ORLANDO, Fla. — Talk to presidents of liberal arts colleges and they are proud of how their institutions educate graduates and prepare them for life. But ask the presidents to prove that value, and many get a little less certain. Some cite surveys of alumni satisfaction or employment. Others point to famous alumni.
And, privately, many liberal arts college presidents admit that their arguments haven’t been cutting it of late with prospective students and their parents (not to mention politicians), who are more likely to be swayed by the latest data on first-year salaries of graduates, surveys that seem to suggest that engineering majors will find success and humanities graduates will end up as baristas.
Richard A. Detweiler believes he has evidence — quantifiable evidence — that attending a liberal arts college is likely to yield numerous positive results in graduates’ lifetimes, including but not limited to career and financial success. He has been giving previews of his findings for the last year. On Friday, at a gathering here of presidents of the Council of Independent Colleges, he presented details and said he believes the results have the potential to change the conversation about liberal arts colleges. He said his findings show that the key characteristics of liberal arts colleges — in and out of the classroom — do matter.
At the meeting, Detweiler described his project. He started by examining the mission statements of 238 liberal arts colleges, looking at what the colleges say they are trying to accomplish with regard to their students. Among the common goals given for graduates were to produce people who would continue to learn throughout their lives, make thoughtful life choices, be leaders, be professionally successful and be committed to understanding cultural life.
Then Detweiler and colleagues conducted interviews with 1,000 college graduates — about half from liberal arts colleges and half from other institutions. The graduates were not asked about the value of their alma maters or of liberal arts education, but were asked a series of very specific questions about their experiences in college and then their experiences later in life. The graduates were a mix of those 10 to 40 years after graduation, and conclusions were drawn on liberal arts graduates vs. other graduates only when there was statistical significance for both relatively recent and older alumni. Some of the findings may be relevant to liberal arts disciplines at institutions other than liberal arts colleges, but the comparison point was for those who attended the colleges.
What Detweiler found was that graduates who reported key college experiences associated with liberal arts colleges had greater odds of measures of life success associated with the goals of liberal arts colleges. Here are some of the findings:
Graduates who reported that in college they talked with faculty members about nonacademic and academic subjects outside class were 25 to 45 percent more likely (depending on other factors) to have become leaders in their localities or professions. Those who reported discussions on issues such as peace, justice and human rights with fellow students outside class were 27 to 52 percent more likely to become leaders.
Graduates who reported that students took a large role in class discussions were 27 to 38 percent more likely to report characteristics of lifelong learners than others were. Students who reported most of their classwork was professionally oriented were less likely to become lifelong learners.
Graduates who reported that as students they discussed philosophical or ethical issues in many classes, and who took many classes in the humanities, were 25 to 60 percent more likely than others to have characteristics of altruists (volunteer involvement, giving to nonprofit groups, etc.).
Graduates who reported that as students most professors knew their first names, and that they talked regularly with faculty members about academic subjects outside class, were 32 to 90 percent more likely to report that they felt personally fulfilled in their lives. Those who reported that professors encouraged them to examine the strengths and weaknesses of one’s views, and whose course work emphasized questions on which there is not necessarily a correct answer, were 25 to 40 percent more likely to report that they felt personally fulfilled.
But What About Money?
Detweiler saved for last the characteristic that gets so much attention these days, and that liberal arts college leaders fear hurts them: money.
To think historically is to recognize that all problems, all situations, all institutions exist in contexts that must be understood before informed decisions can be made. No entity — corporate, government, nonprofit — can afford not to have a historian at the table.
Since the beginning of the Great Recession in 2007, the history major has lost significant market share in academia, declining from 2.2% of all undergraduate degrees to 1.7%. The graduating class of 2014, the most recent for which there are national data, included 9% fewer history majors than the previous year’s cohort, compounding a 2.8% decrease the year before that. The drop is most pronounced at large research universities and prestigious liberal arts colleges.
This is unfortunate — not just for those colleges, but for our economy and polity.
