The historian W.R. Connor has pointed out that the etymology of the word “liberal” in “liberal education” derives from a Greek word for free—a word the Athenians used specifically to distinguish free citizens from slaves. Connor proposes we define liberal arts as “the skills of freedom.”
I like this translation because it emphasizes that a liberal arts education began as a public good, and remains a public good today. It also points to the fact that a liberal education prepares students to manage their world and their lives, and not just their careers. Continue reading
While many of the current critiques of higher education are thoughtful and credible, I am deeply troubled that public confidence in the value of a liberal arts education has eroded at a time when what is found at these special places is so desperately needed by the nation—and the planet.
I, like my fellow presidents, know that there is no education better suited for the 21st century than that found in residential liberal arts college communities: education that teaches individuals to think critically, chase big questions, settle conflicts with civility and reason. Continue reading
At the College of the Holy Cross, we have a distinctive academic and religious mission as a Jesuit and Catholic college. How we appropriate and live that mission in contemporary culture is both an opportunity and a challenge for us, especially as the number of Jesuits living on our campus is diminishing. Further, while our commitment to be need blind and to meet full demonstrated need is an important manifestation of our Jesuit and Catholic mission to educate the under-served, this commitment makes significant claims on our resources.
When I think about the prospects and perils of a liberal arts education in our country today, I think of Charles Dickens’s famous opening to A Tale of Two Cities: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness…we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way.”
It is difficult to read the headlines of any newspaper, the prognostications of any commentator, or the pronouncement of any politician and not draw the conclusion that higher education (and liberal arts education in particular) is bound for perdition—in a crisis of historic proportions, on the brink of economic collapse. Continue reading
Uncertainty about the future can immobilize us, or it can challenge us. If small liberal arts colleges believe they can do business “the way we have always done it” we will be in for big surprises. We need to practice what we teach our students: Be nimble.
I believe a liberal arts education is the best preparation for being nimble, or being able to adjust to the challenges we face as individuals in our careers and lives, and for institutions that must adjust to the dramatically changing rules for higher education. Continue reading
It seems to me that the past two years’ discussions of liberal arts education on the precipice are subsiding. As study after study of what employers really want is published, it is clear that employers seek talent beyond a particular skill set. Instead, they report that they actually prefer someone who is well-educated.
The latest of these was the survey just released by Northeastern University revealing that the majority of respondents did, indeed, consider a well-rounded education superior to job-specific skills. Continue reading
Foremost on my mind is the national imperative that American higher education draw from the full American mosaic in order to effectively prepare the leaders of tomorrow.
Make no mistake, liberal arts education is the single finest form of cultivating emerging human talent and character that this world has ever known. While all liberal arts colleges must contend with economic pressures and the need to demonstrate our value, we are fortunate that the quality of education we offer is exactly what future leaders need.
The challenge that we have at liberal arts colleges is two-fold: first, to move over to the web and internet the part of education that simply transfers information; and, second, to make relationships the core of our education—the relationships that students have with faculty, that students have with coaches, residence hall advisors, and sponsors of clubs, and that students doing internships and service learning have with professionals in businesses, schools, and hospitals.
Two questions dominate my thinking in these days. First, how do we keep high-quality liberal arts education affordable and accessible to talented students in all sectors of our society? Second, how do we translate the long-term, qualitative, and societal value of a liberal arts education to a society that is currently and perhaps even understandably preoccupied with short-term, quantitative, and individualistic concerns? If we cannot resolve the second question, I suspect we will not be able to solve the first.
Our rapidly changing world urgently needs creative, disciplined, eloquent leaders with the courage, integrity, resilience, personal presence, and intellectual tools to tackle complex challenges in health care, education, sustainability, economic growth, and social justice.
At Davidson College, we are using new technologies both to expand our impact and to ensure that Davidson can lead in this new environment through four key strategies: 1) seeking out talented young people from around the country and world irrespective of their financial circumstances, enabling them to thrive at Davidson and beyond; 2) building a challenging curricula based on students doing original work, so that they graduate with a portfolio of work, rather than simply a transcript with grades; 3) offering students significant opportunities in emerging crucial fields, like computer science, global languages, computational biology, cognitive sciences, digital studies, and environmental studies; and 4) moving our students efficiently from our campus to meaningful work in the world.
There’s a great deal on my mind, and on our collective plate, as we consider the future of the liberal arts. As always, we have to continue to rally public support for the value and virtues of a liberal arts education—not a mindset that we have the luxury of taking for granted.
Coupled with that, we are all faced with increasing demands to measure things–like outcomes and products and values–that don’t fit easily with our traditional modes of behavior.
Selective residential liberal arts colleges, which bring together disciplinary scholars dedicated to undergraduate teaching and excellent students, are a uniquely American invention. Despite their accidental roots, on a statistical basis, students at such schools vastly outperform their peers at other institutions, even after controlling for factors such as class, family wealth, and social capital.
