A group of colleges started an effort Thursday to redefine liberal education -- and to ensure that all colleges that profess to provide one actually do.
The Association of American Colleges and Universities' campaign  involves helping colleges do a better job of providing liberal education and developing better ways to measure whether colleges are doing so. At the same time that the association kicked off its 10-year campaign, it released the results of focus groups it has been conducting with college-bound high school students and students already in college. Those focus groups have found that many of these students do not place a high value on educational goals dear to many professors.
Part of any discussion of liberal education must involve definitions. Traditional definitions have focused on learning for the sake of learning, separated from professional and practical concerns. The colleges in this effort explicitly reject that approach.
"We want to undermine the sense that it's an either/or choice" between liberal education and career preparation, says Debra Humphreys, vice president for public affairs at the AACU. "That's a false choice."
"There are nursing programs where students are more liberally educated than some history and English programs," she says.
This project will focus on outcomes of a liberal education: Can students think critically? Are they prepared to be good citizens? Can they write well? Are they engaged as citizens?
What about whether students can speak French, have read Shakespeare's plays, or can identify the Treaty of Ghent? "There's just no way that you can identify an educated person by a body of content," Humphreys says. There is too much content, people don't agree on what's most important, and the content is changing all the time.
She also points out that many students will never major in a traditional liberal arts discipline, and that society needs nurses, engineers, and skilled computer technicians. If people who care about liberal education focus only on those who read Great Books around a seminar table, "we abandon all of those students to a narrow education," Humphreys says.
Fifty colleges have already agreed to participate in the program -- through which they will review their offerings and work to make sure all students are liberally educated. The colleges include traditional liberal arts institutions (Mount Holyoke, Pomona, Wooster), large public universities (Michigan at Ann Arbor, Nebraska at Lincoln), colleges focused on business and engineering (Babson, Worcester Polytechnic), and community colleges (Prince George's, Western Nevada).
All colleges are welcome to join, Humphreys says.
Beyond working to improve liberal education, she says, the project will work to measure its effectiveness. She notes that Congress and many state legislatures are demanding more accountability of higher education -- and that many academics view those calls for accountability with skepticism.
"In their fervor to get easily quantifiable data," policy makers sometimes focus on "the stuff that's easy to measure," which may or may not be a good measure of whether a school or college is doing a good job, she says. Right now, "we don't know" how to measure liberal education's success, Humphreys says, so a major effort in this project will be to develop and test possible measures.
To prepare for this effort on liberal education, AACU conducted six focus groups  with students in high school and college.
Humpheys says the focus groups were encouraging in that students "have received the message that college is important." But many have only a "vague sense" of what to expect in college, and of what they should try to accomplish.
She says she was particularly surprised by the way students evaluated the relative importance of reasons for going to college. Students said that they viewed college as important to bringing them more career choices, gaining specific skills they would need, and teaching them skills, values and ethics that they will need to succeed in life.
But she notes that students gave low ratings to some reasons for going to college that are very important to many professors: learning about people from different cultures and preparing for a life of civic engagement.
On the issue of diversity, the participants in the focus group had this to say, according to a summary prepared for the AACU: "High school students believe that their experiences prior to college provide a great deal of cultural exposure.... With the exception of a few students, college students validate these perceptions, saying that their colleges' environments are more homogeneous and sheltered from the outside world than their high schools were."
On the question of civic engagement -- currently a hot topic with many college officials -- the results suggest a disconnect between students and academics: "Neither high school nor college students believe that preparation for a life of civic responsibility and leadership is an important reason to get a college education.... Some students go so far as to say that they approach their college experience as a time to focus on themselves and their individual academic achievement and social experience rather than on making a contribution to society."
The AACU effort was announced at its annual meeting, in San Francisco, and the 10 years envisioned for the campaign will take the organization to its centennial.