Liberal Arts at the Brink was published three years ago. In it, I reported that student demand for liberal arts courses and majors -- the humanities, social sciences, and physical sciences -- was rapidly declining and being replaced by demand for vocational, directly career related courses and majors. Liberal Arts at the Brink focused on liberal arts colleges, but the student-demand shift was also occurring at universities with both liberal arts and professional programs. As the book’s title suggested, I thought the future of liberal arts education was bleak, but not hopeless. Now, I believe I was too optimistic.
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The reasons 18-year-olds went to college used to be simple; it was what one did after finishing high school, what everyone in their class was doing, and besides, it would be fun. Students trusted their colleges in much the same way they trusted their doctors. The colleges told them that courses in the humanities, social sciences, and physical sciences were good for them, so they took them. The colleges -- at least, liberal arts colleges -- said they needed to choose a liberal arts major, so they did.
After World War II, following the arrival of returning veterans with GI Bill money, the doors to colleges and universities swung open for students previously excluded or restricted by quotas. Between 1955 and 1970, the number of undergraduates tripled, from 2.4 to 7.5 million. Many of the new students had a purposeful, focused reason for attending college -- to be trained for a career that would open up a better life than their parents had known. Majoring in a liberal arts subject did not make sense. Indeed, even taking liberal arts courses seemed a waste of time and money. Student demand for liberal arts began to decline and colleges and universities began adding more directly career-related courses and majors to their curriculums. A sea change in U.S. higher education was underway.
At first, many liberal arts colleges offered vocational courses grudgingly. Most of them, however, soon overcame their reluctance. Lacking large endowments, they were, in the words of Yale University’s financial guru, David Swensen, “forced to respond to the wishes and needs of the current student body to attract a sufficient number of students to maintain current operations.”
The facts that college students are graduating with greater and greater debt, and that many debt-ridden graduates are unable to find employment providing enough income to pay off their debt, accelerated the declining demand for liberal arts education. With the cost of attending college soaring, the question “is it worth it?” became even more central to deciding what kind of education to pursue.
As reported in Liberal Arts at the Brink, between 1987 and 2008, the percentage of graduates from the top 225 private liberal arts colleges with vocational -- not liberal arts -- majors tripled, from less than 10 percent to almost 30 percent. By 2008, at 51 of those colleges less than half of all graduates were liberal arts majors. A 2007 survey showed that 92 percent of college-bound high school seniors felt preparing for a career was very important, while only 8 percent believed the availability of liberal arts education was essential in choosing a college.
In 2012, the year after Liberal Arts at the Brink was published, U.S. News and World Report’s annual Best Colleges guide reported that colleges and universities were “responding to workplace demand” by creating new undergraduate majors in fields where the demand for workers had spiked, and featured nine “hot” new majors, all of which were vocational, including computer game design, health informatics, homeland security, new media, and cyber security. The next year, the Best Colleges guide added forensic science, business analytics, petroleum engineering, and robotics to its list of “hot majors that can lead to a great job.”
Today, liberal arts colleges are using their websites to proclaim that the education they offer will get their graduates better jobs and careers. Here are a few typical examples:
“Provides practical knowledge, professional skills, and powerful connections.”
“Gives you a big edge on jobs after graduation.”
“Prepares you for a wide range of careers and professional callings.”
“Gives you the confidence it takes to pursue rewarding careers.”
“Provides a competitive edge in the job market.”
“Prepares you not just for your first career but for all your careers.”
There is scarcely a liberal arts college whose promotional materials fail to claim “95 percent of our graduates will be employed or in graduate or professional school within one year of graduation” (although precisely what the employment is likely to be is not specified).
Claims that liberal arts majors provide direct preparation for careers have become an integral part of the promotional materials of even the most distinguished institutions. Here, for example, is how the University of Chicago now describes some of its undergraduate liberal arts major offerings:
Anthropology “can lead to careers in research and teaching in museum settings.”
