Tests of Time: Making the Case for the Liberal Arts in an Age of Assessment and Careerism

by Ronald R. Thomas

“The belief that all genuine education comes about through experience,” John Dewey cautioned, “does not mean that all experiences are genuinely or equally educative.”[1] We who are leaders in higher education have committed ourselves to providing students with what we believe to be the most genuine educational experiences possible. And those of us who advocate for the inherent value of a liberal arts education have become accustomed to challenging the assumption that such an education is by definition impractical. We do not accept the simplistic proposition that students must make a choice between an educational experience that is either principled or practical, nor that they must decide between an idealistic pursuit of truth, on the one hand, and a more realistic training for a career, on the other. While we affirm with John Newman that the great idea of the university is that it values the pursuit of truth and the acquisition of knowledge for their own sake, we also believe with equal conviction that a broad education in the arts and sciences, steeped in an understanding of and an appreciation for the principles of the traditional disciplines of knowledge, will produce the most effective and capable citizens. Franklin Roosevelt reminded us that “Democracy cannot succeed unless those who express their choice are prepared to choose wisely,” concluding, “the real safeguard of democracy, therefore, is education.”[2] An education that seeks to instill an insatiable intellectual curiosity and sense of adventure in individuals while it prepares citizens for active and productive engagement in the deliberative and democratic institutions of our society can afford to be regarded neither as elite nor elitist, but must remain an essential aspect of the great American experiment in self-discovery and self-governance.

In an age of growing technological sophistication that demands more and more specialized “skill sets,” what is the basis for our belief that a liberal arts education offers the most “genuinely educative” approach for democratic citizenship? In a culture that is increasingly committed to the value of testing and formal assessment, how should we respond in making the case for a liberal education without conceding that all values are market values? And in an economic context in which a family’s investment in higher education continues to spiral upward and the premium for a private liberal arts education is growing dramatically, how is that case most effectively made—especially when so many believe that whatever else an education does, it must provide credentials for a career?

Our first responsibility is to be as precise as possible about what we mean by a liberal education, what its objectives are, and what you are supposed to have when you get one. Studies have shown that there is general confusion about this subject in the society at large, among opinion leaders, and in our target markets as well. Most of the mission statements in liberal arts institutions affirm that a liberal education seeks nothing less than to equip individuals to reach their full potential as thinking and acting human beings. Such an education is intended not only to transfer knowledge, but to inspire certain habits of mind: to provide experiences that will develop an inquiring, discerning, and responsible intelligence capable of testing ideas, synthesizing information, challenging assumptions, appreciating different cultures and points of view, and making informed judgments. To that end, the curricula of liberal arts colleges and universities call for some combination of depth and breadth of knowledge that includes a broad general education from a number of disciplines and a more focused mastery within a single discipline or major. In addition, a liberal education offers an understanding of how knowledge is organized and interpreted while it imparts skills that foster a life of continuous learning: critical thinking, problem solving, project design and implementation, cross-cultural understanding, interdisciplinary approaches, numerical reasoning, artistic and scientific literacy, written and oral expression.

With the foundation of knowledge and character such an education provides, we maintain that graduates are prepared to take a leadership role in virtually any field, and are equally prepared to adjust to the rapid changes of a global and hi-tech economy that will increasingly call for flexible talent and creative career adjustments. Along with Socrates, a liberal arts education affirms the ideal of the examined life; and like Aristotle, it maintains that a final judgment about the quality of a life can only be made once the whole life has been lived. The key question for us is how to translate these messages for the audiences that need to hear them and how to provide convincing evidence about how effectively we are reaching these objectives. For many, a liberal education still means taking a lot of courses in literature and art that don’t have much demonstrable practical value. One feature of the case we must make to prospective students and their parents is that college costs are not merely an investment in a career, but an investment in the quality of an entire life. We must be wary about being drawn into a purely market-based apologia for an experience in which worth is a function of price. “The great object of education should be commensurate with the object of life,” Ralph Waldo Emerson declared in his classic essay “Education,” concluding that that object “should be a moral one.” On the ultimate value of such an education, he added in that same essay, “a new degree of intellectual power seems cheap at any price.”