Of course it’s not just history. Students also are slighting other humanities disciplines including philosophy, literature, linguistics and languages. Overall, the core humanities disciplines constituted only 6.1% of all bachelor’s degrees awarded in 2014, the lowest proportion since systematic data collection on college majors began in 1948.
Conventional wisdom offers its usual facile answers for these trends: Students (sometimes pressured by parents paying the tuition) choose fields more likely to yield high-paying employment right after graduation — something “useful,” like business (19% of diplomas), or technology-oriented. History looks like a bad bet.
A historian, however, would know that it is essential to look beyond such simplistic logic. Yes, in the first few years after graduation, STEM and business majors have more obvious job prospects — especially in engineering and computer science. And in our recession-scarred economic context, of course students are concerned with landing that first job.
Over the long run, however, graduates in history and other humanities disciplines do well financially. Rubio would be surprised to learn that after 15 years, those philosophy majors have more lucrative careers than college graduates with business degrees. History majors’ mid-career salaries are on par with those holding business bachelor’s degrees. Notably these salary findings exclude those who went on to attain a law or other graduate degree.
The utility of disciplines that prepare critical thinkers escapes personnel offices, pundits and politicians (some of whom perhaps would prefer that colleges graduate more followers and fewer leaders). But it shouldn’t. Labor markets in the United States and other countries are unstable and unpredictable. In this environment — especially given the expectation of career changes — the most useful degrees are those that can open multiple doors, and those that prepare one to learn rather than do some specific thing.
All liberal arts degrees demand that kind of learning, as well as the oft-invoked virtues of critical thinking and clear communication skills. History students, in particular, sift through substantial amounts of information, organize it, and make sense of it. In the process they learn how to infer what drives and motivates human behavior from elections to social movements to board rooms.
Employers interested in recruiting future managers should understand (and many do) that historical thinking prepares one for leadership because history is about change — envisioning it, planning for it, making it last. In an election season we are reminded regularly that success often goes to whoever can articulate the most compelling narrative. History majors learn to do that.
Everything has a history. To think historically is to recognize that all problems, all situations, all institutions exist in contexts that must be understood before informed decisions can be made. No entity — corporate, government, nonprofit — can afford not to have a historian at the table. We need more history majors, not fewer.
Once people reach their peak-earnings ages of 56 to 60, liberal-arts majors are 3% ahead of the people with degrees in vocational fields, and each discipline’s top 10% lifetime earners, both history ($3.75M) and philosophy majors’ ($3.46M) outstrip even computer science stars ($3.2M).
Six years ago, Andy Anderegg’s decision to major in English looked like an economic sacrifice. When she left academia in 2010, with a master’s degree in fine arts from the University of Kansas, the first job she landed was a Groupon Inc. writing gig paying all of $33,000 a year.Now, however, Ms. Anderegg is riding high. She rose rapidly as Groupon expanded, becoming managing editor of the shopping-coupon site in 2012; by the time she left in 2014, she was earning more than $100,000. Today, at age 30, she is executive editor at Soda Media Inc., a Seattle creator of online content, and building up her own digital-media consulting practice. She won’t disclose her aggregate income but says: “It’s better than what I made at Groupon.”
Ms. Anderegg’s delayed payoff is part of a little-noticed bright spot in the earnings picture for humanities and social-sciences majors. It’s no secret that liberal-arts graduates tend to fare worse than many of their counterparts immediately after college: According to PayScale Inc., a Seattle-based provider of salary data, the typical English or sociology graduate with zero to five years of experience earns an average of just $39,000 a year. By contrast, finance majors with that level of experience average $52,000; nursing, $57,000, and computer science, $63,000.
The story tends to change, however, as careers play out. Over time, liberal-arts majors often pursue graduate degrees and gravitate into high-paying fields such as general management, politics, law and sales, according to an analysis by the Association of American Colleges & Universities, a trade group representing more than 1,350 schools. Once people reach their peak-earnings ages of 56 to 60, liberal-arts majors are earning an average $66,185, the association found. That’s about 3% ahead of the earnings pace for people with degrees in vocational fields such as nursing and accounting, though it remains more than 20% behind science and engineering majors.
