Essay offers a valediction for the liberal arts

Liberal Arts at the Brink was published three years ago. In it, I reported that student demand for liberal arts courses and majors -- the humanities, social sciences, and physical sciences -- was rapidly declining and being replaced by demand for vocational, directly career related courses and majors. Liberal Arts at the Brink focused on liberal arts colleges, but the student-demand shift was also occurring at universities with both liberal arts and professional programs. As the book’s title suggested, I thought the future of liberal arts education was bleak, but not hopeless. Now, I believe I was too optimistic.

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The reasons 18-year-olds went to college used to be simple; it was what one did after finishing high school, what everyone in their class was doing, and besides, it would be fun. Students trusted their colleges in much the same way they trusted their doctors. The colleges told them that courses in the humanities, social sciences, and physical sciences were good for them, so they took them. The colleges -- at least, liberal arts colleges -- said they needed to choose a liberal arts major, so they did.

After World War II, following the arrival of returning veterans with GI Bill money, the doors to colleges and universities swung open for students previously excluded or restricted by quotas. Between 1955 and 1970, the number of undergraduates tripled, from 2.4 to 7.5 million. Many of the new students had a purposeful, focused reason for attending college -- to be trained for a career that would open up a better life than their parents had known. Majoring in a liberal arts subject did not make sense. Indeed, even taking liberal arts courses seemed a waste of time and money. Student demand for liberal arts began to decline and colleges and universities began adding more directly career-related courses and majors to their curriculums. A sea change in U.S. higher education was underway.

At first, many liberal arts colleges offered vocational courses grudgingly. Most of them, however, soon overcame their reluctance. Lacking large endowments, they were, in the words of Yale University’s financial guru, David Swensen, “forced to respond to the wishes and needs of the current student body to attract a sufficient number of students to maintain current operations.”

The facts that college students are graduating with greater and greater debt, and that many debt-ridden graduates are unable to find employment providing enough income to pay off their debt, accelerated the declining demand for liberal arts education. With the cost of attending college soaring, the question “is it worth it?” became even more central to deciding what kind of education to pursue.

As reported in Liberal Arts at the Brink, between 1987 and 2008, the percentage of graduates from the top 225 private liberal arts colleges with vocational -- not liberal arts -- majors tripled, from less than 10 percent to almost 30 percent. By 2008, at 51 of those colleges less than half of all graduates were liberal arts majors. A 2007 survey showed that 92 percent of college-bound high school seniors felt preparing for a career was very important, while only 8 percent believed the availability of liberal arts education was essential in choosing a college.

In 2012, the year after Liberal Arts at the Brink was published, U.S. News and World Report’s annual Best Colleges guide reported that colleges and universities were “responding to workplace demand” by creating new undergraduate majors in fields where the demand for workers had spiked, and featured nine “hot” new majors, all of which were vocational, including computer game design, health informatics, homeland security, new media, and cyber security. The next year, the Best Colleges guide added forensic science, business analytics, petroleum engineering, and robotics to its list of “hot majors that can lead to a great job.”  

Today, liberal arts colleges are using their websites to proclaim that the education they offer will get their graduates better jobs and careers. Here are a few typical examples:

  • “Provides practical knowledge, professional skills, and powerful connections.”
  • “Gives you a big edge on jobs after graduation.”
  • “Prepares you for a wide range of careers and professional callings.”
  • “Gives you the confidence it takes to pursue rewarding careers.”
  • “Provides a competitive edge in the job market.”
  • “Prepares you not just for your first career but for all your careers.”

There is scarcely a liberal arts college whose promotional materials fail to claim “95 percent of our graduates will be employed or in graduate or professional school within one year of graduation” (although precisely what the employment is likely to be is not specified).

Claims that liberal arts majors provide direct preparation for careers have become an integral part of the promotional materials of even the most distinguished institutions. Here, for example, is how the University of Chicago now describes some of its undergraduate liberal arts major offerings:

  • Anthropology “can lead to careers in research and teaching in museum settings.”
  • Classical studies “provides excellent preparation for careers such as law and publishing.”
  • History “is excellent preparation for a wide field of endeavors from law, government, and public policy to the arts and business.”
  • Political science “can lead to a career in business, government, journalism, or nonprofit organizations.”
  • Sociology “is attractive for students considering careers in such professions as business, law, marketing, journalism, social work, politics, public administration, and urban planning.”

As the pool of potential liberal arts students has shrunk, competition to attract them has intensified. The wealthiest colleges and universities are intent on capturing the most desirable students (highest grades, highest ACT/SAT scores, most-wanted extracurricular activities, etc.). While less well-endowed institutions are fighting simply to enroll enough students to fill their classes, the strategies they pursue -- to the extent they can afford them -- are the same as those employed by their wealthier competitors.