Despite this firmly held conviction that there is moral worth as well as practical value in a liberal arts education, it is clearly not the case that those of us is the liberal arts have neglected systematic performance assessments along the way. On the contrary, assessment efforts now inform virtually everything professional educators do. Over the last two decades, assessment has become the watchword of regional and national accreditation agencies for colleges and universities. It has become a factor for institutional selection by prospective students who study the rankings and ratings of institutional quality by a proliferation of publications from U.S. News & World Report to the Princeton Review. And an increasing reliance on assessment in the form of survey and data collection has established offices of institutional research to monitor strategic indicators, program effectiveness, student satisfaction, and planning priorities for practically every institution of higher learning in the country today.

Since Kenneth Feldman and Theodore Newcomb published The Impact of College on Students in 1969, an extensive literature on the effectiveness of higher education has developed, spurred by the steep climb of college costs in the 1980s and the increasing technological capability of collecting and analyzing information. Ernest Pascarella and Patrick Terenzini synthesized much of this work from these two decades in How College Affects Students (1991), while A. W. Astin published two influential books—in 1977 and in 1993—that focused upon the growing importance attributed to educational environments in shaping the outcomes of a college education in the “four critical years” of a student’s life. [3]

More recently, Marc Chun, a fellow at the RAND Corporation’s Council for Aid to Education, has organized the several forms of assessment we perform in higher education into four categories, and reviewed each for its advantages and drawbacks. Actuarial or archival data are made up of the figures we collect to record graduation rates, student/teacher ratios, graduation rates, endowment levels, student body composition, admission test scores, selectivity rates, etc. While it is methodologically the most “objective” in its application, this approach tends to equate quality with greater financial resources and student selectivity. A second form of assessment, the ratings of institutional quality published in magazines and college guides generally survey peers and “experts” in the field and combine these opinion surveys with certain actuarial data. Assessments of this kind are unscientific at best, methodologically arbitrary at worst, and the results generally depend more on reputation than on performance. A third approach to assessment makes use of surveys that collect data directly from students about their satisfaction with, the outcomes of, and the professional benefits produced by their educational experience. These student surveys—like the National Survey of Student Engagement, the Cooperative Institutional Research Program, the recent Annapolis Group Alumni Study, or the Goals and Values of COFHE Students study—suffer, by definition, from the limitations of self-reported data, the dependability and comparability of which are often difficult to assess. The last category of assessment is direct assessment of student learning, including analysis of grades, administration of standardized tests, skill-performance measurement, and evaluation of student projects. Direct assessment is the least systematically applied, since it depends upon reaching general agreement about what learning outcomes should be measured and the most effective way to do that. It carries with it the further danger that the assessment instrument sometimes narrows and degrades the educational experience rather measuring its effectiveness (as we are finding in many secondary schools’ mastery exams where teachers often “teach the test” rather than the subject).[4]

While most of us practice a number of forms of assessment all the time, many of us who are champions of a liberal education remain uncertain about how best to measure the real worth of the educational experience we offer our students, and we are more than a little skeptical about the effectiveness of surveys and spread sheets. We often prefer to rely on anecdotes about our most impressive alumni in making the case for institutional effectiveness: we like to talk about the CEO at Goldman Sachs who majored in classical studies, the accomplished surgeon who won the senior class poetry prize, or the civil rights attorney who was a biology major. These life stories are compelling and are well-worth telling. But we have not been as effective as we will need to be in demonstrating the long-term effects of a liberal education for the enhancement of the quality of an individual mind and, at the same time, for the collective benefit of the national body politic. That is our challenge.