Even more striking, however, are earnings trends for ultrahigh achievers across all majors.
Using Census Bureau data, the Brookings Institution’s Hamilton Project analyzed lifetime earnings for each discipline’s top 10% of moneymakers. It found that computer science’s stars rang up lifetime earnings of at least $3.2 million. Nice work, but not as impressive as philosophy majors’ $3.46 million or history majors’ $3.75 million…
There is no reason to unduly limit our students’ horizons. Following your interests does not doom you to a life of poverty and struggle.
by Michael W. Clune in the Chronicle Review
I was nearly 30 the first time I met an example of the new breed — a University of Michigan graduate who knew nothing beyond what was necessary to pursue his trade. It was my first job out of graduate school, and Michigan had one of the highest-ranked engineering schools in the country.
Let’s call him Todd. He’d graduated a few years before. I met him at a party. He had a good job at a local engineering firm and drove a nice car. Talk turned to intellectual matters, and I soon learned that he was a creationist. He didn’t seem to be aware of arguments for the other side.
He was surprised to learn that Russia had fought in World War II. He’d done well in AP high-school English, which had gotten him out of having to take literature classes, and he hadn’t read a book since graduating from college. “Most manuals nowadays are online,” he said.
Learning that I was an English professor, he asked me if I’d be willing to help him with a self-assessment document he had to write for his job. I was curious, and when a few days later his draft landed in my inbox, I discovered that his writing suffered from basic flaws.
I think even those most committed to putting vocational training at the center of higher education will agree that Michigan had failed Todd. The key Todd-prevention mechanism, which had somehow malfunctioned in this case, is known as general education. This set of courses required for all majors is designed to transmit the rudiments of critical thinking, writing, science, history, and cultural literacy to the students whom our universities are training — as Wisconsin’s Gov. Scott Walker memorably put it — to meet our “work-force needs.”
To begin to illustrate the threats that gen ed now faces, let me introduce another figure. We’ll call him Donald…
People without a liberal-arts background really have no place to go with their skill sets. They lack an overall knowledge, and an ability to relate to people and make educated decisions, and not jump to conclusions.
WEST POINT, N.Y. — Christian Nattiel rattles off the way his course of studies has prepared him for his prestigious role as a company commander in charge of 120 fellow cadets at the U.S. Military Academy.
Nattiel, of Dade City, Florida, isn’t focusing at West Point on military science, or strategy, or leadership. He’s majoring in philosophy.
Ramrod straight in his Army combat uniform on the historic campus, where future officers are required to take humanities and social-sciences courses such as history, composition, psychology, literature, and languages, he said that, in philosophy, “There’s no right answer, and that’s very useful in the Army, so you’re not so rigid.”
“People without a liberal-arts background really have no place to go with their skill sets,” said Frank Guido, a Culinary Institute student from Rochester, New York, sitting in the campus café and studying the Mayan Indians for a course he’s taking in history and culture. “They lack an overall knowledge, and an ability to relate to people and make educated decisions, and not jump to conclusions.”
As mainstream universities and colleges cut liberal-arts courses and programs in favor of more vocational disciplines, and the number of students majoring in the humanities continues to decline, unexpected types of institutions are expanding their requirements in the liberal arts with the conviction that these courses teach the kinds of skills employers say they want, and leaders need: critical thinking, problem-solving, teamwork, and communication…
In the name of emotional well-being, college students are increasingly demanding protection from words and ideas they don’t like. Here’s why that’s disastrous for education—and mental health.
