Policy makers, politicians and the general public have been doing a lot of hand-wringing over the idea that liberal arts programs are fatally out of touch with the job market. But, in fact, liberal arts majors are not as badly prepared as people fear -- and graduates with other majors may be less prepared than they believe.
It is true that recent liberal arts graduates have consistently had a higher unemployment rate than other bachelor's degree holders: 8.4 percent compared to 7.5 percent for college graduates overall, according to a 2015 study by the Center on Education and the Workforce at Georgetown University. Yet the core skills that liberal arts students acquire have never been more relevant to the job market. And those students can, in fact, virtually double their current employability with relatively little additional effort.
Job postings provide a view of the skills employers value most -- and of those that have been hardest for businesses to find. Across the full spectrum of jobs, what employers seem to call for, above all else, are foundational skills like writing, research, analysis, critical thinking and creativity. An analysis of job ads by my company, Burning Glass Technologies, which studies the job market, shows that fully one-third of all skill requirements listed are foundational -- even in technical fields like IT. And the data indicate that employers are coming up short when it comes to identifying people with these skills. The most consistent, cross-cutting skill shortage in the job market today is for one of the most basic abilities: writing.
Or consider this: across the labor market, many of the jobs that are both fastest growing and in highest demand are those that bring together different skill sets, like marketing and data analysis, or graphic design and programming. Such positions, which have grown by 53 percent over the last four years alone, are often hard to fill because technically oriented training programs tend to be tightly focused. By contrast, these “hybrid jobs” require people who can bridge domains and synthesize ideas.
Liberal arts graduates may not have direct training in those domains, but the liberal arts live within the core framework of interdisciplinary synthesis and critical evaluation. That’s a world apart from more technically oriented programs that dispatch their graduates into the workforce with a fixed portfolio of skills that, while marketable, may be of fleeting currency. In fact, even within a given occupation, the core work activities can evolve quickly, rendering a “practical” program obsolete. In the fast-growing field of data analysis, the entire skill set has shifted over just a three-year span away from pure statistical computation to place much more emphasis on visualization and business analysis.
Doubling the Open Positions
So why aren’t employers fighting over liberal arts graduates the way they compete for STEM majors? The problem is that, while employers need the capabilities students accrue in the humanities, they also expect their hires to have the specific technical skills to be productive from day one. That may seem like an unresolvable conflict, but arming students with both foundational and practical skills may be more feasible than one might think.
As things stand now, Burning Glass research shows that only one-quarter of all entry level jobs requesting a B.A., or roughly one million positions, are likely to be open to liberal arts graduates. They include positions like recruiters, administrative assistants, store managers, account representatives and others that may not measure up to the ambitions students or their families may have had for their college investment.
Now compare that with the options for a liberal arts graduate who has also acquired some specific technical skills, such as marketing, sales, business, social media, graphic design, data analysis or IT networking -- skills that can be picked up without a full degree. They can be learned in nondepartmental classes, a minor, an internship or a noncredit program outside of college.
With these skills, the number of jobs open to liberal arts majors nearly doubles, from 25 percent to 48 percent of entry-level bachelor’s positions. On top of that, the incremental jobs pay on average $6,000 more. Not only are more jobs available but also our research shows employers actually prefer the combination of broad knowledge and specific technical skills -- when they can get it. Even IT departments need people who can write.
Taken as a whole, this paints a picture of the liberal arts that doesn’t look at all like a discipline in crisis. Rather, it looks like a discipline that hasn’t acted on an easy solution.
The reason higher education hasn’t focused on that easy solution is because it’s been consumed by a lazy debate about whether students should pursue liberal arts or whether they should be channeled into more vocational majors. We end up arguing about the value of truth and beauty pitted against technology and commerce or about how closely educators and employers should work together. The subject is so prickly that some academics dismiss the argument that liberal arts graduates possess skills of value to the market as demeaning to the discipline.
Doubling the number of jobs open to liberal arts graduates would go a long way toward ending this lazy debate. They certainly do have value, and employers know it. It’s just that liberal arts have twice as much value when combined with some specific technical skills.