Classical studies “provides excellent preparation for careers such as law and publishing.”
History “is excellent preparation for a wide field of endeavors from law, government, and public policy to the arts and business.”
Political science “can lead to a career in business, government, journalism, or nonprofit organizations.”
Sociology “is attractive for students considering careers in such professions as business, law, marketing, journalism, social work, politics, public administration, and urban planning.”
As the pool of potential liberal arts students has shrunk, competition to attract them has intensified. The wealthiest colleges and universities are intent on capturing the most desirable students (highest grades, highest ACT/SAT scores, most-wanted extracurricular activities, etc.). While less well-endowed institutions are fighting simply to enroll enough students to fill their classes, the strategies they pursue -- to the extent they can afford them -- are the same as those employed by their wealthier competitors.
One strategy is to lure students with fancier facilities. Even though lavish dorms, extensive sports and recreation spaces, and elaborate internet and electronic facilities may be well calculated to appeal to 18-year-olds, success with this strategy has proved problematic. If College A builds a luxurious new student center, its competitors are likely to respond by building their own, canceling out the competitive advantage College A sought to achieve. Colleges and universities often feel compelled to make substantial expenditures (and incur substantial debt) on new facilities they cannot afford -- not to achieve a competitive advantage, but rather to avoid falling behind.
Competition among liberal arts colleges is fiercest in financial aid discounting (the percentage off sticker price that students pay). Average discount rates of 50 percent or more are now commonplace. Most colleges seek to replace some of the tuition revenues lost through discounting by attempting to admit more students, exacerbating the adverse financial impact on the colleges of the shrinking pool of potential applicants. The tragedy of the commons is at work.
The net result of the competition to attract students is (1) to increase colleges’ operating costs and decrease their operating revenues, neither of which any but the few colleges with huge endowments can afford, and (2) to do nothing to address the core problem that gave rise to the competition, the fact that fewer and fewer high school seniors want a liberal arts education.
Even if liberal arts colleges were not engaged in self-destructing competition, the deck would still be stacked against them. Powerful national voices aggressively champion vocational education and barely mention, or deride, the liberal arts, voices such as Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce, directed by Anthony Carnevale (“if higher education fails to focus on occupational training, it will damage the nation’s economic future ..., something we cannot afford”); President Obama’s secretary of education, Arne Duncan (“the challenge of producing the best educated, most competitive workforce in the world is not just a question of national pride; it is an economic imperative”); and President Obama (“folks ... need higher education ... to make sure ... [they] are ready for a career, ready to meet the challenges of the 21st-century economy”).
America’s public high schools are also turning to career preparation and away from their historic liberal arts curriculums -- Latin, the English poets, American and English history, a modern foreign language, mathematics, and science -- curriculums, Jacques Barzun said, that were once “the envy of industrialized nations.” Now, in National Center for Education President Marc Tucker’s words, high school liberal arts courses seem “more and more of a self-indulgent luxury.” President Obama has announced plans to make major changes in “the American high school experience” to make it “more relevant” by strengthening “career and technical education programs.”
In Liberal Arts at the Brink, I sought to make the case for liberal arts education and will not repeat it here. Suffice it to note that, for more than 200 years, the liberal arts have provided the platform from which U.S. students developed reasoning and analytic skills that led them to become critical thinkers, able and eager to distinguish opinions from facts and prejudices from truths, alert to the lessons of history and unwilling blindly to accept unsupported claims and assertions.
Of course a trained, skilled workforce is in the public interest. But the welfare of our nation (indeed, of the world) is ever more dependent on thoughtful citizens who can hold leaders accountable. This is what democracy by and for the people requires. And, as former U.S. Supreme Court Justice David Souter said in a recent speech, “It is in the national interest for our STEM scientists to have backgrounds in the humanities and social sciences before they get out of college. They need those habits on the mind.”