Editors note: I do believe trigger warnings can be appropriate in some situations (I have used them in class and on this site for years), and I also believe that becoming sensitized to microaggressions can be an important part of discussions regarding gender, race, and sexuality. However, as Lukianoff and Haidt point out as mental health professionals, things have gotten out of hand. -GDS
Something strange is happening at America’s colleges and universities. A movement is arising, undirected and driven largely by students, to scrub campuses clean of words, ideas, and subjects that might cause discomfort or give offense. Last December, Jeannie Suk wrote in an online article forThe New Yorker about law students asking her fellow professors at Harvard not to teach rape law—or, in one case, even use the word violate (as in “that violates the law”) lest it cause students distress.
In February, Laura Kipnis, a professor at Northwestern University, wrote an essay in The Chronicle of Higher Education describing a new campus politics of sexual paranoia—and was then subjected to a long investigation after students who were offended by the article and by a tweet she’d sent filed Title IX complaints against her.
In June, a professor protecting himself with a pseudonym wrote an essay for Vox describing how gingerly he now has to teach. “I’m a Liberal Professor, and My Liberal Students Terrify Me,” the headline said. A number of popular comedians, including Chris Rock, have stopped performing on college campuses (see Caitlin Flanagan’s article in this month’s issue). Jerry Seinfeld and Bill Maher have publicly condemned the oversensitivity of college students, saying too many of them can’t take a joke.
Two terms have risen quickly from obscurity into common campus parlance. Microaggressions are small actions or word choices that seem on their face to have no malicious intent but that are thought of as a kind of violence nonetheless. For example, by some campus guidelines, it is a microaggression to ask an Asian American or Latino American “Where were you born?,” because this implies that he or she is not a real American. Trigger warnings are alerts that professors are expected to issue if something in a course might cause a strong emotional response.
For example, some students have called for warnings that Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart describes racial violence and that F. Scott Fitzgerald’sThe Great Gatsby portrays misogyny and physical abuse, so that students who have been previously victimized by racism or domestic violence can choose to avoid these works, which they believe might “trigger” a recurrence of past trauma.
Most of us read that Sweet Briar College, a small, private women’s liberal arts college in rural Virginia, announced it would close this summer.(Note: Sweet Briar Alumni were able to save Sweet Briar this week.) The threat of closure can be explained through various factors and reasons: ever-growing deferred maintenance, lack of internship options for students, a rural setting, diminishing public interest in liberal education and single-sex education, an endowment made up of mostly restricted funds, and the simultaneous effects of decreasing enrollments resulting in higher rates of tuition discounts and years of dipping into the unrestricted endowment to cover operating costs.
To be sure, Sweet Briar did not face closing due to an absence of quality. Indeed, Sweet Briar was one of the colleges in Project DEEP (Documenting Effective Educational Practice), run by the N.S.S.E. (the National Survey of Student Engagement), which identified institutions excelling at education. Sweet Briar’s fate should worry anyone concerned with maintaining a high quality of undergraduate education in America because some of Sweet Briar’s peers are endangered.
Of the 2,353 Title IV four-year public and private postsecondary degree-granting institutions in the United States listed by a 2013-14 report from the National Center for Education Statistics, liberal arts colleges comprise about 4 percent. And yet research indicates that these institutions do extraordinary things typically not found in any other institution type.
Data supporting this claim of quality can be found in multiple studies (outlined and hyperlinked below), and it deserves some attention because such dedication to uncompromised quality in a close academic community falls on deaf ears in our national conversation that focuses primarily on quantity, scale and technology.
In an address to the American Council of Learned Societies, George Kuh, director of the National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment at Indiana University at Bloomington as well as the founder of N.S.S.E., described these colleges as “built to engage.” Kuh found that students attending these institutions tended to not just obtain new knowledge but also “tend to gain more in intellectual and personal development.” Likewise, graduates of these institutions also tended to be more civically engaged later in life. In other words, liberal education’s commitment to educating the whole person, at least in these contexts, represents both an ideal and an actual reality.
Accordingly, liberal arts colleges also have the highest rates of alumni satisfaction when compared to other institution types in studies by the Annapolis Group and the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, respectively. Students graduate from these colleges feeling positive about their educational experience, the attention from faculty and staff, and their overall development as adults. Alumni are satisfied despite attending institutions that typically carry the highest price tag in America.