Seizing this opportunity, however, does mean that colleges have to relate to students in a different way. Fortunately, several practical strategies have emerged for making this transformation:
Give students a road map to a career. Most academic advising is focused on getting students the courses they need to graduate in their major. In some cases, such as pre-med, advising is built around getting into a graduate school. But rarely is it built around what students need to make successful transition from college to career.
For example, one of the most bankable skills in the workforce is also one of the most mundane: using spreadsheets, particularly Microsoft Excel. Even among high-skill jobs, a whopping 83 percent require knowledge of Excel. But how often do students majoring in programs like anthropology, English literature or political science hear this from their advisers?
The fact is most advisers are themselves academics, so expecting them to be able to dispense detailed career advice may be unrealistic. This is where technology can help. Career applications can tell students what kinds of jobs will be accessible to them and what skills they will need to get there, enabling them to pick courses on the periphery of their liberal arts degree that will give them the practical tools to achieve good career outcomes.
Far from threatening the liberal arts, such an approach empowers students to take intellectual risks. Studying anthropology or the classics may not seem so impractical when there’s a road map showing students what other courses will ensure their employability.
Package courses around skill sets. Higher education already thinks in these terms: concentrations, specializations, certificates and other ways of bundling course work together in a meaningful way. Such packaging can provide useful signposts for liberal arts students thinking about the future -- and for employers looking for relevant talent. And it’s a way for students to try out different fields to see if they fit. In many cases, the necessary courses already exist. It is only a question of pulling the threads together.
That requires a certain amount of interdepartmental cooperation, traditionally not the strong suit at many institutions. Want to go into human resources? The sociology department’s organizational theory course, plus the political science department’s survey research course, plus the history department’s industrial relations course, plus the economics department’s introductory stats course would be a compelling cluster. Here, too, starting with an awareness of demand -- which jobs represent compelling targets and which technical skill bundles do they require -- can be useful in ensuring that there is a governing logic to the catalog of certificates that the institution curates.
That also requires being open to new ways of packaging skills. To go back to our earlier example of a career signpost, everything from full-semester courses to one-day training sessions on spreadsheets is available. The right approach for a particular student is going to depend on the career she is likely to pursue and how the course offering is structured.
Remember that when students reach the job market, skills are everything. Departments that are technically or professionally oriented already know this. Just as college faculty members expect students to show up ready to learn, employers expect new hires to show up ready to work.
You can see this in employer postings for entry-level jobs and even internships, where companies are quite specific about the skills students need to even be considered. Perhaps it’s no surprise that internships in IT and related fields demand knowledge of SQL or C++. But even in fields like finance, communications and design -- the kinds of careers to which many liberal arts students aspire -- employers call for interns and fresh graduates to have specific knowledge of social media, particular accounting software, Adobe Creative Suite and the like.
Faculty members in career-oriented departments make sure to build those skills into their courses. It’s hard to imagine a student getting through a design program without knowing Photoshop. And while it’s unreasonable to expect that the history department will similarly align its instruction to the demands of the market, liberal arts programs owe it to their students at least to point them in the right directions.
The most striking thing about the employment challenge facing the liberal arts is that the solution lies so close within the academy’s grasp. Indeed, providing students with a career map that leads through the liberal arts can only strengthen their appeal.
How many business students would be majoring in humanities if they felt confident they could still have a career in business after graduation? This approach requires no major curricular overhaul, no fundamental change to how colleges teach the arts, humanities and social sciences. It should not be a distraction from the fundamental role of these fields: to explore the connections across knowledge and evaluate ideas critically.
The lazy debate between art and commerce, in the end, will advance neither one. If employers truly value skills like writing and critical thinking -- and the evidence clearly says they do -- then abandoning America’s liberal arts heritage will only make a skills gap worse. And if the liberal arts become a luxury item, pursued only by those willing to make a financial sacrifice, then their influence in the fabric of American intellectual life will wither as well. The good news is that this lazy debate can be ended. It just requires an acceptance that a fulfilling career is as much a part of a life well lived as broad knowledge for its own sake -- and a new approach to making both accessible for students.
Matthew Sigelman is chief executive officer of Burning Glass Technologies, which delivers job market analytics to empower employers, workers and educators to make data-driven decisions.