We practitioners of a liberal arts education are very much aware that the Carnegie Foundation classifies only 228 of the 3941 institutions of higher learning in this country as 4-year liberal arts institutions and that enrollments in these institutions comprise less than 6% of the market—which is now a record high 15 million enrolled students in America. We are also cognizant that, except for a small rise between 1955-70, the number of liberal arts degrees being awarded has actually been declining for nearly a century, now more precipitously than ever, despite the fact that the number of students enrolled in higher education has risen so dramatically. Quite clearly, while colleges and universities like ours enjoy a shrinking share of the higher education market, we have a more and more distinctive—and we might even say, essential—alternative to what may be called consumer education. At the same time, applications to the top liberal arts colleges and research universities have never been higher, a demand that bears out our belief that in a global economy of change and challenge the most productive and successful citizens are those with the critical skills and capacity for judgment a liberal education provides. The performance of our graduates also proves the point. While liberal arts institutions enroll less than 6% of the students currently engaged in higher education, we like to tout, some 60% of the Fortune 500 CEOs graduated with liberal arts degrees. Liberal arts college graduates also comprise a disproportionate percentage of admissions to medical school and PhD programs in the sciences year-in and year-out.

A number of recent initiatives and studies seek to bring additional empirical evidence to that claim. One example, the Value Added Assessment Initiative, funded by the RAND Corporation and promoted by the AAC&U, calls for the implementation of a direct assessment mechanism in higher education that will declare with much more specificity “what kinds of capacities we want our students to achieve in college, why we think these capacities make a difference, and what progress we are making in helping students achieve them.”[5] The purpose of the VAAI is to guide institutional development and to shape public policy, with its advocates arguing that “unless the academy constructs an educationally efficacious system, one may well be imposed from outside.”[6] This initiative calls for assessment exams modeled after the LSAT to be built-in to college curricula, measuring at key intervals over time how institutions are performing in gradually developing of a set of key skills associated with educational effectiveness.
On another front, the Annapolis Group study, “What Matters in College after College,” offers a comparative alumni survey approach to the question of educational outcomes. The Annapolis study offers evidence that liberal arts colleges are clearly doing something right in the cultivation of critical skills for success in their alumni. The results show quite convincingly that Annapolis Group alumni were far more likely than graduates of any other category of college or university to credit their undergraduate experience in helping them develop skills vital to their success in careers, capabilities that earlier educational research has shown to be positive indicators of an effective education: problem solving, decision making, analytical thought, effective writing, relating to people of different backgrounds, and new-skill apprehension. Specifically, alumni from these schools attributed these outcomes to the sense of community they developed with other students in the residential setting, the faculty mentors they met and developed in small class settings, the research they were able to perform as undergraduates with teaching-oriented faculty, and the leadership role they took in various extracurricular activities. In some of these categories, Annapolis Group institutions more than doubled the performance of the top 50 research universities. Moreover, Annapolis alumni were far more likely to graduate in four years, to successfully earn a graduate degree after graduation, and to rate their college as “extremely effective” in preparing them for career change or advancement. They were also much more likely to place importance on civic and community engagement, to remain more involved with their undergraduate college long into their lives, and, finally, to give a higher satisfaction rating to their undergraduate experience than any other alumni group tested.

The “Goals and Values of COFHE Students Interested in Business” survey from the Consortium on Financing Higher Education offers a more focused study and a more nuanced set of results for our consideration. This study seeks to respond to the current national concern about the moral bankruptcy that seems to be indicated in the wake of the myriad of corporate scandals of this decade by surveying attitudes and values of COFHE and non-COFHE students and alumni and comparing them with students from these same groups who are interested in business or who earn MBA degrees. Like the Annapolis Group study, this survey indicates that the highly selective private colleges and universities comprising COFHE are doing something right in comparison to non-COFHE schools in attracting and cultivating altruistic students who are motivated more by social conscience than by personal gain. And yet, the study showed that there is a significant discrepancy between the attitudes of COFHE students who go into business and those who do not, with business students significantly more motivated by financial wealth and less concerned in helping others. These students also report being much less affected by their undergraduate experience in these areas, and they are much less likely to attribute the development of moral values to their college education. If we wish to make the case that COFHE schools legitimately claim to be the places that educate America’s future leaders, and that in light of the current lack of confidence in corporate leadership and morality in America the approach of COFHE institutions may offer some hope, these results give us all occasion to reflect seriously upon how well we implement our goals in all areas of the curriculum.

