The Proof Liberal Arts Colleges Need?

Study links certain traits of undergraduate education to success in life: meaningful interaction with professors, studying a variety of fields outside the major and having classroom talks that go to issues of ethics and life.

January 22, 2016
 
Kenyon College

WASHINGTON -- Before Richard A. Detweiler's presentation here Thursday at the annual meeting of the Association of American Colleges and Universities, he asked audience members why they had selected his session, in which he had promised to present data about the long-term impact of having studied at a liberal arts college. The audience members were a mix of faculty members and administrators at liberal arts colleges and from liberal arts programs within larger universities. Many talked about looking for evidence to bolster their efforts to defend the liberal arts. One person said he wanted "ammunition for the liberal arts."

Detweiler, president of the Great Lakes Colleges Association, may have just provided some.

He presented early results from a research study (that eventually he hopes to turn into a book) about the long-term impact of having attended a liberal arts college or experienced qualities associated with liberal arts education. The results back up the claims that liberal arts advocates make for their institutions -- claims that Detweiler said he feared didn't always have data behind them.

The study's initial results suggest that one can prove that a liberal arts-style education can be associated with greater odds, compared to others with bachelor's degrees, on such qualities as being a leader, being seen as ethical, appreciating arts and culture and leading a fulfilling and happy life.

How the Analysis Was Done

Detweiler said he wanted to look at characteristics of the undergraduate experience and didn't want to rely on whether graduates would identify their colleges as liberal arts institutions or not. First, he obtained a sample of 1,000 college graduates -- some from lists of liberal arts colleges' alumni and others from a random sample of the population of college graduates in the United States, a group in which liberal arts graduates are a minority. The sample was divided into groups of those 10 years, 20 years, and 40 years after graduation.

Those in the sample were then asked a series of questions about their undergraduate educational experiences and about their lives since college.

The questions about undergraduate experiences focused on qualities associated with (but not always unique to) liberal arts colleges. There were questions about the intimate learning environment associated with liberal arts colleges (Did most professors know your name? Did you talk with faculty members outside of class about academic issues and also about nonclasswork-related topics? Were most class sizes in your first year not more than 30?).

There were questions about intellectual competencies related to the skills liberal arts colleges say they teach. But rather than saying, "Were you taught critical thinking?" the survey subjects were asked whether their professors encouraged them to examine the strengths and weaknesses of their views, and those of others, and whether they spent class time regularly talking about issues for which there was no single correct answer.

To examine breadth of education, they were asked how many courses (or what share of courses) came from outside their major.

With regard to life experiences, the survey subjects were then asked questions designed to tease out whether these graduates possessed the qualities liberal arts colleges claim to provide. But again, the questions weren't direct. So rather than say, "Are you a leader?" people were asked if they regularly had people seeking their advice outside their areas of expertise, whether they were frequently called on as mentors, whether they have been elected to positions in social, cultural, professional and political groups.

Another goal many liberal arts colleges have is to educate people who will contribute to society. So the college graduates in the sample were asked things such as whether they are volunteers and how much they volunteer, whether they vote regularly, what share of their income they donate to charity.

Matching the Results

Detweiler then reviewed the findings, which had the audience of liberal arts supporters excited.

For example, in looking at whether people in the larger sample had leadership characteristics, he found that -- depending on how many characteristics of an intimate education they reported -- adults were 30 to 100 percent more likely to show leadership with the liberal arts background. The key factor appeared to be out-of-the-classroom discussions with faculty members (both on academic and nonacademic subjects).

The same faculty interaction made alumni 26 to 66 percent more likely to be people who contribute to society (volunteering, charitable giving, etc.).

Another quality the study examined was whether people were generally satisfied with their lives and viewed their professional and family lives as meaningful. This type of happiness was significantly more likely (25 percent to 35 percent), the study found, for those who reported that as undergraduates they had conversations with those who disagreed with them and had in-class discussions of different philosophical, literary and ethical perspectives.

Detweiler acknowledged the current cultural "obsession" with salaries as a measure of the value of a college education. And he said it was true business and engineering majors earned more, on average, than those with liberal arts majors. But he also noted that the top factor associated with a six-figure salary was not college major but having taken a large share of classes outside one's major.

What Does It All Mean?

Detweiler said faculty engagement on a personal level seemed to be the factor in the undergraduate experience that had the greatest impact on life success by the measures he studied.

That doesn't mean, he said, that academics should reject all technology tools. He said, for example, that he saw the "flipped classroom" -- in which lectures are placed online to allow for more interactive and meaningful student-faculty interaction in class -- as something that his findings would encourage. But he said large online classes (or large in-person classes without meaningful interaction) were inconsistent with these ideas. He also noted the impact not so much of major, but of studying many fields outside one's major and of having intense philosophical discussions in class. Those things, he said, produce leaders, ethical people and happy people, the study suggests.

Many in the audience cheered the findings and said they were anxious for Detweiler to write his book and share the findings more broadly. But their excitement was tinged with regret about many trends in higher education. One audience member said the pressures on faculty members and administrators today -- for speedier, less expensive and more career-focused education -- "are all in the opposite direction" of the study's findings.

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