Submitted by Aden Hayes on August 6, 2015 - 3:00am
Just over two years ago, I wrote to the campus community to reveal the dire financial situation of our college. It is painful to recall the details, but revenues were falling, we were in serious debt and we had no viable plan for paying off what we owed in order to move forward as an institution.
After 24 months of difficult decisions and sometimes painful implementations, today I am both pleased and proud to tell you that St. Bridget’s is well on the way to reversing our indebtedness and putting the college on a solid financial footing. As part of this process, we are modernizing and streamlining the college to face the rest of the 21st century.
It has not been easy, and I thank all members of the community who took the time to understand our situation, contributed ideas and supported the sometimes painful, radical change that was necessary to save our college.
Part 1 of This Series
In an earlier essay, Aden Hayes
suggested that many small
colleges are kidding themselves
about their financial viability, and
imagined the conversation they
should be having. Read more.
In June 2015, the Board of Trustees met to discuss our very difficult situation and to make major decisions. It was decided -- correctly, I think -- that the college needed fundamental changes, and not simply a fund-raising effort to “Save St. Bridget’s.”
At its meeting two years ago the board recognized that we faced major challenges and felt that all of us -- including me -- needed advice, counsel and guidance in achieving the turnaround we all sought.
The board approved the retention of an experienced, nonprofit consultancy to help us strategize. But it was the board’s call to the entire college community to step forward with ideas, with energy and with inspiration that really set us on the right track.
With the help of faculty members, administration, students and our strategic consultancy partners, we have together achieved marvelous results:
Outreach. Our first goal was to reverse declining enrollments and a low yield rate. Of the five administrative positions that were eliminated as part of our restructuring plan, three professionals transitioned to the newly expanded and fortified office of St. Bridget’s Outreach.
The initiatives undertaken by this office are most impressive: presentations at more than 200 high schools in our state and in other parts of the Northeast; a highly successful online information campaign involving social media; the naming of five St. Bridget’s seniors as brand ambassadors with responsibility for outreach not just through local high schools but via clubs, sports teams, young enterprise projects and other affinity groupings; the establishment of a permanent representative of the college in the largest city in our state with responsibility for communication to high schools, interaction with media, assistance to college personnel and students when they visit the city, and serving as institutional ambassador.
Study abroad. Eighteen months ago we transferred our tiny study abroad program from London -- where it competed with nearly 80 other U.S. college and university programs -- to Sanya, on Hainan Island, China, a beautiful, small university city. We have partnered with Quingzhou University, and changed our model from exclusively classroom study to intensive Mandarin and Chinese culture classes combined with internships at local companies and organizations. This has proved to be a very popular option, and we have moved from barely breaking even with our own students in London to hosting young people from seven U.S. colleges in our new program, set to increase to 12 partner colleges in 2018.
In addition to being much more practically oriented than the London classroom and library experience, our Sanya program represents a significant source of income for St. Bridget’s and is on target to position us among the leaders in experiential education in China.
Teacher training. Working closely with our nonprofit consultancy and the St. Bridget’s Education Department, our education major has received a significant upgrade. Students now do a full major in an academic field, in addition to their education courses and teacher training. This has resulted in a significant strengthening of both the Education Department and the major. We have partnered with six local school districts to receive our students as practice teachers in their final year of study, and of the 41 St. Bridget’s seniors who did their practice teaching this year in our partner school districts, 35 have received job offers to start full time in August.
Part-time adult learners. We have established an office dedicated to adult learners from the surrounding community, including active-duty service personnel and spouses at nearby Fort George Patton. We have applied to be placed on the approved list of institutions under the Military Tuition Assistance Act, whereby the Department of Defense pays tuition and fees directly to the college, for approved courses.
Using the validation and accreditation criteria of Excelsior College, we have begun to accept credits for learning done outside the traditional, four-year residential college system. This will be especially important for our adult learners seeking a St. Bridget’s degree.
