Liberal arts colleges

Essay calling for new skills to be added to liberal arts disciplines

Up to half of new graduates, by some estimates, are finding themselves jobless or underemployed. Why? As Andrew Sum, the director of the Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University said, "Simply put, we’re failing kids coming out of college." Recent pieces in The Atlantic and The Weekly Standard (claiming that the proponents of the liberal arts have "lost the war" and the liberal arts has been "killed.") and elsewhere place much of the blame on liberal arts programs.

Let it be known, I was a student of the liberal arts (geography, Asian studies) at a liberal arts college (Clark University) and I founded and run a technology company in Silicon Valley. I wouldn’t have it any other way. I want our so-called "soft" studies (humanities, social sciences) to show some spine and create a response. The typical defense of the status quo involves spinning the value of a liberal arts education, pitching the curriculum as promoting the ability to problem-solve, learn to learn, and thrive in a knowledge economy. If the curriculum is teaching such skills as adapting to a knowledge economy, why can’t the professors that teach such great skills to thrive in a changing world employ them with some grace and poise? How can the liberal arts, itself, adapt to a changing world?

Simply put, we need to rethink what our students do to demonstrate their understanding. I’m not suggesting that we stop teaching literature and history and economics and psychology – or that students stop majoring in these fields. But we need to ask students to create, to experiment, to be bold and possibly fail with projects and deliverables relevant in today’s world. We’re too limited by Blue Book short essays and term papers -- in which success is easily measured and bell-curved. If we shift the way we ask students to demonstrate their knowledge within liberal arts fields, we can prepare students for employment by advancing the liberal arts.

We can achieve this revitalization by asking students to acquire and demonstrate 21st-century skills as the activities and assessments within the liberal arts curriculum. No longer can we assign formats that are isolated exercises; they need to be projects that communicate with and potentially affect the wider world. While peer-reviewed journal articles and regression analysis may be the way that professors communicate, the rest of the world has updated its formats. Academe, and in particular liberal arts programs, may be on the verge of being left behind.

What skills could we teach and measure in a new liberal arts?

Visual Communication

Common ways to communicate now include snappy blog entries, reports, collateral material, diagrams, visualizations, illustrations, and infographics. Even scholarly think tanks that discuss the unemployability of undergraduates, such as the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce and the Institute for Higher Education Policy, publish white papers and reports with distinct efforts in graphic design to be distributed for free on the Internet. The Bain Report that famously said a third of all colleges are in poor financial health was released with an interactive website. The term paper should be a dying artifact, and I’m not sure that it is.

Let’s put it this way: as a businessman I wouldn’t pay anyone for a well-written literature review, but I would pay quite handsomely for a brochure that resonates with the audience I am trying to reach. I’d pay more for someone to code it up into a website. Presentations in the work world now model Steve Jobs’ keynotes and TED talks. The governing book on presentation style, Resonate, is filled with directions on communicating bold ideas with simple story structures. The last presentation I saw by an academic was mind-numbingly complex in research and statistical methods. You know what? Nobody paid attention to the research methods; they wanted to understand the key points they should take away, remember, and discuss with others. They were also confused as to why anyone should care in the first place. People walked away feeling like the academic may be thorough and erudite, but that they forgot to communicate in the process.

Liberal arts programs should start with a course on visual communication, and then develop these skills by requiring they be used and demonstrated across the curriculum. These skills include:

  • Graphic design
  • Illustration and animation
  • Photography
  • Oration, rhetoric and narrative
  • Video production
  • Sketching and drafting

Numeracy and Data Literacy

There are broad advantages to people who can hold their own with math, and this is no longer just about understanding the basics behind a calculator and being able to do accounting. We need to face facts: we teach mathematics as if we’re preparing bookkeepers for the pre-computer world, analysts for big banks, or math and physics professors. But there’s an explosion of jobs that need advanced numeracy and data literacy, with data storage, management, analysis, and visualization techniques all as fundamental skills.

