankar is in a marketing communications role at Vayana Network, a business-to-business trade financing firm.

In a nutshell, this is what a liberal arts degree, taught by new private universities, which came up over the last decade, promises. Skills that are not easy to put down on a resume—like programming, analytics or design—but come to the fore at the time of problem solving

Graphic: Mint
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Graphic: Mint


Every liberal arts undergraduate, irrespective of their major, is supposed to take foundation or core courses in mathematical and scientific reasoning, critical thinking, philosophy, literature, economics and society. This gives them a well-rounded view of the world. Students take inter-disciplinary courses for the first one-and-a -half years, before they decide on a major. They can pursue minors, or electives, in diverse disciplines as well. So, one could end up graduating with a major in literature and a minor in computer sciences.

Ashoka University and Krea University offer majors across fundamental and computer sciences, humanities and social sciences. At Flame University in Pune, one could major in applied mathematics, business, computer sciences, marketing, humanities and social sciences. O.P. Jindal Global University (JGU), in Sonipat, limits itself to majors across social sciences, arts and humanities. Shiv Nadar University (SNU), near Dadri in Uttar Pradesh, offers engineering and management majors, in addition to those in sciences, humanities and social sciences.

All these institutions have a few things in common. They started off as a state private university (non-profit university established under a state act, and recognised by the University Grants Commission) and not a college affiliated to existing public universities, where the curriculum is more rigid; they are endowed by private philanthropic capital; they boast of research collaboration, faculty and student exchange programs with top universities in the US and Europe; a large number of their teachers come from the best universities in India and abroad.

Classes in progress at O.P. Jindal Global University
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Classes in progress at O.P. Jindal Global University

There is one more similarity—without financial aid, they are expensive.

Prospective students, and their parents, will, therefore, have many questions. Where does a student land after graduation? What are their immediate options? If they want to work, what could be their starting salary? And what are their long-term career prospects?

Mint spoke to the schools, their alumni, and current students to find some answers.

Big budget

Just how expensive are the liberal arts schools?

A three or four-year undergraduate degree at schools such as Ashoka, Krea, Flame or JGU will be six to 10 times more expensive than courses at the Delhi University (DU)—it can cost 25-40 lakh. They even outdo private engineering colleges such as Vellore Institute of Technology (VIT) by some margin.

These universities, however, have smartly positioned themselves as an alternative to a degree in the US or Canada, which can cost 2-3 crore for a four-year bachelor.

Take the case of Urvin Soneta, who is from Mulund in Mumbai. He got through engineering courses at the University of Toronto and Tu Delft in the Netherlands but chose to go to Ashoka University. His family realized that the programs abroad would be “super expensive", whereas the quality of education at Ashoka could be “at par". Moreover, he would be closer home. Soneta graduated with a major in economics and a minor in computer sciences in 2018. He even received one-third waiver on his total fees.

Flame University
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Flame University

The liberal arts universities offer need-based aid or merit scholarships to make education affordable, and attract the best talent. Ashoka claims that around 50% of its undergraduate students have been on financial aid. Krea says that one-third of its students receive financial aid. JGU offers a waiver between 10% and 50% on its tuition fees, and 70% of its liberal arts students have received aid, Nishi Mishra, program director, school of liberal arts and humanities at JGU, informs. A third of the undergraduate students at Flame University are on scholarship/financial aid.

For those not on scholarships, loans are a way out. The total cost for Ritikaa’s four years’ degree was roughly 30 lakh. In absence of aid, her father took a personal loan.

Stephen’s vs Ashoka

What do placement figures from these universities suggest?

The average salary (cost to company) offered during campus recruitment at St Stephen’s College, Lady Shri Ram College (according to their websites) and Shri Ram College of Commerce (according to its placement cell) was between 9 lakh and 10 lakh per annum during 2021-22. All the three colleges are in Delhi.

In comparison, campus offers averaged 11 lakh per annum for an Ashoka undergraduate and were slightly lower for those at Krea and JGU. According to spokespersons from these institutions, offers averaged 7 lakh per annum.

At 9.3 lakh, SNU, which also offers engineering and management courses, achieved an average salary higher than that of VIT ( 8.2 lakh), according to the data on their websites.