Online learning. St. Bridget’s has joined the Liberal Arts Consortium for Online Learning, and we have incorporated Coursera content into two of our highest-enrollment courses, American History and The American System of Justice. Plans are underway to use Coursera in at least five more popular courses, which will produce significant savings in instruction costs in those courses, and free up faculty to provide a wider range of courses in their specialties, or for other teaching and administrative duties on campus.
Equally important, Professors Smith and Higgenbottom of the St. Bridget’s Biology Department are at work with colleagues from two other regional liberal arts college to produce a complete, online Fundamentals of Biology course aimed at nontraditional learners. This initiative, and its spin-offs, may bring significant revenue to our college.
Centralized purchasing. We have partnered with an agency whose sole job is purchasing for more than 100 college campuses across the Northeast. With their economies of scale, they are able to receive price discounts that we could never achieve on our own. As a result, academic departments are no longer responsible for their own purchasing, and everything from paper to toner to ballpoint pens is now uniform across campus. As soon as stocks are exhausted and need to be replaced, this will run to whiteboards, laser pointers and other durable goods.
Generating nontraditional revenue. We have sold All Saints Hall to a Singapore investment fund and leased it back at a stable rent for a period of 10 years with an option for a further 25 years. And we plan to sell two more college buildings within the next year. This initiative alone is programmed to bring in $2.5 million in the period through June 2018.
Outsourcing. We have contracted for many campus services, including landscaping and snow removal, so that we pay for these services only as we need them. We have sold all landscaping and snow removal equipment to the contracted firm, generating revenue in the five figures.
Enrollment upgrade. Working with our consultant partners, we have upgraded our enrollment software and streamlined the application process. Prospective students now automatically get individualized follow-up communication tailored to their academic interests and are put into contact with faculty in the areas where they might study. All this has meant a much more personalized application and acceptance process, and I am pleased to say that this past spring we admitted approximately the same number of students as we did two years ago, but the yield rose from 35 to 68 percent -- a significant increase in the number of students who have committed to St. Bridget’s for the coming fall.
Our streamlining has necessitated some difficult decisions that affected our community:
We have closed two academic programs that had been underenrolled for years -- including the interdisciplinary program in Northeast Studies, which competed directly with a similar program at the nearby state university. Three departments had their majors eliminated -- German, anthropology and creative writing -- and were merged into one service department providing 100- and 200-level courses to fulfill the college’s general education requirements.
Nine faculty positions were eliminated, and some of these faculty members found other academic jobs outside St. Bridget’s. For six who did not, the college contracted a professional counseling and coaching service specializing in transitions from the academic to the private sector.
Those are some of the initiatives we have undertaken in the past two years. But we are not stopping there. By June of 2018 I hope to announce more major changes, at least in the following areas:
We will be merging all foreign languages into a single department. At least two foreign language majors will be eliminated, and these languages will become service departments. They will take the initiative to partner with stronger departments to add language skills to business, education, psychology, criminal justice and possibly other majors. I emphasize that this initiative must be led from the departments themselves, not directed from my office.
The provost, the Academic Affairs Committee and I will begin to look at the research interests and production of faculty members, particularly in the humanities, with a view to encouraging these interests to become more closely aligned with teaching duties. We want research to result in more effective teachers, and research at St. Bridget’s should be aimed, first and foremost, at improving instruction on our campus, and these priorities will be taken into consideration in tenure and promotion decisions.
Research and publication will benefit faculty members at other institutions only insofar as their aims, like ours, are laser focused on the highest-quality teaching performance.
Under the guidance of our consultants, we are looking into joining an online library consortium, using the collection of Johns Hopkins University, one of the top-ranked institutions in the nation. This will reduce the need for new book purchases and eliminate subscriptions to very expensive scientific journals. For the time being, the current library will continue to operate as a basic study resource with a skeletal staff.
As I said earlier, we plan to sell and then lease back two more buildings on campus and are in the process of determining which those will be.
We are also determined to move the few St. Bridget’s sports teams still competing in Division II to Division III. Athletic scholarships will be eliminated, and we plan to apply the savings achieved to strengthen intramural and club sports, with a view to participation by a maximum numbers of students, at a wide range of skill levels.
