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One of the aspects always touted about a liberal arts education is that it teaches students how to muster diverse forms of evidence to make a compelling case in favor of a position through written, verbal and other mediums.

It would logically follow that if any group were going to dominate the conversation about the role and purpose of college, it should probably be those in the liberal arts.

Yet it’s safe to say that, for the past few years, liberal arts colleges and the idea of liberal education have been losing the message war about the purpose of a college education, what a good education looks like and how education should fit into the fabric of the nation. 

Job preparation dominates the agenda of philanthropic groups such as the Bill & Melinda Gates and Lumina Foundations, as well as the White House’s agenda for postsecondary education. Research universities’ massive open online courses, which have occupied a prominent place in news media reports about higher education this year, are redefining what it means to educate students. The homepage of Coursera, one of the major MOOC providers, touts “Take the World's Best Courses, Online, For Free.” The STEM fields – science, technology, engineering and math, many of them liberal arts disciplines themselves -- are often promoted with no mention of the other components of a liberal education.

There are numerous headlines about “the death of liberal arts,” and countless stories about student debt lead with the anecdote of the unemployed literature major. Questions about preparing an informed citizenry don’t make headlines.

“There’s a lot of negative press out there about how there’s no value in college, you’re not going to get a job, there’s no value in an English degree,” said Georgia Nugent, president of Kenyon College, a liberal arts college in Ohio.  

But it appears that a more concerted effort to make the case for the liberal arts is emerging. In recent weeks, several groups including the Phi Beta Kappa Society and the Council of Independent Colleges have announced efforts to promote the liberal arts. Those efforts follow on the heels of a conference of selective liberal arts colleges in the spring hosted by Lafayette and Swarthmore Colleges that called for better messaging on the part of these institutions to better sell their value and counter assumptions about the sector.

The major challenge that all these new efforts must confront, however, is why – despite copious data and anecdotes that support the fact that students with liberal arts educations have skills that employers say they’re looking for, earn more over the course of their lives, are more likely to get promotions, and are generally happier and better citizens – their message has not been getting through.

“For years, every college president has been making the argument about the advantages of the liberal arts and liberal arts institutions. We make it to trustees, to business leaders, journalists, legislators, congressmen,” said Richard Ekman, president of the Council of Independent Colleges. “But when you read the media coverage, the small college is often just left out.”

That's not to say that messaging is the only challenge these institutions face. The average cost before aid of attending a four-year private institution is now more than $43,000, according to the College Board, an amount that many families are unable or unwilling to pay. At the same time that the market exerts pressure on tuition revenue, many college are concerned that endowment returns, which fund a sizable portion of the budget of some wealthy institutions,  won't provide the same level of returns they once did. On top of that, the price of educating students continues to rise, driven by high labor and technology costs, as well as increased spending on financial aid (in many cases to offset increased tuition, a vicious cycle).

Rethinking pricing, costs and financial model are all challenges these institutions are grappling with, alone and collectively.

But even if all those things are fixed, the sector still faces the challenge of making its case to the public. Proponents of these institutions say failure to sustain the liberal arts could have broad ramifications. Many colleges face enrollment and financial challenges, and proponents of liberal arts education argue that there are deeper societal repercussions to a deteriorating emphasis on liberal education. Administrators are hoping that over the next few years they can rework their approaches to this debate in a way that will help their message catch on.

“If we as a society lose our understanding of the value of liberal arts in America, then we have lost something crucial to the success of our country,” said Nugent, who is chairing the CIC’s initiative.

The Report of My Death…

Many in higher education would say that the conversation about the demise of the sector has been exaggerated. Many liberal arts colleges, particularly the elite, highly selective institutions, are doing quite well. Colleges such as Mount Holyoke, Vassar and Amherst have all seen record-breaking numbers of applications in recent years.

And that interest isn’t coming just from high-income families who aren’t scared off by a comprehensive price tag of close to $60,000 a year. These colleges say they’re seeing increased diversity in their applicant pools and admitted classes due to financial aid programs.

But further down the food chain the outlook is less optimistic. Many small colleges are facing a shortage of student demand and even the threat of closure.