The achievements of our students suggest that residential liberal arts colleges are scaled correctly to maximize the human interactions, student-student and faculty-student, that create social and intellectual capital. Continue reading
Liberal arts college presidents speak in compelling language about the wonder of the education provided at our institutions. It is a joy and privilege to deliver this message because we devoutly believe it to be true. But in an increasingly skeptical, consumer-driven, accountability-based world (pressures that are only likely to grow in the future!), there is an acute need to demonstrate in concrete ways, with quantitative data, the life-changing impact of a superb residential college experience.
Presidents must be utopian realists. The act of education requires abundant hope for human growth and for a better world. But our visions must be grounded in a realism that allows us to convert challenges into opportunities by turning them inside out.
Technology, finances, changing demographics, and transformations in knowledge are among the pressing issues that I believe we will eventually translate into opportunities. But for now I worry about the public mistrust of education and the crushing of the social promise of education, a promise we have so long cherished and that has for so long served our country well.
As I enter my second year as president of Shimer College, there are three themes that seem to me central as we think forward about liberal education. While phrased here in larger, more abstract ways, each is critical to our ongoing success in both the dailiness of the college and in our students’ lives.
First and foremost, we must enable those who have not experienced liberal education to understand it, and have access to it. To accomplish this, we must ensure that the public discussion is not only focused on the immediate economic consequences of various forms of education (and training), but also on additional values that may be ends in themselves. Continue reading
Our future depends on how we address the three A’s: affordability, accessibility, and accountability.
First, efforts to control the costs of education are essential due to challenges facing prospective students. Over the last five years, 43 states have cut funding to students, and some grants to benefit scholars have vanished. To compensate for these losses and keep college affordable, institutions must review their internal processes for savings opportunities, such as determining wasteful or duplicated services in operating expenses, implementing green initiatives to lower utility costs, and even freezing or reducing tuition to help students save.
When I see President Obama’s “Score Card” purporting to measure the value and performance of colleges and universities, I ponder how we define “value.”
It’s not that students and families do not deserve to know what are the net costs, graduation rates, average debt, or loan default rates. They might want to know what kinds of jobs graduates find. But are those the best descriptors of our value? I’d like to see other elements that might be even more important for “return on the individual” and the results for our democracy.
I admire Cathy Davidson’s pithy comment about teaching and technology: “If we can be replaced by computers, we should be.” I think that pedagogical challenge is applicable to higher education as a whole and liberal arts colleges in particular. If we are not able to offer and justify an education that is superior to what students can obtain from MOOCs, or other new players in the higher ed marketplace, we will not deserve to survive.
We sometimes regard what has been called a “tsunami” of change as if it were an unexpected disaster, but it is a logical extension at the institutional level of what we have seen happening in the classroom over the last decade or more. Continue reading
Without a doubt, much of the energy on our campuses is devoted to things that feel like the future, such as technology and globalization. My own hope is that we will attend with equal passion to the unfinished business of the present and the past—in particular, our commitment to affirmative action.
Legal challenges to affirmative action continue, even challenges to the careful use of race as one of many factors we consider in the holistic assessment of applicants to our colleges. Continue reading
Like everyone in the nation, my mind is on college affordability. I have a 7-year-old daughter and 4-year-old son. I’ve seen the projections, so they hear “get a scholarship” all the time! And while I agree that we must reverse this trend, I fear the “do more with less” mantra will kill schools like mine where 75% of the students receive the Pell Grant, our endowment is less than $70 million, and we lack alumni who have the wealth to give $100 million gifts, nor the ability to convince the wealthy not to give $100 million to billion dollar endowments.
In my 23 years as a college president, I have never encountered more difficult enrollment conditions. The economy, though stronger recently, continues to shadow college marketing. There is much uncertainty in the minds of students and their families about what their investment of tuition dollars will yield. I believe, however, that the quality and reputation of liberal arts education, the commitment of talented faculty and administrative staff, the attractiveness of our campuses, and other unique strengths will continue to recommend America’s small, national liberal arts colleges as attractive institutions of innovation and advantage.
As the president of the oldest liberal arts college for men in the U.S., it is not surprising that male students are most on my mind. As a result of their ability and determination women now outnumber men 60% to 40% in students seeking a bachelor’s degree. Of the 100 or so most highly selective liberal arts colleges, only 25 enroll at least 1,000 men.
At Hampden-Sydney College, we are committed to determining what works when it comes to attracting and graduating young men. However, I am convinced that we must not wait until these young men arrive at our campuses. Continue reading
When I wake in the middle of night, I find myself worrying about the de-valuing of education in our society. The so-called news media rarely educates, but rather entertains. Videos of cute kittens are more prominent than in-depth analyses of the Middle East. Tweets are more common than treatises. And calls for affordability in college pricing rarely if ever refer to the quality of education to which all Americans should have access. Cost and price are disassociated as if the education received as part of a 250-student lecture were equivalent to that achieved in a 10-student seminar.