At the suggestion of Professor Kim of the Computer Science Department, we have decided to change the configuration of several college office buildings to free up space. Although this is still in the planning stages, it is our vision that only heads of administrative departments and chairs of academic departments will have private offices. All other staff will share open spaces for university-related duties, and they will be assigned desks based upon need. Conference rooms will be available for professors’ office hours as well as other meetings, and these will be assigned on a full-semester or one-time basis. Following a trend in the IT and other industries, the college is contemplating a one-time subvention for faculty to set up home offices.
There will be more initiatives for the improvement and streamlining of our college, and I look forward to working with you on these, in due course. Meanwhile, I again thank the entire St. Bridget’s College community for its help, support and enthusiasm in our turnaround.
Aden Hayes is executive director of the Foundation for Practical Education.
The announcement of the closing of Marian Court College, with faculty disclaimers (“didn’t realize it was as dire as it was,” and the president’s dreaming (“hopeful the college would remain open”), should pull us back to the realities that have been set out very clearly for years -- by the Bain Report, by Clayton Christensen, by Thomas Frey, by Nathan Harden, by dozens of others:
Many, many colleges are working with a business model that simply cannot sustain them, and tinkering around the edges with defective enrollment management software, combined majors, a part-time (as yet unaccredited) M.B.A., or Saturday classes is almost a distraction from the main challenges of shrinking demographics, low-cost online instruction and skills validation, and the imminent tightening of government money that has been pouring into the mix.
The problem is compounded because so many college leaders can barely discern the symptoms of the malaise and are blind to their underlying, rampant and immutable causes. It is only natural that those who have trained to manage the status quo first and foremost long for its return. In no other industry -- with the possible exception of organized religion -- is so much wealth entrusted to people so unequipped to manage it.
The shock is not that the college closed -- it is that no one saw it coming.
But Marian Court was not unique. It was among the country’s vulnerable institutions, and there are hundreds of them: tuition dependent, with enrollments under 1,000, small or shrinking endowments, significant tuition discounts, high admission rates with low yields, and low retention rates.
St. Bridget’s also fits these metrics. It is a private, coeducational, not-for-profit liberal arts college in the Northeastern U.S.: a fictional composite based on real institutions like Marian Court -- some now closed and some that will close, although they don’t know it yet.
What all have in common is the lack of a full grasp of their true financial situations.
As at St. Bridget’s, at many institutions the administration and even the Board of Trustees will claim they did not have all the necessary data and did not recognize the looming threat to the college until it was too late.
And faculty -- who work with research and analysis every day in their professional lives -- may not have asked the right questions, or did not insist on honest and complete answers.
How many could not bear to put aside that tenure-track research on Theosophy or the ring-tail lemur to learn about boring subjects like deferred maintenance, debt overhang and bond interest rates? Surely some were living on hope: “next year our enrollment numbers will be up,” or “we’re in line for that federal grant that will help us attract veterans.”
Others may simply have been in denial. (How many women’s colleges have stated categorically, “We are not like Sweet Briar”?) But questions of financial health are of vital concern not only to presidents and chief financial officers, but to all whose lives are tied to the college. And any lack of focus is doubly distressing because there exist rough but impartial guides and stress tests that are open to all and can indicate, in general terms, a college’s level of strength or weakness.
But until all constituents consider the future of the campus to be their future, we will see more cases -- certainly dozens, probably hundreds -- like Marian Court (and St. Bridget’s). And more academic professionals will be reading untimely and distressing letters like this one:
From the President of St. Bridget’s College to the College Community
Regrettably, I have bad news about the financial situation of our college.
You all know of our difficulties. Reflecting the numbers from earlier years, last year we accepted 75 percent of all applicants, but only 35 percent of those accepted actually matriculated. And we lost 23 percent of those after their first year.In order to attract qualified students to St. Bridget’s, we had to offer discounts averaging 51 percent of tuition and fees.
In spite of our best measures, our enrollment has dropped by 38 percent over the past five years. Nevertheless, the structure of the college remained the same, and we added some administrative positions to stay within best practice and the law mandated from Washington.
When I took office eight months ago I discovered that the college’s finances were not as they had been painted.On the surface, it looked like we were breaking even: just covering our expenses with tuition-derived income.