A non-COFHE school offers a useful example about how we might approach this issue directly. I am about to become president of an institution that has over the last two decades been transforming itself from a regional comprehensive university in the Pacific Northwest into a national liberal arts college. Over that time, the University of Puget Sound has consolidated its five satellite campuses, eliminated several professional graduate programs, cut its enrollment in half, reduced its student-teacher ratio from 18-1 to under 11-1, increased its selectivity dramatically, grown its on-campus residential student population from about 20% to about 65%, and fundamentally overhauled its curriculum. Now a highly ranked national liberal arts college, nearly 80% of Puget Sound’s students come from 47 states and foreign countries other than Washington, when only 25 years ago over 80% of the student body were in-state residents. As I move from Trinity College—a COFHE institution where we don’t have a business major, yet about 33% of our graduates enter careers in business administration or finance—I am impressed by the way Puget Sound has addressed this issue. Rather than eliminating the School of Business with the change in institutional mission, Puget Sound remains one of the few liberal arts colleges in the nation that has such a program; but it has become one that is equipped to address head-on the very issues about corporate corruption and values raised in the COFHE study. Puget Sound’s School of Business has completed redesigned its curriculum, adopting an explicitly liberal arts approach to business, leadership, and public policy that offers a cross-disciplinary educational focus that combines specialized knowledge in business with problem solving, critical and interpersonal skills, ethical judgment, written and oral communication, assessment of issues facing the economy, and integrated study with courses in other humanistic disciplines including political science, economics, philosophy, history, and literature.

Together with the Annapolis and COFHE studies, the example of Puget Sound offers us encouragement and a warning. We who are committed to excellence in the liberal arts must focus our attention not only on providing evidence for others of our success, but on getting candid information for ourselves about where we are performing well and where we are not. Ultimately, the productive and responsible lives lived by our alumni will always offer the most successful advertisements for our educational quality. Studies assessing educational effectiveness, like those considered here, continue to confirm earlier research that identifies the totality of the learning environment, the intensity of educational encounters in that environment, and the degree of personal engagement that takes place there as the most critical conditions for success. We residential liberal arts colleges with outstanding facilities and small student/faculty ratios are literally built to meet these expectations. We must continue to practice the critical thinking and problem solving we preach as we test our own performance over time and continue making ourselves more and more effective in providing our students with “the most genuinely educative experience” possible.

But our charge and our challenge go beyond these important steps. While we advocate for an educational experience that is personally transformative, we must also make it clear that such an education also produces the most civically responsible public citizens. There is a national good as well as a personal benefit that is served by a liberal education that prepares the next generation to take an active and informed role in public debate, to engage the challenges of complex cultural conflicts, and to refashion our democracy to respond to the as-yet-unknown tests we will surely face in the future.

[1] Experience and Education, ch. 2 (1938).

[2]The Wit and Wisdom of Franklin D. Roosevelt, Government and Democracy, p. 29, eds. Peter and Helen Beilenson, Peter Pauper Press (1982).

[3]Astin’s books are titled Four Critical Years (1977) and What Matters in College? Four Critical Years Revisited (1993).

[4]Marc Chun’s review of the literature appears in a special issue on “Value Added Assessment of Liberal Education” in peerReview (4:2/3, Winter-Spring 2002), pp. 16-25.

[5]Carol Geary Schneider, Ibid., p. 5.

[6]Roger Benjamin and Richard H. Hersh, Ibid., p. 10.