‘The Evidence Liberal Arts Needs’

Author discusses his new book about the value of liberal arts colleges—and why many people ignore them.

November 18, 2021
 

Richard A. Detweiler first released some of the results of his study on the long-term impact of having attended a liberal arts college or experienced qualities associated with liberal arts education in 2016.

The results back up the claims that liberal arts advocates routinely make about these institutions. He first obtained a sample of 1,000 college graduates, some from lists of liberal arts college 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 who graduated 10 years, 20 years and 40 years ago. Those in the sample were then asked a series of questions about their undergraduate educational experiences and about their lives since college.

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 class about academic issues and also about non-class-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.

In looking at whether people in the larger sample had leadership characteristics, Detweiler found that—depending on how many characteristics of an intimate education they reported—adults with liberal arts backgrounds were 30 to 100 percent more likely to show leadership. 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, then president of the Great Lakes Colleges Association, and now president emeritus, promised a book with the results and more ideas about the liberal arts. This week, the MIT Press published the result: The Evidence Liberal Arts Needs: Lives of Consequence, Inquiry and Accomplishment. Detweiler answered questions about the book.

Related Stories

Q: Why has the situation facing gotten worse in recent years?

A: While there are a number of reasons, I believe the most important is the ever-growing emphasis on the idea that the purpose of college is job preparation. While preparation for productive work is a good outcome, there has grown the idea that a graduate is prepared for employment only if they study specialized, professional or technical subjects. In contrast, the liberal arts is incorrectly believed to be simply the study of impractical subjects, and therefore not relevant to job success. While there is some advantage to specialized training for one’s first job, as my research documents, longer-term success and life fulfillment does not come from specialization but from broader study and involvement in an educational community, and these are among the essential characteristics of liberal arts education. This research finding should not be a surprise given the fact that, with the rapid changes in the contemporary world of work, today’s specialization is tomorrow’s obsolescence. But people seem to be focused on the short-term value of first job income rather than receiving an education with longer-term value. There is no career path to a meaningful life.

Q: Of your findings, what are one or two statistics that show the value of the liberal arts college?

A: One of the essential characteristics of the liberal arts is learning in an educational community. While people frequently assume that close out-of-class relationships among faculty and students is just a nicety, in fact it has been a consistent attribute of liberal arts education for millennia. The research findings demonstrate the impact of experiences ranging from involvement with campus activities to more extensive out-of-class interaction with faculty. These are both significantly related to a broad range of life outcomes ranging from leadership and fulfillment to personal success—a stunning endorsement of the importance of this aspect of the liberal arts educational experience. An anonymous reviewer of my book ridiculed the idea that having faculty know students’ first names was significant, even though this attribute was frequently associated with life impact; while not every professor can know every student, particularly at larger institutions, it is an indicator of the degree to which an authentic educational community of life impact exists.

Among many other findings, I think I would also point out the significance of taking more than half of one’s courses outside the major. This one stands out because of its association with long-term success, including higher income and position level in one’s work life. And this effect is especially strong for those who are often disadvantaged in higher education: people from lower-income families and with lower SAT/ACT test scores. And associated with this finding is that the value of professional or specialized degrees is short-term, and in fact these people are less likely to live fulfilled lives over the longer term.

Q: Why is it so hard to convince people of the value of the liberal arts college?

A: We, in higher education, own major responsibility for this fact. There is no consistent description of what liberal arts study is—in my research I cataloged hundreds of different definitions and descriptions. And to make matters worse, when individual colleges market themselves, they rarely make clear statements about what liberal arts experiences are particularly important and why. If anything, liberal arts colleges often emphasize experiences such as internships that students can experience at any college or university. Of course, the problem colleges have faced in this regard is there has not been objective information about the relationship between specific liberal arts experiences and life outcomes. This research has rectified that problem, and I believe wise colleges will now begin to document and communicate the specific liberal arts experiences that are related to significant life outcomes.

The second issue, also of our own making, is that research on the value of college has focused on money outcomes. That is, what is most commonly reported is that those who have graduated from college earn much more and are less likely to be unemployed. Since this is the result of graduating from any college, why would one choose to attend a liberal arts college, especially when other, typically larger, institutions also have a broader range of majors? In addition, with an emphasis on specialized and professional education—also with much greater availability at larger institutions—why would one choose a liberal arts institution? I am optimistic that the results of my research, which directly links six types of liberal arts educational experiences to life outcomes, will make it possible for liberal arts–oriented colleges and universities to begin documenting the specific reasons for the impact they have on the lives of graduates that go well beyond the financial outcomes associated with graduating from any college.