But we were misleading ourselves.
During our past fiscal year, while the U.S. stock market rose by nearly 14 percent and the average college endowment earned 15.5 percent, the St. Bridget’s endowment showed an increase of only 2 percent.
In fact, we were spending all tuition revenues and nearly all the income generated by the endowment to keep the college operating. For the past three years, as enrollment dropped, we depended on earnings from our endowment in a strong stock market just to stay alive.
We don’t know if the past president understood this, nor do we know if the question was ever raised in a board meeting.
But now the stock market is weakening. As I’d like to think you all know, following five years of nearly free funds, the Federal Reserve has decided to tighten money supply and raise interest rates. The stock market is losing momentum; our endowment is generating a fraction of last year’s income; student loans will become more costly; and even fewer parents are comfortable borrowing $25,000 to $30,000 per year for a St. Bridget’s education.
We now find ourselves with an operating shortfall of nearly $4 million for this fiscal year. We also have bonds coming due in the amount of $1.5 million, and deferred maintenance on our physical plant that will cost upwards of $750,000. If we pay all this out of our endowment, we deplete that fund by more than one-third and severely limit its ability to generate income in the future.
Moreover, within our current structural model it will be impossible to find savings of $4 million beginning in the next fiscal year, in order to urgently balance the books. To accomplish savings of this magnitude will, at very least, require radical and immediate surgery. This would mean:
Eliminating some departments
Eliminating some programs
Cutting administrative staff
Reducing remaining faculty and staff salaries by at least 20 percent
Eliminating all college contributions to retirement and tuition plans
Selling some of the college buildings
Reducing student services
Taken together, these measures might put our accreditation in jeopardy. Our bond rating by Moody’s might drop even lower, and we would be forced to pay higher interest rates to borrow or to roll over current bonds.
It is with this reality in mind that the Board of Trustees meets this weekend to make major decisions that will impact the future of the college. I ask for your support and understanding in these difficult times.
Aden Hayes is executive director of the Foundation for Practical Education.
Most of us read that Sweet Briar College, a small, private women’s liberal arts college in rural Virginia, announced it would close this summer. The closure can be explained through various factors and reasons: ever-growing deferred maintenance, lack of internship options for students, a rural setting, diminishing public interest in liberal education and single-sex education, an endowment made up of mostly restricted funds, and the simultaneous effects of decreasing enrollments resulting in higher rates of tuition discounts and years of dipping into the unrestricted endowment to cover operating costs.
To be sure, Sweet Briar is not closing due to an absence of quality. Indeed, Sweet Briar was one of the colleges in Project DEEP (Documenting Effective Educational Practice), run by the N.S.S.E. (the National Survey of Student Engagement), which identified institutions excelling at education. Sweet Briar’s fate should worry anyone concerned with maintaining a high quality of undergraduate education in America because some of Sweet Briar’s peers are endangered.
Of the 2,353 Title IV four-year public and private postsecondary degree-granting institutions in the United States listed by a 2013-14 report from the National Center for Education Statistics, liberal arts colleges comprise about 4 percent. And yet research indicates that these institutions do extraordinary things typically not found in any other institution type.
Data supporting this claim of quality can be found in multiple studies (outlined and hyperlinked below), and it deserves some attention because such dedication to uncompromised quality in a close academic community falls on deaf ears in our national conversation that focuses primarily on quantity, scale and technology.
In an address to the American Council of Learned Societies, George Kuh, director of the National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment at Indiana University at Bloomington as well as the founder of N.S.S.E., described these colleges as “built to engage.” Kuh found that students attending these institutions tended to not just obtain new knowledge but also “tend to gain more in intellectual and personal development.” Likewise, graduates of these institutions also tended to be more civically engaged later in life. In other words, liberal education’s commitment to educating the whole person, at least in these contexts, represents both an ideal and an actual reality.
Accordingly, liberal arts colleges also have the highest rates of alumni satisfaction when compared to other institution types in studies by the Annapolis Group and the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, respectively. Students graduate from these colleges feeling positive about their educational experience, the attention from faculty and staff, and their overall development as adults. Alumni are satisfied despite attending institutions that typically carry the highest price tag in America.