Amid claims that emergent technologies are leading to a sea change in higher education, small colleges like Lafayette and Ursinus are wagering that liberal learning will continue to have value. Our colleges are committed to dimensions of liberal education that are not replicable by online technology.
I believe there is a difference between education as a commodity and education as practice. Clayton Christiansen talks about the commodification of knowledge and of teachers, so that these can be presented as standardized modules for easy consumption. By contrast, liberal education is more a matter of inculcating habits of mind and heart.
What is foremost in my mind today is the same question that has preoccupied me for much of my 23 years as president of St. John’s College: How can our colleges remain alive to learning and to making the discriminating choices we expect of our students?
Fortunately, I am brought back to this question regularly by our thoughtful students whenever they think we may have betrayed a commitment to free inquiry or become bogged down in the inconsequential. A liberal education ought to free the intellect, imagination, and spirit from the pressures of the moment, the prejudices of the day, and the allurements of novelty in order that the individual may come to a sufficient understanding of the self and of the surrounding world to make intelligent choices about how to live.
Many things concern me. Many of these same things concerned me 22 years ago when I first became a college president. But among the things that concern me most, now, is the slippage we are seeing in making need the principal basis for awarding financial aid. To distinguish between “merit” (which means non-need) and “need-based” (for those who are also meritorious) aid is to play a word game that is clever but also subversive.
For many years, the kind of education offered at residential liberal arts colleges has been the undergraduate gold standard. At small liberal arts colleges, in particular, talented and motivated students have developed skills of critical inquiry and analysis; excellence in written and oral communication; scientific literacy (created in part through actual research using graduate-level instruments); and confidence born of close interaction with top teacher-scholars – in short, the skills and habits of mind that would enable them to achieve successful careers and fulfilling lives.
As an economist and a president, I’m concerned that the growing emphasis, especially from the federal government, on affordability, job preparation, and student loan debt (and default) is shifting the focus from what we do best—provide a liberal arts education that nurtures creativity and innovation at a level that few other institutions on this planet can match.
Yes, these economic issues are important. But a greater distinction needs to be made among the more than 4,000 institutions of higher education in the U.S., including community colleges, public two- and four-year colleges and universities, private nonprofit colleges and universities, and a rapidly growing for-profit sector—all with economic models that differ in important ways.
I’ve just finished reading a glowing article about our Psychology Department in the American Psychological Association’s Monitor on Psychology, so I have a broad smile on my face and the transformative power of great teaching on my mind. The article highlights our students’ success in conducting and presenting research, and quotes the department chair on her philosophy of “taking students’ ideas into account, being as excited for students as they are about their future and guiding them to where they want to be.”
There are at least three big questions on my mind right now. Maybe four.
First, what must we change right now, in today’s world, in order to enhance Earlham’s position as a leading national and international liberal arts college?
Second—after doing all we can to address question #1—have we done enough, or must we explore more fundamental changes in both our business model and the structure of our academic program to meet the demands of tomorrow’s world? Continue reading
There can be little doubt that this is a time of dramatic change in the American system of higher education. The cumulative impact of a challenged economic model, public skepticism about educational value, changing demographics, and powerful new technologies, will inevitably transform our system in ways that remain unforeseen. In the midst of this perfect storm, liberal arts colleges must build on their long record of innovation and accomplishment to lead the way in undergraduate education. The crucial challenge for us all is to embrace the changes that can help us to be better while maintaining those practices and traditions that define who we are. This is a time of special opportunity.
Daniel H. Weiss, President, Haverford College
The challenges and opportunities of assessment are clearly here to stay and at many institutions, my own included, we have moved beyond the inevitable initial befuddlement and instinctive resistance. While full attainment of the ‘culture of assessment’ might be one of those objectives that recedes nearly as fast as one approaches it, it is now coming distantly into view so that some follow-on questions are increasingly on my mind. Questions such as:
Technology is transforming education from the inside and the outside. Some of the most powerful changes are occurring at the heart of scholarship and knowledge creation, and broad changes in the way society connects to information and knowledge have altered the frame through which the model of selective, place-based education is viewed. Even as we in the liberal arts continue to celebrate the power of face-to-face interaction in the classroom and the solidarity of learning in community, our campuses have become fully hybrid worlds where students and faculty alike are never very far from their “devices.” If success for colleges and universities was defined for the past 30 years as a niche competition based on wealth and prestige, in the next decades success will go to the institutions that engage most robustly and effectively with the forces that are reshaping our world.
A. Clayton Spencer, President, Bates College