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The facts I have recited are well known in academe. When I wrote Liberal Arts at the Brink, I hoped educational leaders would come forward and join together to lead a campaign to restore the demand for liberal arts by educating all Americans about its extraordinary value. In particular, I hoped the leaders of liberal arts colleges, the institutions most directly impacted by the declining demand for the liberal arts, would set aside counterproductive competition and take the lead in such a cooperative undertaking before it was too late. None of this has happened.
One can speculate about the reasons for liberal arts college leaders’ inaction. Perhaps they are unwilling to publicly admit that fewer and fewer students want the kind of education their institutions offer. They may also fear appearing disingenuous championing the liberal arts at the same time their colleges are replacing liberal arts courses and majors with vocational training. College presidents, in particular, scramble so hard to raise money they may lack the time or the energy to pause and reflect. One fact, however, stands out. The overarching commitment of all college leaders is to maintain the viability of their institutions. If this requires abandoning liberal arts, so be it.
If liberal arts college leaders are unable or unwilling to undertake an organized campaign to educate all Americans -- not just high school seniors and their parents but also the high school counselors; business leaders; friends and neighbors; local, state, and national government officials; and countless others who now urge students to study something directly connected to getting a job and not waste their time on the liberal arts -- it seems highly likely no one will. There no longer is reason to believe the decline of liberal arts education will be stayed or reversed.
Liberal arts are over the brink. Some liberal arts colleges will fail or be forced to sell out to for-profit institutions; some already have. Many will quietly morph into vocational trainers. A handful of the wealthiest colleges, probably fewer than 50, educating less than one-half of 1 percent of U.S. college students, may survive. They will, however, no longer play a central role in educating Americans. Rather, they will become elite boutiques, romantic remnants of the past, like British roadsters and vinyl phonograph records.
Valete, artes liberales.
Victor E. Ferrall Jr. is president emeritus of Beloit College and author of Liberal Arts at the Brink (Harvard University Press).
A rash of articles proclaiming the death of the humanities has been dominating the higher education press for the last couple years. Whether it’s The New York Times,The New Republic or The Atlantic, the core narrative seems to be that liberal arts education will be disrupted by technology, it’s just a question of time, and resistance is futile. But I am convinced that not only is the “death of the humanities at the hands of technology” being wildly exaggerated, it’s directionally wrong.
This month on Inside Higher Ed, William Major wrote an essay, “Close the Business Schools/Save the Humanities”. I loved it for its provocative frame, and because I’m a strong proponent of the humanities. But it positioned business and humanities as an either/or proposition, and it doesn’t have to be so.
If John Adams were alive today, he might revise his famous quote:
I [will start with the] study politics and war... then mathematics and philosophy… [then] natural history and naval architecture, navigation, commerce and agriculture [in order to give myself a right] to study painting, poetry, music.
What would take generations in Adams’s day can be done in a single lifetime today because of technology.
Full disclosure: I was Clay Christensen’s research assistant at Harvard Business School, and am now CEO of a Silicon Valley-based technology company that sells a Learning Relationship Management product to schools and companies.
Perhaps the above might be considered three strikes against me in a debate on the humanities -- perhaps I’m already out in the minds of many readers, but I hope not. Please hear me out.
I think that technology will actually enhance liberal arts education, and eventually lead to a renaissance in the humanities, from literature to philosophy, music, history, and rhetoric. Not only will technology improve the learning experience, it will dramatically increase the number of students engaging in liberal education by broadening consumption of the humanities from school-age students alone to a global market of 7 billion people.
It might be overstating the case to say that this will happen, but it can happen if those of us who care about the humanities act to make it so. To do so, we need to accept one hard fact and make two important strategic moves.
The hard fact is that despite its importance, economic value is the wrong way to think about the liberal arts -- and the sooner we accept that reality, the sooner we can stop arguing for the humanities from a position of weakness and instead move on with a good strategy to save them.
