As colleges go, DePauw University has a pretty good track record of ensuring "gainful employment" for its graduates, roughly 95 percent of whom have a relevant job or a place in graduate school within six months of earning their bachelor's degree.
But that wasn't good enough for the parent of one prospective student recently.
“ ‘Johnny really wants to go to your school, but Johnny has to get a job,’ ” Mark McCoy, DePauw's president, recounts the parent saying at an admissions event for the Indiana liberal arts institution.
McCoy couldn't contain himself. “Thank goodness you stopped him in the nick of time and threw yourself on the tracks,” he responded. “Because nobody with a liberal arts education gets a job.”
These are trying times for leaders of liberal arts institutions like DePauw. There have long been questions about whether a liberal arts degree is the best route to a job immediately after graduation, McCoy says. "But now people seem to be saying, if you get a liberal arts education, you’ve precluded the possibility of ever getting a job."
There is abundant evidence that a liberal arts education prepares graduates for successful careers, as well as, of course, a successful life. But with many parents and policy makers increasingly focused on students' first jobs, DePauw is making a grand statement to show that it can do that, too.
With its Gold Commitment, which DePauw quietly rolled out during its current admissions cycle, the university promises every graduate a "successful launch." The university vows that for any student who does not have an "entry-level professional position" or acceptance to graduate school within six months of graduation, DePauw and its employer partners will either give them a full-time entry-level position for at least six months, or the university will give the graduate another semester of education tuition-free. (DePauw isn't the only party that makes a commitment: students must meet a set of academic, behavioral and other requirements to qualify, and alumni will be expected to step up to help current students.)
In many ways, the goal is not a huge lift for DePauw, given the high rate at which its graduates currently launch successfully. Its typical annual graduating class is roughly 500 students, so the 5 percent each year who don't land a job or get into graduate school amounts to about 25 people.
“Parents are legitimately concerned about the first job. If we take that issue off the table for you, because we’re so sure it works, we think parents will go, ‘Now I can stop worrying about this, I can give them the best education available, which is the liberal arts education.’”
But by making a highly visible promise -- similar to but distinctive from guarantees that a handful of other institutions have made in the past (see box below) -- the university and McCoy hope to make a statement not about what the institution will begin doing, but what it has been doing all along.
"This is not, 'those liberal arts don't work, we've got to change the liberal arts so they do,'" McCoy says. "We already provide a viable, powerful education that works. We're just adding to the structure, codifying some things, so it works for everyone."
The Liberal Arts Under Fire
With the rise in student debt levels and the lingering effects of the Great Recession, doubts about the value of a college degree has risen, too -- and the liberal arts have taken a particular pounding.
That has led to lots of discussion (in, among other places, Inside Higher Ed's opinion pages) about whether liberal arts colleges and programs should become more focused on shorter-term vocational outcomes, by changing their offerings, how they operate, and the like.
Udacity and boot camps: Promise money back if graduates don't get jobs
McCoy believes the debate about whether the liberal arts does and should prepare students for long-term career success or short-term employability is a flawed one. "Yes, we believe that you should go college not just to make a living, but to make a life," he says. "But that's not to suggest that you're not preparing them to make a living."
Terry W. Hartle, senior vice president for government and public affairs at the American Council on Education, has been listening in on a set of focus groups the higher ed lobbying group has been doing with the public, with a tilt toward supporters of President Trump. His assessment: "The public’s summary of the purpose of a higher education is jobs, jobs, jobs. They often have difficulty defining the reasons one might get a higher education beyond employment."
Given the stagnant wages for many Americans in the decade since the recession, it's "pretty understandable" that Americans might feel that way. That's not to say that higher education can or should let that perception stand, Hartle says.
"I think the higher education community in general has tended to assume that the public understands the widespread and diverse purposes of higher education, and we've erred in doing so. We need to talk about the many ways that going to college transforms people’s lives -- developing moral reasoning, civic engagement."
But college leaders shouldn't assume they can just "change the discussion -- few organizations and institutions in our society can do that," Hartle says. "Institutions have to meet the public where they are, particularly liberal arts institutions, and particularly in regions of the country with stable or declining populations."
Like, say, Indiana.