Q: In your study, you describe characteristics of liberal arts colleges, but don’t say these are liberal arts colleges’ qualities. Why?

A: For decades people have made a distinction between two types of colleges: liberal arts colleges and others (comprehensive, master’s or doctoral, etc.). Analyses, then, typically make contrasts between those types. But this is a very confounded comparison: if the liberal arts is simply defined as involving breadth of study, most American universities of all types require some distribution of courses among their graduates; if the liberal arts is simply defined as the study of the humanities, almost every American university offers courses in the humanities; if the liberal arts is defined simply as participation in campus organizations, every American university makes those available; if the purpose of a liberal arts education is to further democracy, every American university endorses that claim.

So instead of simply trying to classify institutions as liberal arts or not (or as the Carnegie classification does it, as “baccalaureate: arts and sciences” or not), I carried out a historical analysis to determine the educational practices characteristic of liberal arts education over centuries. From this I concluded there are six fundamental practices: three associated with the content of education and three with the nature of the educational experience. The question of the research, then, was whether there is any relationship between a student experiencing each of these practices (for example, taking more than half of one’s courses outside the major or spending time with faculty outside of class time) and life outcome. And what I learned is experiencing some of these practices had some kinds of life impact and experiencing others had a different type of life impact. So the liberal arts is not a singular thing but a set of things, and depending on one’s life goals, different kinds of liberal arts experiences are important.

So this research wasn’t about saying liberal arts colleges are good and others are not; rather, it concludes that having liberal arts experiences is good for a more meaningful and successful life. The truth is that, like my daughter who attended a research university, it is possible to have liberal arts experiences at a larger comprehensive institution. It is also possible to avoid impactful liberal arts experiences at a college that describes itself as liberal arts. But the reality is that having liberal arts experiences at comprehensive research institutions is a real challenge—the student will need to make extraordinary efforts to have those experiences, and faculty are likely to be rewarded for their focus on research rather than for spending time with students. Indeed, as my research found, the impactful educational experiences were about twice as likely to be experienced by students at liberal arts colleges. The evidence is clear: the education students receive at liberal arts colleges is distinctly and significantly associated with positive life impact.

Q: What should liberal arts colleges do to gather more students and more support?

A: I am reminded of the years-ago (and still true) lament that there were too few women pursuing engineering degrees. It began with the simple insight that, in general, women reported caring more about how their education can be used to make a difference in the world than with tinkering with neat stuff. Engineering programs that reframed their appeals to describe how engineers make a difference for the world experienced a growth in their enrollments of women. Of course, this was only a first step, and much more has been done since that time, but it was a critical beginning.

For liberal arts education, I believe it is critical to completely reframe our thinking about liberal arts advocacy with a focus on actionable steps that can be taken. Because every college now describes liberal arts education differently, we have forfeited the meaning of liberal education to our critics, who are free to choose their own way of negatively stereotyping what liberal arts education is. (Can you imagine if every engineering school defined engineering differently?) We need to adopt an essentially consistent description of the liberal arts—one based on the common good (specific ways in which the liberal arts benefits both the individual and society) and which includes a clear description of the important educational experiences that will have life impact. The research provides clear descriptions of these fundamental attributes of liberal arts education.

Second, take advantage of the objective findings reported in the book, which documents the relationship between specific liberal arts educational experiences and specific life outcomes across 1,000 college graduates of a wide variety of types of institutions. Each liberal arts institution can begin collecting data on the degree to which their students actually experience each of the various liberal arts practices and how those are related to life outcomes. This college-specific information should be disseminated by colleges in their communications.

Third, each liberal arts institution needs to examine its own policies and resource allocations to determine whether their mission is aligned with the life outcomes that the various liberal arts practices create. Do faculty rewards—promotion, tenure, periodic reviews—sufficiently reward the time professors spend outside of class with students? Do growing requirements within majors push out the ability of students to study outside their discipline? Do faculty and staff operate on the basis that all are involved in the creation and support of a full educational ecology, or do departmental prerogatives supersede a more integrated view of the students’ educational experience? And more.

Most fundamentally, I see the work presented in this book as a call to action. If we are to preserve and fortify the liberal arts principles that account for the remarkable impact of American higher education for more than two centuries—considered by most internationally to be the best in the world—we must use the information we now have to clarify and strengthen this powerful approach to higher education.

Read more by

We have retired comments and introduced Letters to the Editor. Letters may be sent to [email protected].

Read the Letters to the Editor  »

Today’s News from Inside Higher Ed

Inside Higher Ed’s Quick Takes

Back to Top