Of course, it should be noted that there is certainly considerable economic value in attending elite and selective colleges, from Colgate to Whittier to Morehouse. The currency of that economic value is the network of alumni, the talent signal that admission to and graduation from such institutions confer, and the friendships formed over years of close association with bright and motivated people. But the economic value accrues regardless of what the people study, whether it is humanities or engineering or business.
Moreover, the effort to tie the humanities to economic outcomes cheapens the non-economic value of the humanities. Embracing their perceived lack of economic value allows us to be affirmative about the two things that technology can do to save them: (1) supplementing liberal arts with career-focused education and (2) defining the non-economic value of liberal arts so that we can extend its delivery to those who make more vocational choices for college.
Supplementing the liberal arts with career-focused education such as a fifth-year practical master’s degree, micro-credentials, minors and applied experience is critical to their survival. It doesn’t matter whether the supplements are home-grown or built in partnership with companies like Koru or approaches like Udacity’s Nanodegrees. What matters is that your students see a way both to study what they love and to build a competitive advantage to pursue a meaningful career.
The right technology can be a major part of conferring that advantage by helping students to figure out their long-term career ambitions, connect with mentors in industry, consume career-oriented content, earn credentials, and do economically valuable work to prove their abilities.
But the true promise of technology to save the liberal arts is precisely its ability to lower the cost of delivery -- and in so doing to allow everyone on earth to partake in a liberal education throughout their lifetime. Students shouldn’t have to choose between philosophy and engineering, music and business, rhetoric and marketing. And by lowering the costs, you enable increased consumption -- that is the very nature of disruptive innovations.
Given that my education in economics and business leaves me woefully inadequate to the task of defining the non-economic value of liberal arts, I’ll leave that task to John F Kennedy instead, who said:
“[Economic value] does not allow for the health of our children...or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages; the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials. It measures neither our wit nor our courage; neither our wisdom nor our learning; neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country; it measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile.”
It is for those things that do make life worthwhile that the liberal arts must be saved.
Gunnar Counselman is the founder and CEO of Fidelis.
A Vermont college's new curricular venture enables students to self-publish books -- a project officials hope will aid a largely first-generation student body and give humanities students a "deliverable" for the future.
Recently The Atlantic predicted that one of the top five trends impacting higher education will be a push toward credit given for experience, proficiency and documented “competency.” The recent results of Inside Higher Ed’s survey of chief academic officers also show openness to competency-based outcomes.
For many, myself included, this simply sounds like a series of placement tests and seems like a pretty shallow approach to a college education and degree. However, as vice president of enrollment and chief marketing officer for a residential college, I can’t ignore the appeal of the “validation” of learning this trend suggests.
In fact, I find myself thinking more and more about how residential colleges, with their distinct missions, might respond to the potential threat this trend represents. I find myself hoping we can prove the residential environment results in valuable learning and life experiences beyond getting along with a roommate, asking someone on a date, learning how to tap a keg and configuring a renegade wireless network.
We can do more. Perhaps the idea of competency-based education should inspire us to think differently about how the learning environment of the residential experience is superior. Perhaps there are competencies associated with a residential college we’ve not done an adequate job of documenting?
This will not be easy for most of us. Our natural instinct to “wait and see how good our students turn out” to justify why students should live and learn on campus won’t work this time, as we face a skeptical public and witness more and more college presidents, administrators and boards reconsidering the value of online education. With some intentionality, we can do a much better job of proving why learning in a residential setting is superior.
We need to ask ourselves: Why is the residential campus experience of utmost importance to a contemporary undergraduate education? We must identify the sorts of learning that can only occur in such a setting, and validate, or better identify, the learning competencies that occur outside the classroom on a residential campus.
This will be difficult in an environment defined by shrinking resources, when many resort to thinking about eliminating activities considered not central to the core mission. The instinct is to cut, de-emphasize or keep separate and second. We see this time and time again in any setting that faces difficult choices about resources. But investment, integration and intentionality create a better path forward.