Given such positive experiences in undergraduate education, it is no surprise then that on a per capita basis there are more liberal arts college graduates obtaining advanced degrees and doctorates than other institution types, according to Kuh (see also a report from the College Solution for a list of specific institutions). Some may interpret such data to indicate that these graduates need advanced degrees to find employment. Another interpretation would be that these colleges better prepare students for the levels of thinking required for completing advanced degrees of study. While both may have some truth, these data indicate that such graduates are then obtaining jobs requiring more advanced degrees as well.
Another best practice of undergraduate education associated with positive student outcomes relates to student experiences with diversity. A study by Paul Umbach, a professor of higher education at North Carolina State, and Kuh found that liberal arts college students “are significantly more likely than their counterparts at other types of institutions to engage in diversity-related activities and to report greater gains in understanding people from diverse backgrounds.” The research linking best practices of education and liberal arts colleges makes sense given that these schools intentionally cultivate small, engaging academic communities with single-mission commitments to undergraduate education in the liberal education paradigm.
To date, the most thorough summary of the research on both liberal arts colleges and liberal education may be found in “Liberal Arts Colleges and Liberal Arts Education: New Evidence on Impacts.” While this report remains too large to summarize in the current article, the authors raise an important distinction based on findings that both confirm and challenge the notion that liberal arts colleges are the best at undergraduate education. The confirming data indicate that students at liberal arts colleges typically experience high-quality teaching and an engaging institutional climate through best practices. This makes sense for these institutions, as they also typically spend more on students than other institution types. Yet it challenges this notion insofar as attending these schools does not guarantee that a student experiences such high quality, therefore these institutions were not found to guarantee better student outcomes (e.g. grades, higher scores on standardized learning assessments). After all, just as a professor cannot force a student to learn, an institution simply being a liberal arts college does not ensure quality. The evidence, however, remains that these colleges typically embody the best of undergraduate education.
Despite all of these indicators of quality, these institutions are disappearing. In his 1994 “Liberal Arts Colleges: Thriving, Surviving, or Endangered,” David Breneman determined that there existed 212 institutions that qualified as true liberal arts colleges. To define liberal arts colleges, Breneman first utilized the Carnegie Foundation’s previous classifications of liberal arts colleges I and II and then added his own educational and economic criteria. Educationally, colleges must have few or no graduate programs and must award at least 40 percent of their degrees in the liberal arts and sciences.
These criteria effectively eliminated small comprehensive universities as well as professional or preprofessional colleges. Economically, colleges required similar financial models of revenue and cost in order for Breneman to compare institutions.Vicky Baker, Roger Baldwin and Sumedha Makker reran Breneman’s study and found that after 18 years, 137 institutions remained. For my own dissertation research on liberal education under the mentorship of Breneman, I also reran the study using Baker et al’s sample two years later in 2014 and found that only 103 qualified. After Sweet Briar’s closing, 102 will remain.
While some liberal arts colleges with sizable endowments — Amherst, Swarthmore and Wellesley Colleges, among others — will be able to weather storms better than others, I expect this trend will continue in the foreseeable future. Colleges will either close, transform into professional schools, or become small comprehensive universities. In the meantime, we need to study these institutions while we still can so that our understanding of the best model of undergraduate education does not in turn disappear. Further research is needed to explore what precisely faculty and staff do to bring out these positive outcomes, what forms of assessment might be best suited for such intense and nuanced communities of learning, and how essential human-to-human interaction is the learning and development process.
The uncertain future of the liberal arts model serves to bring its most valuable and essential components into clear focus. The foundations of mentorship-style learning with faculty and staff through a breadth and depth of study, community engagement, and residential living on which the model is built must not be allowed to fade along with the popularity of liberal arts colleges. It should, at least, set our standard for undergraduate education as well as inform and enrich our work in other sectors of education, be it other institution types or emerging postsecondary models. After all, how else will we know if other models of undergraduate education can measure up to the high ideals and practices associated with liberal arts colleges?