This isn’t a back-room skill set anymore. The job of "data scientist" is being created everywhere simultaneously. If you think the only careers for mathematics are in finance and academe, you can just read about what Facebook expects people
on its research team to know. It’s not just tech, either: The New York Times is increasingly using infographics that connect with readers so much someone made a page devoted to them. There is even a startup called that’s entirely devoted to producing infographics at scale. If you’ve met anyone going into policy or business after having "thematic" undergraduate coursework, they’ll likely tell you their job encounters statistics and data in ways that make them wish they’d learned more statistics, spreadsheets, analytical software, and other tools that help generate meaning out of all this data.

The new liberal arts should start with and continually ask students to acquire and practice mathematics as a form of analysis and knowledge creation. The necessary skills include:

  • Data analysis (statistics) and experimentation
  • Data storage and management
  • Applied mathematics and mathematical literacy
  • Algorithms
  • Information design

Application Development

Estonia just decided all of their first-graders are going to learn to code, and an article in Venture Beat claims that the country will as a result "win the Great Brain Race." The same article says our education system is described as "running on empty when it comes to tech literacy, leaving too many young adults unprepared to compete in a digitally driven economy." Matt Mullenweg, the founder of Wordpress, openly and repeatedly explains, "scripting is the new literacy." Yet, the degrees awarded in computer science dropped in the last decade, and the recent uptick isn’t happening fast enough.

Alternately, we don’t necessarily need more graduates with arcane knowledge of computer science; we need all graduates to be familiar enough with code to use the computer, the Internet, and mobile devices as tools. Academe and the American public need to quit viewing computer science as a geeky back-room endeavor. It has little to do with science, or even computers. Coding is about manipulating information to create meaning, which is likely how you would define writing. After all, there’s a reason they call it a computer "language." Students should understand how to develop these applications on the Web, on mobile devices, and even native to the operating system.

A Call to Action

If you agree with Brian Mitchell from the Edvance Foundation, that "the value of a liberal arts degree ... must be that it is as vital, dynamic, and complex as the civilization that values it," then one must agree that the liberal arts must ask students to engage in work and produce end products that our newly digitized civilization values. And the liberal arts must be as dynamic and vital as its academic proponents claims it to be. I believe it is.

Many liberal arts colleges require a foreign language – not because they believe their history majors will land jobs in France or Mexico, and not because they are being trained as translators, but because they believe the skills learned in a new
language create global citizens who are open to and comfortable with interacting in a multicultural, multilinqual world. It’s the same with the above skills. They need to be understood not as a way to turn philosophy majors into geeks, but into telling the world that a philosophy major can be open to and comfortable with, daresay even take advantage of and thrive in a technologically changing world.

Students who graduate with a degree in liberal arts should understand the basic canon of our civilization as well as their place in the world, sure, but they also need to understand how to explore and communicate their ideas through visual communication, data manipulation, and even making a website or native mobile app. If they can’t, they’ll just understand the global context of their own unemployment.


Michael Staton is founder and chief evangelist of Inigral, Inc. Follow him on Twitter @mpstaton



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Today’s economic environment, with its stubbornly high level of unemployment, is pressuring liberal arts institutions to justify the "value proposition" offered by our undergraduate programs. This was one of the concerns that brought leaders together at Wake Forest University for a conference in April, focusing on careers and the liberal arts in the 21st century. In particular, we are being asked to explain how a liberal arts degree advances employment prospects at a challenging time that many believe favors immediately applicable, career-ready skills.

Along with my peers at other liberal arts colleges, I regularly articulate the value of a liberal arts education: providing interdisciplinary opportunities for analytical, problem-solving and adaptive learning that produce graduates who think creatively, innovatively and expansively; express themselves persuasively; and operate ethically as citizens committed to making a difference in a constantly transforming world.

Candidly, many people feel this rationale sounds more philosophical than practical. With more than a decade of experience in the field of career development, I could cite countless examples of liberal arts graduates who embody these skills and whose professional successes would quickly silence the prevailing rhetoric about the practicality of the liberal arts. But rather than cherry-pick stories from the hundreds of students I’ve advised, an analysis of the educational credentials of leaders in the business, nonprofit, and government sectors of our economy may help to stem the notion that a degree in the liberal arts is impractical.