Given such positive experiences in undergraduate education, it is no surprise then that on a per capita basis there are more liberal arts college graduates obtaining advanced degrees and doctorates than other institution types, according to Kuh (see also a report from the College Solution for a list of specific institutions). Some may interpret such data to indicate that these graduates need advanced degrees to find employment. Another interpretation would be that these colleges better prepare students for the levels of thinking required for completing advanced degrees of study. While both may have some truth, these data indicate that such graduates are then obtaining jobs requiring more advanced degrees as well.
Another best practice of undergraduate education associated with positive student outcomes relates to student experiences with diversity. A study by Paul Umbach, a professor of higher education at North Carolina State, and Kuh found that liberal arts college students “are significantly more likely than their counterparts at other types of institutions to engage in diversity-related activities and to report greater gains in understanding people from diverse backgrounds.” The research linking best practices of education and liberal arts colleges makes sense given that these schools intentionally cultivate small, engaging academic communities with single-mission commitments to undergraduate education in the liberal education paradigm.
To date, the most thorough summary of the research on both liberal arts colleges and liberal education may be found in "Liberal Arts Colleges and Liberal Arts Education: New Evidence on Impacts." While this report remains too large to summarize in the current article, the authors raise an important distinction based on findings that both confirm and challenge the notion that liberal arts colleges are the best at undergraduate education. The confirming data indicate that students at liberal arts colleges typically experience high-quality teaching and an engaging institutional climate through best practices. This makes sense for these institutions, as they also typically spend more on students than other institution types. Yet it challenges this notion insofar as attending these schools does not guarantee that a student experiences such high quality, therefore these institutions were not found to guarantee better student outcomes (e.g. grades, higher scores on standardized learning assessments). After all, just as a professor cannot force a student to learn, an institution simply being a liberal arts college does not ensure quality. The evidence, however, remains that these colleges typically embody the best of undergraduate education.
Despite all of these indicators of quality, these institutions are disappearing. In his 1994 "Liberal Arts Colleges: Thriving, Surviving, or Endangered," David Breneman determined that there existed 212 institutions that qualified as true liberal arts colleges. To define liberal arts colleges, Breneman first utilized the Carnegie Foundation’s previous classifications of liberal arts colleges I and II and then added his own educational and economic criteria. Educationally, colleges must have few or no graduate programs and must award at least 40 percent of their degrees in the liberal arts and sciences.
These criteria effectively eliminated small comprehensive universities as well as professional or preprofessional colleges. Economically, colleges required similar financial models of revenue and cost in order for Breneman to compare institutions. Vicky Baker, Roger Baldwin and Sumedha Makker reran Breneman’s study and found that after 18 years, 137 institutions remained. For my own dissertation research on liberal education under the mentorship of Breneman, I also reran the study using Baker et al’s sample two years later in 2014 and found that only 103 qualified. After Sweet Briar’s closing, 102 will remain.
While some liberal arts colleges with sizable endowments -- Amherst, Swarthmore and Wellesley Colleges, among others -- will be able to weather storms better than others, I expect this trend will continue in the foreseeable future. Colleges will either close, transform into professional schools, or become small comprehensive universities. In the meantime, we need to study these institutions while we still can so that our understanding of the best model of undergraduate education does not in turn disappear. Further research is needed to explore what precisely faculty and staff do to bring out these positive outcomes, what forms of assessment might be best suited for such intense and nuanced communities of learning, and how essential human-to-human interaction is the learning and development process.
The uncertain future of the liberal arts model serves to bring its most valuable and essential components into clear focus. The foundations of mentorship-style learning with faculty and staff through a breadth and depth of study, community engagement, and residential living on which the model is built must not be allowed to fade along with the popularity of liberal arts colleges. It should, at least, set our standard for undergraduate education as well as inform and enrich our work in other sectors of education, be it other institution types or emerging postsecondary models. After all, how else will we know if other models of undergraduate education can measure up to the high ideals and practices associated with liberal arts colleges?
Jason Jones, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Virginia’s Center for the Study of Higher Education, is completing a dissertation on liberal education.
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.
* * * * *
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).