STEM or Liberal Arts? Yes!

This week for Present Value, Senior Vice President Lee Huang sits down with Drexel Co-op Arty Ariuntuya to discuss his thoughts on higher education. Huang covers topics such as prestige, and the argument of Liberal Arts vs. STEM classes. Below is the beginning of the interview, you can click here to view the full interview on Medium. For clarification, “LH” has been added to the beginning of each section where Lee is speaking and “AA” where Arty is speaking.

AA: How would you define “education”? What does education mean to you?

LH: It is about learning both the information as well as the context. In economics terms, education is defined as “positive externality” which means that when people get educated, they benefit themselves but they also provide a spillover benefit to society. That’s why it’s so important to support education.

AA: Since you mentioned education being the information as well as the context, can I say education is external but also internal at the same time?

Lee HuangLH: Education is information that needs to be internalized in terms of understanding the context. It is a tool that helps you to interpret the information. Therefore, there is always that storytelling side to education. And you have to learn to tell the story using the information.

For example, when we are hiring technically skilled interns and analysts at Econsult Solutions, we look for students who can draw out the story behind the data. Because what we do here at ESI is not only to crunch data, but to use the data to tell the story of what is happening and what is going to happen in finance, economics and to society.

So, technical skills and seeing the bigger picture, which could be storytelling, goes together. I say this because one of the things that many people in higher education are wrestling with right now is that “pre-professional education vs liberal arts.” And that only happens when people think of education from a return on investment standpoint.

For example, a student pays to go to college, and the return must be that they get a job. And they realize that the best way to get a job is to take one of those pre-professional tracks. So, the student is faced against the choice of “STEM vs Liberal Arts.” However, one thing that is missing here is that the return on investment that we receive from education should not be only to get a job. Because education is a lifetime investment. There are broader aspects of education that we need to address as well.

AA: Let’s talk about prestige. When we address the issue of education, the topic of prestige also comes to the picture. What do you think about the interconnection between prestige and education? Where do they cross?

LH: Well, you bring up prestige which is relevant. Education has become less about educating yourself and more about status and signaling.

Prestige is important in higher education because part of what people associate the degree with is the status that is confirmed upon that. There are many ongoing discussions on that. People are asking “Is that fair, is that equitable? What should colleges do to be more accessible? Should we just blow up this whole system which is all about certain people having prestige and other people not having access to college?” So this is a really big discussion that institutions are taking part in.

AA: Right. Since we are talking about education, what affected you to pursue business?

LH: I was fortunate to be able to afford to go to college. I always wanted to study business. At that time I knew I wanted to think like a businessman but I did not necessarily want to go into business just for the sake of going into business. There was that blurry spot between business and nonprofit which I was interested in. I started wondering if I could apply business language and concepts in a nonprofit setting and vice versa.

So, when I got to Penn, I augmented the rigorous business curriculum with many liberal arts classes. As a result, I felt more informed as a person. My first job out of college was at a nonprofit. I used everything I learned in business school to help run that nonprofit.

AA: You said that you wanted to think like a businessman but you did not want to go into business just for the sake of it. How did you figure that out as a student?

LH: The notion of a “career path” is somewhat a misleading analogy because “career path” connotes that there is a path that you can see and your job is to just go down that path.

And in reality, the world is a lot messier than that. I had a pretty strong sense of direction of where I wanted to go. But I did not know where life was going to take me. So I made a decision to choose the general path where I felt comfortable in. It is always better to know the general direction of where you want to go. And you can start by taking a step in that direction. Because that next step helps you to clarify the steps after that.


Want to read more? Read the full interview on our company Medium page by clicking here.


Arty Altanzaya is a Drexel University Co-Op at Econsult Solutions, majoring in Global Business and Economics. Prior to joining ESI as a Co-Op, Arty interned at international organizations in Mongolia, China, and the U.S.



Lee Huang Lee Huang, M.P.A., is a senior vice president and principal at ESI. He brings over 20 years of experience in economic development experience to his public, private, institutional, and not-for-profit clients. He has led consulting engagements in a wide range of fields, including higher education, economic inclusion, environmental sustainability, historic preservation, real estate, neighborhood economic development, non-profits, retail, and more.

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