According to the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching’s classification system, there are 270 U.S. baccalaureate colleges that offer arts and sciences programs -- the designation that most closely aligns with the mission of liberal arts colleges and includes Grinnell and our peer institutions. These schools represent a subset of the 4,634 U.S. higher education institutions in the Carnegie database, and just 2.2 percent of students enrolled in U.S. undergraduate programs attend these colleges.

Consistent with these statistics, one might extrapolate that societal leaders would reflect a similar distribution with 2.2 percent holding degrees from baccalaureate institutions offering arts and sciences programs. However, after analyzing data from three distinct sources, a striking difference revealed itself – one that demonstrates a strong correlation between a liberal arts education and career leadership positions in the business, nonprofit and government sectors.

In researching the undergraduate institutions of leaders in these three broad fields, the Grinnell College communications team and I consulted three data sets: for businesses, the CEOs of Fortune 500 companies; for nonprofit organizations, leaders from The Chronicle of Philanthropy’s Philanthropy 400; and, for government, the 100 U.S. senators. In each case, the undergraduate institutions these leaders attended were coded in accordance with the Carnegie classification system.

Overall, 11.33 percent of the leaders across the above three sectors graduated from baccalaureate colleges that offer arts and sciences programs. That’s more than five times the expected 2.2 percent incidence of enrollment in baccalaureate arts and sciences colleges based on Carnegie’s classification. Looking at each sector individually, 11.75 percent of Philanthropy 400 leaders, 12 percent of U.S. Senators and 10.87 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs received their undergraduate education at baccalaureate arts and sciences colleges, i.e., liberal arts institutions.

These findings suggest that a liberal arts education may be a significant contributor to the career success of leaders in the business, government and nonprofit sectors. Today, perhaps more than ever, our nation’s leaders need to be able to strategically think and plan, deftly interpret changing global conditions, effectively marshal expansive resources and collaboratively guide teams of diverse people. Students at liberal arts colleges are challenged and supported to cultivate these skills throughout their coursework and co-curricular activities and then apply them during undergraduate research projects, volunteer experiences, and internships.

In today’s job market, many people are urging liberal arts colleges to refocus our academic efforts on career preparation. While those of us who lead career development programs at liberal arts institutions are very serious in our commitment to cultivating a dynamic learning community that allows students to grow and develop in remarkable ways, we also know that the educational experiences we offer are especially effective in fostering the enduring, broadly applicable skills needed for the workplace of tomorrow. In fact, the data presented here clearly illustrate that liberal arts graduates will not only be well-positioned for career success, but that many of them will be poised to become our nation’s next leaders.


Mark Peltz is associate dean and director of career development at Grinnell College.

Essay liberal arts colleges should ignore reformers and reinforce relationships

I was seated in the bleachers at an away football game when the father of a student-athlete approached me. He was eager to welcome me as the new president of Central College. It was the fall of 2010 and I was climbing a steep learning curve, trying to remember names and faces, and navigating the awkward reality that virtually everyone I encountered knew more than me about the college. It was a time of humble listening, which has proven to be an incredible gift.

This father greeted me with a smile and a handshake, describing his son who was playing on the field. I was warmed by his affection for his son and his very high regard for the college. He told me a story. Early in his son’s freshman year, a biology professor offered students enrolled in an introductory course an extra study session to review the course material before the first scheduled exam. With the encouragement of his father, the son attended the session and reported that his professor joined the study group from 7-9 p.m. For most students, this was likely their first college-level test. At 9 p.m., the professor, a very experienced tenured member of the faculty, stood to leave. As he walked away he said to the students, “I’m going now. Here is my home phone number. If you have any more questions, give me a call any time before 11 p.m."