Can liberal arts colleges resist the urge to cut, and rethink how activities in the residential environment are central to the core mission? Can these colleges develop meaningful ways of measuring the value and impact of such activities and how they result in competencies that add value and worth? Can residential liberal arts colleges develop a “currency” that demonstrates they value out-of-classroom learning comparably to in-classroom learning? I hope so.
While many colleges would benefit from integrating out-of-classroom learning, residential liberal arts colleges must do so because of the infrastructure around which our colleges have been built -- residence and dining halls, student activity centers, athletic venues and performance halls. We need to prove these are not just modern amenities, but central to superior learning.
To validate this learning experience, residential liberal arts colleges will need to rethink historic barriers. Learning that occurs outside the classroom can no longer be viewed as “separate and second.”
Extra-curricular and co-curricular transcripts that fully document competencies and outcomes essential to success beyond college must evolve to be fully integrated with the academic program, and valued both internally and externally.
First, residential liberal arts colleges must clearly define the learning outcomes and expectations. This is frequently a faculty-driven exercise. Understanding the knowledge gained from an activity provides a framework around which out-of-classroom learning can be developed. This framework will allow for alignment of purpose and some measure of control about how central an out-of-classroom activity is to the core mission and which competencies are satisfied as a result.
Georgetown University was recently recognized for their excellent programming in the area of preparing student-athletes for leadership. Recognition of activities that successfully align with and even expand learning is critical for the public to be convinced that such activities are core to a high-quality education.
Next, residential liberal arts colleges must create a “currency” that meaningfully recognizes those activities that advance a student’s education, e.g., elective academic credit, a credit-bearing on-campus internship, or certificate for activities that demonstrate substantive interest and professional and personal development.
Student activities might be reorganized into mission-focused areas that provide students with experience not always fully represented in the academic program, but with relevance to a successful application for employment or graduate school.
Some examples might be: Leadership, Teamwork, Civic Engagement, Social Justice, Service Learning, Entrepreneurship and Business Development, Intercultural Understanding, Interfaith and Spiritual Development, Public Relations and Event Planning, and Sustainability. This approach is similar to competency-based certification, but broader than proof that a student can read a balance sheet or do a 10-minute presentation.
Finally, liberal arts colleges should engage in a broader conversation about why they are residential, without saying it’s because they’ve been that way for 150 years. Too many colleges assume students already understand. Such a learning environment can positively shape a student’s character and skillset, and result in sweeter success, but a residential community does not always acknowledge or articulate this success.
With competency-based education in the spotlight, residential colleges have an opportunity to renew a focus on the benefits to students who not only eat and sleep, but also meet colleagues, connect with mentors, challenge themselves in new ways, and develop 21st-century skills and competencies on campus.
If we do not champion and clearly identify the benefits to our students, we are vulnerable to the advocates of no-frills bachelor’s degrees, willy-nilly life experience for credit, online learning, and the commodifiers among us who believe the value of the college experience is test- and content-driven, rather than experiential and residential in nature.
W. Kent Barnds is executive vice president and vice president of enrollment, communication and planning at Augustana College, in Rock Island, Ill.
The atmosphere at the university workshop on online learning was becoming a little edgy, with questions in the air like “What does flipping a classroom really mean?” And, more dauntingly, “Do MOOCs threaten our liberal arts model of education?” A high point occurred when one participant, addressing a panel of faculty and administrators, asked, “What is our solution to these changes?” with the not-so-gentle observation, “Because if we don’t have one, we are road kill.”
The response from the panel was slow in coming -- no big surprise. Fact is, there is no easy answer. That’s because the question of how not to become road kill presumes that we understand why we should not become road kill. It is only through a clear, here-and-now answer to the second question that we are likely to devise a credible response to the first.
