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.
This goes far beyond relatively simplistic data like starting salaries for graduates or self-reported alumni satisfaction. We need to show, with longitudinal data—and ideally with cross-educational sector comparisons, as disruptive and frightening as that may seem—how, over the course of one’s life, a liberal arts education does in fact enable one not just to obtain a first job, but also to advance to leadership positions in one’s chosen profession or in widely different fields.
We need to show that graduates of residential colleges truly do become more engaged citizens and community leaders. We need to show that our graduates actually lead more fulfilling, curiosity-driven lives.
I do not discount the tremendous social science challenges in trying to build such a case over future decades. But if we do not embrace rigorous ways of demonstrating the value proposition of our educational model, others will do so in ham-handed ways—or worse, will simply assume that our claims of educational quality ring hollow.
Steve Poskanzer, President, Carleton College