However, all the liberal arts colleges are still way behind the eye-popping packages offered to fresh graduates at the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs). The average salary trended at over 20 lakh for B Tech graduates at IIT Bombay, IIT Guwahati and IIT Hyderabad. International offers and technology roles may have skewed the number.

To be fair, the liberal arts institutions in India are still new. Krea’s first undergraduate batch passed out only last year. The first undergraduate cohort at Ashoka and JGU graduated in 2017-18. It may come across as unreasonable to compare their placement statistics with colleges that have been around for decades. The new schools don’t have a strong alumni network just yet. And building relationships with top recruiters takes years.

Awesome job?

Mint’s interaction with the alumni and spokespersons of Ashoka, Krea and JGU suggests that everyone looking for a job is placed by the time they graduate. Even when companies do not visit the campus, students are assisted by the career service offices (CSO) in off-campus recruitment drives.

The question is if students find the jobs they aspire for.

By the end of the fourth year, Urvin Soneta had offers from two companies: consulting firm E&Y and RBL Bank. He picked the bank and joined as a management trainee—his experiment with business journalism courses in the fourth year had got him interested in finance. The position he was hired for is typically reserved for MBAs, he says.

Aaria Swami, who went to JGU, wanted a people-facing role. She took a number of courses like organisational development and management of change. This paid off as she was placed as a recruitment trainee at BCG, a consulting company.

Nonetheless, not everyone bags the job they want.

Aakash Rao, a third-year computer science major at Ashoka, feels that the offers coming his way are not up to his expectations. “The computer science department is largely research-focused, but the career development office (CDO) is getting us UI/UX design roles," he says.

Rao has been working on high-end machine learning (ML) projects with his professors and wants ML-focused roles. He feels that on-campus recruitment is skewed towards economics majors, who are offered sought-after consulting roles.

A spokesperson from Ashoka clarified that a number of students are working in UI/UX roles. Students recruited by consulting firms include history, philosophy, political science, psychology and mathematics majors as well as economics majors, the spokesperson added.

Maitri Modi, a computer science major from Krea, says that most of the companies that the CSO attracted for placements were startups; few were renowned companies. “If you calculate the return on investment, you pay around 25 lakh in three years. You do not want to go as low as 4 lakh per annum (offered by one startup)."

Modi was finally placed at Thoughtworks, a technology multinational. She was informed of the opening through the CSO, but pursued the process on her own, which she says was tantamount to an off-campus recruitment.

Krea University did not comment on Modi’s experience.

Lifelong training

Ramkumar Ramamoorthy, the former chairman and managing director of Cognizant India, who has been on boards of liberal arts and technical colleges, recommends a “look at the payback beyond jobs".

The new-age universities provide a much larger canvas of long-term professional growth opportunities through an enviable peer group, he argues. They also provide a platform to enter tier 1 universities worldwide, besides pathways for careers in exciting areas, including at international agencies such as The World Bank and the United Nations, he adds.

A large proportion of undergraduate students at these colleges do opt for higher studies. Of the 116 who graduated in 2021-22 at JGU, 44 went for their masters in India and abroad. About 29 of the 104 at Krea progressed to higher studies, to institutions such as Delhi University, Oxford, Sussex, Carnegie Mellon, Chicago, and so on. About 50% undergraduates at Flame either stayed on for the fourth year or went for masters to universities like Harvard, Yale, Columbia, and Texas.

Meanwhile, many students from these schools do become confident enough to chart their own path.

After a year at RBL Bank, Soneta realized that there was a life beyond finance. He already had a minor in computer science but wanted to study further. He went to Plaksha University, another private university, in Mohali, Punjab, for a diploma. Here, he worked on a digital project and then started a technology company, Synth, along with a classmate. Synth was picked for the Y Combinator accelerator program in 2021—the company’s product summarizes and provides insights from meetings held, among other features.

At various stages of his career, Soneta has not held back from experimenting, trying something new. “A part of this comes from my upbringing. But Ashoka developed how I think today," he says.

The real payoff of a liberal arts degree, therefore, may not be in instant gratification. It prepares one for the long haul—to navigate careers well and become a life-long learner. That’s the future of jobs, after all.

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