Responding to a ‘Flawed Narrative’
DePauw does not fit the profile of a "struggling" liberal arts college. The 180-year-old Methodist institution enrolls about 2,200 students, admits about two-thirds of its applicants, has an endowment of about $650 million, and has already raised $320 million in a capital campaign slotted to bring in $300 million.
McCoy, a former dean of DePauw's music school, enthusiastically embraces the liberal arts. "I want the world to be more liberally educated, and more people to consider this type of education, here and everywhere," he says.
But doubts about the liberal arts' value impede that goal -- not so much for students but for parents.
"Parents are legitimately concerned about the first job," he says. "If we take that issue off the table for you, because we're so sure it works, we think parents will go, 'Now I can stop worrying about this, I can give them the best education available, which is the liberal arts education.'"
Focusing on students' postgraduation outcomes isn't new for DePauw -- it has long focused on experiential learning and has had a center for entrepreneurship for nearly 40 years. But it will as part of the Gold Commitment become more intentional in what it offers (and demands of) students.
Beginning next fall, every student will have a "commitment adviser" in addition to the academic advisers DePauw undergraduates have always had. These advisers will ensure that students fulfill the various experiences and obligations they must to complete their end of the bargain, including graduating in four years, remaining in good behavioral standing and participating in one of the university's co-curricular centers (entrepreneurship, civic engagement, ethics, etc.) and its sophomore institute focused on life after DePauw. (A software system will help track whether students are availing themselves of the opportunities and requirements.)
Other "innovations" are likely to follow in future years, but these will be tweaks to what DePauw has long done as part of its liberal arts education, McCoy says, not radical departures from it. Unlike many small private colleges that have added degree programs in fields such as nursing and business and pharmacy, DePauw has clung tenaciously to its liberal arts roots.
"This is upping our game on ourselves a little bit, and we have to be prepared to continue to innovate," he says. "But mostly this is simply us doubling down on what we do well, and since it does, we're willing to guarantee it."
DePauw expects alumni to help with internships along the way and positions for graduates who might need employment after graduation, in exchange for reaffirming to them that "we're dedicated to making your institution relevant and your degree worthwhile," McCoy says.
DePauw may be the most visible institution to promise students will find jobs, but it isn't the first.
Thomas College, in Maine, has had its Guaranteed Job Program since 1999. If a student is unemployed six months after graduation, the college will make monthly payments on their federally subsidized student loans for up to a year, or they may enroll tuition-free in up to six evening graduate courses at Thomas. Students may also re-enroll at Thomas if they are in a job that isn't in their field of study.
Since 2001, only two students have used the loan payoff benefit, while another five have taken advantage of the educational benefit in the previous decade. Roughly 92 percent of students sign a contract to opt in to the program, which obligates them to follow a series of steps designed to prepare them for career success.
Corey Pelletier, director of career services at Thomas, says the guarantee has not significantly altered the institution's job placement outcomes (which were already good, in the low 90s), nor has it radically increased enrollment demand.
But it helps the college back up its mission of ensuring that students graduate with the practical skills to succeed, and the requirements of the program have "added to students’ experience here, getting them more experience and exposure to the workplace. It only works because it's aligned with our mission."
More Than a Gimmick?
Many colleges of all types, but perhaps especially small private institutions like DePauw, have embraced strategies designed to differentiate them from other institutions or reinforce what marketers call their "value proposition." Critics have dismissed as gimmicks the "tuition reset" decisions by numerous colleges to lower their tuition by as much as a third, for instance.
"There's a long history of schools implementing some significant step that boosts their enrollment in the short term, but may not have much impact over the long haul," said Hartle of ACE. "Any time you can use a word like 'guaranteed,' you're going to encourage people to look at you a little bit more closely."
McCoy acknowledges that DePauw hopes its commitment will sway students (and parents) who are skeptical that the university can get them the first job they want. But DePauw has "no desire to be larger than our traditional size, so we do not feel that other schools should be threatened by this," McCoy said via email in response to a reporter's question about whether its initiative could hurt some of its liberal arts college peers.
"Every institution has its own truth," he continued. "This is something that we see as a way for us to clearly have 'skin in the game.' Other institutions may increase their value proposition in other ways. I hope they will find their own way to increase the share of students that are getting a great liberal arts education."