One strategy is to lure students with fancier facilities. Even though lavish dorms, extensive sports and recreation spaces, and elaborate internet and electronic facilities may be well calculated to appeal to 18-year-olds, success with this strategy has proved problematic. If College A builds a luxurious new student center, its competitors are likely to respond by building their own, canceling out the competitive advantage College A sought to achieve. Colleges and universities often feel compelled to make substantial expenditures (and incur substantial debt) on new facilities they cannot afford -- not to achieve a competitive advantage, but rather to avoid falling behind.

Competition among liberal arts colleges is fiercest in financial aid discounting (the percentage off sticker price that students pay). Average discount rates of 50 percent or more are now commonplace. Most colleges seek to replace some of the tuition revenues lost through discounting by attempting to admit more students, exacerbating the adverse financial impact on the colleges of the shrinking pool of potential applicants. The tragedy of the commons is at work.

The net result of the competition to attract students is (1) to increase colleges’ operating costs and decrease their operating revenues, neither of which any but the few colleges with huge endowments can afford, and (2) to do nothing to address the core problem that gave rise to the competition, the fact that fewer and fewer high school seniors want a liberal arts education.

Even if liberal arts colleges were not engaged in self-destructing competition, the deck would still be stacked against them. Powerful national voices aggressively champion vocational education and barely mention, or deride, the liberal arts, voices such as Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce, directed by Anthony Carnevale (“if higher education fails to focus on occupational training, it will damage the nation’s economic future ..., something we cannot afford”); President Obama’s secretary of education, Arne Duncan (“the challenge of producing the best educated, most competitive workforce in the world is not just a question of national pride; it is an economic imperative”); and President Obama (“folks ... need higher education ... to make sure ... [they] are ready for a career, ready to meet the challenges of the 21st-century economy”).

America’s public high schools are also turning to career preparation and away from their historic liberal arts curriculums -- Latin, the English poets, American and English history, a modern foreign language, mathematics, and science -- curriculums, Jacques Barzun said, that were once “the envy of industrialized nations.” Now, in National Center for Education President Marc Tucker’s words, high school liberal arts courses seem “more and more of a self-indulgent luxury.” President Obama has announced plans to make major changes in “the American high school experience” to make it “more relevant” by strengthening “career and technical education programs.”

In Liberal Arts at the Brink, I sought to make the case for liberal arts education and will not repeat it here. Suffice it to note that, for more than 200 years, the liberal arts have provided the platform from which U.S. students developed reasoning and analytic skills that led them to become critical thinkers, able and eager to distinguish opinions from facts and prejudices from truths, alert to the lessons of history and unwilling blindly to accept unsupported claims and assertions.

Of course a trained, skilled workforce is in the public interest. But the welfare of our nation (indeed, of the world) is ever more dependent on thoughtful citizens who can hold leaders accountable. This is what democracy by and for the people requires. And, as former U.S. Supreme Court Justice David Souter said in a recent speech, “It is in the national interest for our STEM scientists to have backgrounds in the humanities and social sciences before they get out of college. They need those habits on the mind.”

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The facts I have recited are well known in academe. When I wrote Liberal Arts at the Brink, I hoped educational leaders would come forward and join together to lead a campaign to restore the demand for liberal arts by educating all Americans about its extraordinary value. In particular, I hoped the leaders of liberal arts colleges, the institutions most directly impacted by the declining demand for the liberal arts, would set aside counterproductive competition and take the lead in such a cooperative undertaking before it was too late. None of this has happened.

One can speculate about the reasons for liberal arts college leaders’ inaction. Perhaps they are unwilling to publicly admit that fewer and fewer students want the kind of education their institutions offer. They may also fear appearing disingenuous championing the liberal arts at the same time their colleges are replacing liberal arts courses and majors with vocational training. College presidents, in particular, scramble so hard to raise money they may lack the time or the energy to pause and reflect. One fact, however, stands out. The overarching commitment of all college leaders is to maintain the viability of their institutions. If this requires abandoning liberal arts, so be it.

If liberal arts college leaders are unable or unwilling to undertake an organized campaign to educate all Americans -- not just high school seniors and their parents but also the high school counselors; business leaders; friends and neighbors; local, state, and national government officials; and countless others who now urge students to study something directly connected to getting a job and not waste their time on the liberal arts -- it seems highly likely no one will. There no longer is reason to believe the decline of liberal arts education will be stayed or reversed.

Liberal arts are over the brink. Some liberal arts colleges will fail or be forced to sell out to for-profit institutions; some already have. Many will quietly morph into vocational trainers. A handful of the wealthiest colleges, probably fewer than 50, educating less than one-half of 1 percent of U.S. college students, may survive. They will, however, no longer play a central role in educating Americans. Rather, they will become elite boutiques, romantic remnants of the past, like British roadsters and vinyl phonograph records.

Valete, artes liberales.

Victor E. Ferrall Jr. is president emeritus of Beloit College and author of Liberal Arts at the Brink (Harvard University Press).

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