Unlike our current examination-based ‘quick response’ educational system, serious intellectual effort requires slow, usually painstaking thought, often with wrong roads taken along the way to the right destination, if one is lucky enough to arrive there.
When asked what he thought about the cultural wars, Irving Kristol is said to have replied, “They’re over,” adding, “We lost.” If Kristol was correct, one of the decisive battles in that war may have been over the liberal arts in education, which we also lost.
In a loose definition, the “liberal arts” denote college study anchored in preponderantly Western literature, philosophy, and history, with science, mathematics, and foreign languages playing a substantial, though less central, role; in more recent times, the social science subjects—psychology, sociology, political science—have also sometimes been included.
The liberal arts have always been distinguished from more specialized, usually vocational training. For the ancient Greeks, the liberal arts were the subjects thought necessary for a free man to study. If he is to remain free, in this view, he must acquire knowledge of the best thought of the past, which will cultivate in him the intellectual depth and critical spirit required to live in an informed and reasonable way in the present.
For many years, the liberal arts were my second religion. I worshipped their content, I believed in their significance, I fought for them against the philistines of our age as Samson fought against the Philistines of his—though in my case, I kept my hair and brought down no pillars.
A Dying Art
As currently practiced, however, it is becoming more and more difficult to defend the liberal arts. Their content has been drastically changed, their significance is in doubt, and defending them in the condition in which they linger on scarcely seems worth the struggle.
The death of liberal arts education would constitute a serious subtraction. Without it, we shall no longer have a segment of the population that has a proper standard with which to judge true intellectual achievement. Without it, no one can have a genuine notion of what constitutes an educated man or woman, or why one work of art is superior to another, or what in life is serious and what is trivial.
The loss of liberal arts education can only result in replacing authoritative judgment with rivaling expert opinions, the vaunting of the second- and third-rate in politics and art, the supremacy of the faddish and the fashionable in all of life. Without that glimpse of the best that liberal arts education conveys, a nation might wake up living in the worst, and never notice.
Easton, Pa. — Demand for higher education is up, but so, too, are college costs. The returns on investing in a bachelor’s degree have grown, yet net prices, for many families, have increased relative to their incomes. Put another way, it’s both an exciting and nerve-racking time to lead a postsecondary institution, especially a residential liberal-arts college with a big price tag.
On Tuesday morning, Catharine Bond Hill, president of Vassar College, shared her view of the economic challenges that face public and private colleges, and the students they serve, during an era of dwindling financial support from states. “Whether we like it or not, families are going to have to bear more of the costs of higher education,” she said. “We have now entered a second-best world, and I think we’re going to be there quite a while.”
Ms. Hill spoke here on the second day of a conference (“The Future of the Liberal Arts College in America and Its Leadership Role in Education Around the World”) sponsored by Lafayette and Swarthmore Colleges. She described the complex dance of costs, sticker price, and net price at institutions like her own.
Ms. Hill described the difficulty of maintaining affordability without sacrificing quality. More must be done, she said, to facilitate student borrowing, including income-contingent loan options that would protect at least some graduates from a portion of their expected debt.
At the same time, Ms. Hill urged liberal-arts colleges to take a hard look at their costs, whether it’s spending on athletics or on organic food in cafeterias. What can institutions stop doing? In the past there were not as many incentives, or pressures, to control those costs, she said, but now the market is changing: “The important question is, Why haven’t we innovated? We have, but in ways that have pushed costs up.”
Ms. Hill mused about the possibility of adding summer sessions and offering three-year degrees, which, she said, would lower “opportunity costs” for students. This might be much easier said than done, however. Asking faculty to do more could jeopardize quality, Ms. Hill said. Instead, she urged her colleagues to think about ways of allocating faculty time more effectively, perhaps rebalancing their teaching, research, and governance duties. “There’s room for shifting faculty time to high-value inputs with students,” she said.