The father looked me in the eye and said, “I think you should know that this is the kind of college you are leading.” As our conversation ended, I began a journey – one that has enabled me to embrace my role as an educator, to challenge a lot of current assumptions, and to reject much of the conventional wisdom floating around in higher education today.

Welcome to the Party
Less-elite liberal arts colleges,
which have struggled with change
for years, may have some lessons
to teach the elites. Read more.

In 2013, I will celebrate 30 years as an administrator in the college and university setting.  During this rewarding career I have listened with interest to analysts, authors, conference presenters, policy wonks, legislators and colleagues I deeply respect. The prevailing view of liberal arts colleges has been consistent for most of my career. It goes something like this, “Only the very well-endowed, elite institutions will survive. The rest should make other plans.”

I understand the challenges and vulnerabilities facing liberal arts colleges, but we seem to be projecting the demographic and economic challenges of a few institutions – those that have suffered fatal wounds from rapidly falling enrollments, continuous leadership transitions, and fiscal mismanagement – on the entire universe of small, independent, residential, academic communities.We hear constantly about threats of reduction in federal and state funding and a crisis of confidence in the quality of education -- and we hear an amazing number of references to climbing walls.

I must admit to being puzzled. My conversation in the bleachers with Football Dad has been repeated time after time with Transformed Student, Grateful Parent, Committed Alum, Generous Donor and Enthusiastic Business Leader. My constituents are not parroting the pundits. They are contradicting them. So I decided to stop listening to the experts and deepen my conversations with those interested and invested in the learning community I am privileged to lead. The results have placed me on a path to reform I didn’t expect.

James A. Garfield was president of the United States for a brief time in 1881. Though his life was cut short by an assassin’s bullet, historians note his many contributions to our nation. During his years as an undergraduate at Williams College, Garfield was the beneficiary of both the teaching and leadership of Mark Hopkins, who served as president of the college for 36 years during an even longer career as a member of the faculty. Garfield’s admiration for Hopkins is remembered through his still famous quote:

The ideal college is Mark Hopkins on one end of a log and a student on the other.

For educators, the image is poetic. It stands in stark contrast to the rhetoric we hear today. Many voices are calling for an educational approach designed for efficiency – less time to degree completion, fully online programs of study and customer convenience. It’s a very transactional model resting on the individual accumulation of credits, courses and credentials. By checking boxes to fulfill requirements we assume we can efficiently declare an individual educated. It’s all nice and neat.

An education at “the other end of the log,” however, is not transactional – it’s relational. The opportunity for faculty to spend time with students is not at all efficient, but our experience tells us it’s incredibly effective.

The stories I hear from alumni tell of the unexpected twists and turns that naturally accompany learning about ourselves, others and the world. Some describe a sure decision for a major as a high school senior, later set aside when the inspiration of learning set them on a new path. Others recount tales of international study that opened new global perspectives and broader cultural awareness. Interns sometimes discover a reality different than anticipated, leading to a change in direction. It’s all very inefficient, but highly effective if personal transformation is our educational imperative.

A great undergraduate education is by its nature very messy. Our students become explorers of old patterns and creators of new ideas. They journey through tough questions without easy answers. They learn in teams rather than in isolation and are eager to share knowledge and experience. They seek flexibility and customization in shaping their unique experience of learning. They encounter failure and learn how to be resourceful and resilient. An education of this kind is not about job training; it’s about setting the course for a lifelong journey.

My conversations with parents these days are the most interesting. They have really been shaken by the Great Recession. They feel the stakes are very high in making the right choices and they wonder if they are enabling their sons and daughters to make the best decisions – for a lifetime.

That’s a lot of pressure. As I describe the messy version of education and the inevitable wandering path of students they seem to relax a bit. It’s amazing what happens when you tell parents that the ideas first-year college students have about their future lives and careers are wrong most of the time. After the initial shock, I ask them to think about their own life journeys and the extent to which they had it right at the age of 18. The smiles betray the realization that conventional wisdom is not very helpful after all. The gifts we bring as educators are time and space necessary for enabling students to develop many possible futures through varied courses of study, diverse experiential education settings, challenging international opportunities and a customized set of co-curricular activities. 