So here is a here-and-now context for why. Truly harrowing challenges are upon us: climate change, with its companions, the sixth mass extinction, and ecological overreach, are all bearing down on us potential road-pizzas like a convoy of 18-wheelers.
By the time this year’s graduates are ready to send their children to college, the planet’s CO2 concentration will have reached 450 parts per million, summertime Arctic sea ice will be a thing of memory, and humanity will have committed a dozen future human generations to a minimum 2°C temperature rise. These are the terrifying facts of our current reality, and without proper leadership, our likely fate.
To meet these challenges, people -- our future leaders -- need the best possible technological expertise. More than that, they need to be able to think across multiple time horizons. If only liberal arts colleges provided that kind of relevance.
Well, maybe we do.
My daughter just got home from her first year at college — a liberal arts college. Had she experienced anything, I asked, that spoke to dangers that are so slow that they span generations, but are no less deadly for being slow? She looked at me as if to say, do you really know what you’re getting yourself into? Because that was the whole point of her paper about Virgil’s epic poem, the Aeneid.
This was her experience: She had cried when Aeneas killed Turnus. But more than that, she was outraged. For the sake of a moment of vengeful glory, Aeneas had lost his way from the past to the future.
And that related to my question … how?
Try a little empathy, she suggested.
I eventually got it. This, the early part of the 21st century, is our moment. Our willingness to make painful sacrifices for the latter part of the century depends on our ability to empathize with people we have never met — our future grandchildren. Experience in empathizing across a broad expanse of time is one kind of relevance liberal arts institutions have a lot of experience providing.
A second kind of relevance to those harrowing challenges is directly related to the Internet itself. Few would contest that the Internet is an indispensable asset in describing the complex environmental and societal processes that collectively make up what is referred to as climate change. Put another way, no college graduate today should be ignorant of the potential for Internet-based computational power and knowledge to model and predict future climate.
This potential is, of course, much more general. Broadly speaking, the Internet and liberal arts share something very important. They are both about the creation and use of knowledge through collaborative work. How were Unix, Git, and LaTex created? All were the result of a very liberal-artsy vision for online collaboration.
Can liberal arts colleges provide that kind of relevance, too?
As educators, preparing future leaders to exploit the resources of the internet will require that we move into that space ourselves. We have to learn to recognize the opportunities for new paradigms for learning that the internet has created. One major shift already under way is a reorientation toward student-centered classrooms.
Flipping a class -- so that online lectures are viewed at home and class time is spent in active discussion -- is an example. Flipping isn’t new, but digital technology makes flipping easy, and that is new. It works because it lets humans and computers each do what they do best.
Beyond that are new digital tools that we are just figuring out how to use. Examples are discipline-specific software products like Spartan. Spartan produces molecular electronic structures, in three dimensions, on the computer screen. It lets students see and manipulate these structures by solving the most basic equations known to science. Maybe I’m not making that sound as cool as it is, so let me try again. If you think chemistry is an impossibly difficult, jargon-ridden, mysterious science, you are right. Spartan changes that by making every sit-down experience with it a unique, original investigation into the nature of chemical behavior. This is digital-based pedagogy with methodological muscle, formerly a graduate school tool, now accessible to freshmen. You just have to find a way to make it happen in your classroom.
It is through the combination of these two kinds of relevance -- Aeneas and Unix -- that students at undergraduate institutions, our future leaders, get wired for sound, classical judgment informed by the tools of modern life. And if individual liberal arts colleges can deliver these skills better than most, leveraging the advantages of small classes and inspired mentoring, then we are an important part of the response to that convoy rumbling our way.
These kinds of tools are not online grading, and not MOOCs either. They represent a new kind of information literacy. True, we are not there yet; it will take effort, and a bit of daring, to figure out how to teach tools like these. But as we grow into them, we will discover previously unimagined new paradigms for learning.
Rather exciting, actually, considering the stakes. And not at all like road kill.
Steven Neshyba is a professor of chemistry at the University of Puget Sound.