“What we’ve found over and over again is that students are looking for opportunity, they’re looking for a vibrant campus experience, however that’s defined,” said Benjamin Edwards, a principal and managing partner at Art & Science Group, which consults with institutions on marketing. “A major problem for small institutions is that students have to feel like they have access to a lot of opportunity. So small colleges are always at a disadvantage there.”

In an article in Liberal Education last month, a group of researchers looked at a set of 212 “liberal arts institutions” as defined by David W. Breneman in 1990, and found that only 130 of them still met Breneman’s criteria.

Few of those institutions actually closed. What was more common, the authors found, was that institutions widened the scope of their missions beyond liberal arts fields, adding preprofessional majors and professional graduate programs.

Administrators at institutions that have added such programs say their institutions are responding to market demand. They need tuition dollars to keep the institution open, and prospective students don’t want to major in Russian literature.

And the problem cannot be chalked up to students simply wanting to attend larger or different types of universities. Across all institution types, interest in liberal arts programs and majors has declined. Three of the four most popular major fields are business, health professions and related programs, and education, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. The other was history and social science.

“Today’s students face a tremendous amount of pressure to identify a major early and determine a major,” said Ruth Sims, senior vice president for marketing and research at Noel-Levitz. “Given the current economy, given the cost of higher education, you can’t count on a guaranteed return on investment. Students think, 'Which majors are going to allow me to start a career out of college or get me into a graduate school that can get me to a high-paying profession?' The idea that a liberal arts education can prepare them for a job that might exist in the future, I think that message is lost on them.”

There is no reason to say that professional programs and liberal arts education are mutually exclusive. Many institutions have students take a liberal arts general curriculum before entering a professional major or emphasize the skills associated with liberal education during the professional degree. The American Association of Colleges & Universities regularly pushes for broader inclusion of the liberal arts in undergraduate professional degrees.

But many in higher education argue – supported by studies such as Academically Adrift – that students in preprofessional majors aren’t challenged in the same way as students in liberal arts disciplines and therefore don’t develop the same kinds of skills that should be valued.

Nobody’s Listening

The problem confronting liberal arts colleges now – specifically the non-selective, regionally oriented ones -- is that students don’t perceive them to be a good path to employment or a good return on investment, particularly when they have lower-priced options such as state universities, community colleges and online programs that avoid room and board costs. Changing that perception is necessary to draw students back into the fold, administrators say.

What’s frustrating for people like Ekman and Nugent is that they’ve got data documenting that liberal arts colleges and degrees generate a strong return on investment. They graduate underrepresented minorities at higher rates than do other types of institutions. Students with a liberal arts background are more likely to get promoted and earn more over their lifetimes. Liberal arts majors are more likely to give back to their communities. An Annapolis Group survey of college graduates found that the graduates of liberal arts colleges were much more satisfied with their college experience on several metrics than were individuals who attended other types of institutions.

At the same time, many professional graduate programs say they want students who come from liberal arts backgrounds. Both the Association of American Medical Colleges and the American Bar Association tell prospective students to study what interests them and what they excel at.

But none of that seems to be getting through.

Nugent said she thinks the current discussion about the “demise of college” and the liberal arts has taken root because it appeals to emotion.

“The reality of public discourse today is that often what’s much more compelling in national argument is emotion,” she said. She pointed to a front-page New York Times story from May that led with a student $120,000 in debt. “Lots of things about that story were wrong, but it reaches out and grabs gut. ‘Oh my God, my child’s going to be jobless and hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt.’ Those kinds of disasters are real outliers in higher education, but they pack an emotional wallop that the dry data doesn’t.”

And that narrative has colleges playing defense. Nugent said the beating colleges are taking in the news media has been immensely frustrating, and she has been needling the various groups with which she is associated to try to do something about it.

She chalks the message failure up to several things. First, she said that higher education leaders are spending too much time talking tog one another and not enough time engaging outside voices. Second, they are not playing the media game that gets attention.

“We’ve been attempting to convey the value of a liberal arts education through the typical academic discourse. We say, ‘Here’s the data and here are the facts,’ ” she said. “I hope that we’re not a society that has abandoned facts in favor of ‘truthiness,’ but I’m worried that the general society is not necessarily reached by academic discourse.”

CIC announced its initiative Wednesday, and both Nugent and Ekman said they’re not entirely sure what shape the initiative will take, only that it will be a significant shift from how they have conducted themselves in the past. “I don’t know the answer, but I think we have to radically reimagine how we tell our story,” Nugent said.