So here is my current thinking after a two-year journey of listening to my constituents, who have enabled the success of this college for nearly 160 years and have reinforced with me the commitment they have to sustaining this mission for the future.

I have great admiration and respect for institutions in all sectors of postsecondary education. The task of educating our society is enormous, and one size will never fit all. The diversity of higher education has always been its strength.

However, those of us in small institutions need to stop emulating larger ones. When our professional staff members attend conferences, they are often hearing from presenters from larger campuses. The problem is we are failing to contextualize what we are hearing. If our overriding mandate is to be relational, not transactional, then we must carefully filter what we are told is a best practice and embrace only that which will reinforce our educational purpose. 

The range of programs and services, events and activities, and policies and procedures we are told we need to have in place is overwhelming. It’s simply too much for the scale of our institutions. The compartmentalization of our administrative organizations may meet expectations for professional practice, but it’s incoherent to students who survive the periodic trip through the bureaucratic maze. 

The calendar is packed with departmental lectures scheduled against intercultural opportunities, as we seek audiences for concerts and fans for the next game. Individually these opportunities are all very worthwhile, but as a collection they result in low attendance, disappointment from sponsors and fatigue among students. 

Our academic programs are too isolated from one another as specialization has created intellectual distance, departmental focus and divisional separation.I find faculty amazingly tolerant of the organization, but incredibly eager to cross the lines of academic disciplines. For all the time, energy and money we devote to the care and feeding of the organization at all levels, you would think that our efficiency and productivity would result in high levels of satisfaction and rewarding experience for students and faculty.

The reality is quite the opposite. What I hear consistently from graduating seniors, alumni and faculty is that it was the people who mattered most in creating an amazing experience –not the organization. We need to get out of our own way and facilitate the formation of meaningful educational relationships.

For example, Central College is implementing a new education model we are referring to as an approach for Integrated Learning. It’s a back-to-the-future idea about student learning. We have appointed four class deans who will stay with their respective classes of enrolled students for all four years of the educational experience. The first person our admitted students met on campus visits this spring was their dean. Paired with these class deans are four class directors. The class directors are student affairs professionals who are experts in one particular year of the four-year experience. They don’t follow the class, but partner with each dean as the class rotates and the four-year process unfolds.  Applied to this organization is a developmental model that will integrate learning outcomes for students through reasonably predictable stages of development. It’s a cross-functional team approach – each class dean partnered with a class director, the class deans working together as a group, the class directors working in partnership, and altogether we call them “The Great Eight.”

We added no new full-time positions to our faculty and staff ranks to develop this approach. The positions for class deans are being implemented through reduced teaching loads for faculty, enabling them to build this fundamental relationship with students as educators and advisers. The roles of class directors have been crafted through a comprehensive reorganization of a traditional student life office into a program of student development.  The experiences of students in the life of the organization will be different. It’s a relational model. Instead of expecting them to adapt to our organization, we will make the organization meaningful for them in the right place at the right time. For me this is a scaled-up, modern day version of “the other end of the log.”

We need to get back to thinking like educators. In a recent article in Change magazine I offered the following reflection:

It feels nearly impossible to rethink the educational enterprise. It’s tempting to accept so much as given and completely impervious to change. Yet if we believe we are educators, then we want to model for students the integration of knowledge, disciplines and experience to solve complex problems. This kind of problem-solving is very, very messy. But if we want students to learn it, we need to become less concerned about running students through gates for our convenience and more about creating environments that foster such learning – or as some are bold enough to say, personal transformation. 

It’s never been a better time to be a liberal arts college. If we listen to the voices of our core constituents and hear what they truly want; remind ourselves we are educators committed to creating great learning environments; and set aside well-intended, but misguided conventional wisdom, we will find the path forward. 

Mark Putnam is president of Central College in Pella, Iowa. He authors a blog, Mark: my words, and can be reached here.

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