One component mentioned by both Nugent and Ekman, as well as others talking about messaging, is finding national figures who can speak out on the value of liberal arts. College presidents are fond of pointing to a remark by Steve Jobs about the value of blending technology with humanities. Nugent wants more of those. She wants CEOs and artists and lawmakers to speak about why they found the liberal arts valuable.

The CIC group will also likely develop better measures of outcomes than they have had in the past. “Policy makers are likely to be responsive to data,” Ekman said, pointing to a package the council put together on the myths of student debt, which he said had an impact on the debate in the wake of the New York Times story.  

Jobs, Jobs, Jobs

For a long time colleges have rooted their arguments in the value of their education in questions of human development, social good and democracy. But communications consultants, as well as Nugent and others, say it’s time to address what students are thinking about: jobs.

Whether they like it or not, college administrators readily admit that the focus on employment has become the dominant societal discourse. A recent book by the CEO of Gallup notes that having a good job is the No. 1 social value for everyone. It outranks having a family, peace, freedom, religion and democracy and numerous other societal goods.  

Sims says liberal arts colleges (and liberal arts programs at other types of institutions) need to do a better job calculating and presenting the numbers that matter to these students. Right now, those metrics are employment, price, and long-term career earnings.

“I think higher education in general does a pretty poor job tracking alumni outcomes. When we ask for data on the statistics of recent graduates, every school can point to superstar alumni in different fields who graduated 20 years ago, but can you tell me what your students who graduated in the last 10 years in a variety of majors are doing?” she said.

Sims said there are several reasons for poor accounting of student outcomes. First, it’s resource-intensive at a time when many colleges don’t have spare resources. Second, she said, is that many colleges fear what they’re going to find or how that information is going to shape what they do going forward.

Edwards said he thinks the shifting landscape of higher education and emphasis on outcomes will actually come to play in favor of liberal arts disciplines and colleges. “Studies increasingly show that what students and parents are looking for are in fact the things that these colleges deliver,” he said, pointing to outcomes around lifelong learning, mentorship and the ability to think in multiple ways.

Change the Game

But there is another approach that some in higher education are starting to consider. If the traditional case for liberal arts colleges – that such institutions show stronger outcomes, even on employment data – aren't winning the message game, maybe they need to shift the playing field.

That’s the case being made by Swarthmore President Rebecca Chopp, one of the presidents who convened the conference at Lafayette this spring. Chopp, along with Dan Weiss, the current president of Lafayette College and future president of Haverford College, has spent the past year trying to develop a way to more effectively make the case for liberal arts colleges. In a speech to her campus last month, Chopp said those advocating for liberal education should not focus solely on trying to demonstrate economic value, but rather work against the prevailing notion of what education is for.

“The case for the liberal arts, in my opinion, needs to be reframed to suggest not only how well we serve individual students but also how we act as a counterforce against a culture that is commodifying knowledge and projecting a view of community and anthropology that is reductionist and dangerous,” she said. Her approach emphasizes that the country is diversifying and the world is becoming smaller, and residential liberal arts colleges provide the best opportunity to train students to function in succeed in such a community.

In essence, Chopp – whose own background is in religious studies and theology – is advocating for a more humanistic approach to making the case for liberal arts colleges. She is taking a page from 19th-century thinkers such as Thomas Jefferson, who advocated for higher education as a key component of a robust democracy and free society, rather than a tool for economic advancement.

Sims said such an argument might appeal to lawmakers, donors and other major decision-makers, but worries that it might fall on deaf ears when it comes to students.

“Whatever you have to say about the generation of college-bound students, at that age in life, it’s pretty much about me,” she said. “They’re very concerned about the greater good, about society, the environment, the bigger picture, but they also are very concerned with their personal futures, and they’re not going to set that aside for some larger good.”

There's probably room for both the economic and humanistic arguments, administrators and consultants said. Finding the right way to craft those messages and the media to deliver them will be the challenge in coming years. Ekman said his organization will bring in communications consultants to help it craft a message and strategy, and that various colleges making their own case will share lessons about what works and what doesn’t.

And if all else fails, Duke University’s Coursera course on “How to Reason and Argue” begins Nov. 26. 

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