In a story in Columbus Business First, President Adam Weinberg answers questions about the importance of the liberal arts model in 21st century higher education. Included in the Q&A article are thoughtful and relevant opinions on STEM and the humanities, as well as career opportunities earning potential for liberal arts graduates.
Q. A lot of talk is out there right now about economic development and jobs. A push is on emphasizing STEM subjects and technical training. Amid this backdrop, what is the value in getting a liberal arts degree in a subject such as English, philosophy or the like?
A. The best STEM education is happening in liberal arts settings. For example, Denison has absolutely world-class programs in chemistry, biochemistry, biology, physics, astronomy, geosciences, mathematics and computer science. As undergraduates our students are getting extraordinary experience doing research with our faculty in labs, on research expeditions, and in our biological reserve.
In the emerging economy, business development will be driven by entrepreneurs who can create start-ups that capture emerging opportunities and by talented managers who can grow existing firms by managing effectively in ever-changing markets. These are the skills of the liberal arts, in every major—whether English or economics or chemistry. Our students spend four years in a competitive academic environment where they learn to thrive within and across the disciplines. When they graduate, they have strong interpersonal and problem-solving skills, effective written and oral communication skills, the ability to work in teams, and they’re critical and analytical thinkers. Intellectually, they are sharp, and they can spot change and thrive within it.
As part of their liberal arts training, they are involved in a range of campus activities that include leadership training, athletics, arts production, community projects and a range of other student organizations where they learn management skills, including the ability to plan and assess projects, facilitate meetings, and manage groups of diverse people.
Finally, a liberal arts education gives students a strong sense of ethics, which is crucial for today’s leaders in both the private and public sectors. The liberal arts value a broad view of the world, independent thinking and moral citizenry. We care about society as a whole and give our students a comprehensive education with the tools to think across extensive points of view. There’s huge value in that.
Q. What kinds of jobs are available for people with degrees such as this?
A. Our students work and succeed across the professions. Graduates from the class of 2012 (the most recent data we have) are employed in a wide range of jobs: as a business analyst for Deloitte, as an English teacher in a Chinese high school, and as a shareholder services representative for JP Morgan, and as a Spanish-speaking research analyst for Asia Metals. This is just a small sample of the wealth of opportunities to which our recent graduates are availing themselves.
In the emerging economy, people have to be the architects of their own careers. Today’s students will change careers across their lifetime as the economy changes. We are training students to address questions and to succeed in jobs that do not yet exist. This means that we need to be careful, because in the quest to make students job-ready, they can be narrowly pushed into pre-professional programs that train them with skills, and for jobs, that will be obsolete before students even pay back their student loans.
At its root, a liberal arts education prepares student to think critically, ask the right questions, listen, comprehend, write and speak effectively, and connect broadly. In this complex and fast-changing global economy, long-term success will come to those who can thrive in diverse environments, those who embrace change as a daily reality, think creatively across categories, who possess humility and confidence, and who possess conflict negotiation skills. This is exactly what we teach our students. Rather than struggling to adapt to a changing world, our students will be driving the direction of that world change.
Q. Does the cost of a liberal arts education align with the graduate’s earning potential?
A. Did you know that Denison students, on average, graduate with less debt than Ohio State students?* People are always surprised to learn that—it seems counterintuitive. Let me explain. A Denison education is expensive—and by that, I mean that it’s expensive for us, as an institution. We pour a fortune into educating each of our students. Our education is top tier. It’s highly personalized. Our classes are very small. Our faculty are talented and dedicated mentors who often work one-on-one with students. Our facilities are cutting edge, and our campus is beautiful. That’s expensive! But no Denison student pays the total cost of his or her education, not even those few who pay full tuition. The college’s endowment covers the gap. And about 96 percent receive financial aid from Denison. Last year Denison awarded more than $49 million in scholarships and grants from our own funding. We’re able to do this because generations of Denison alumni have succeeded in life and shown, through their generosity, their appreciation for the education they received. And our college is remarkably well managed. We take good care of our resources, and we invest in our students. So our admissions program is need-blind, and we make this education affordable and accessible for those who qualify academically.
That said, even for those few who pay full tuition, is it worth it? Absolutely. For all the reasons that I mentioned above and so many more, a liberal arts education is an extraordinary foundation for a life well lived—personally and professionally. Am I saying it’s the only way to go? Certainly not. Higher education is not one-size-fits-all—that’s one of the biggest flaws in media rankings. The “best” school on any given list may be the worst school for a particular student. And our society is well served by all forms of education—trade schools, land grant universities, community colleges—so it’s about finding the right fit for the right student. We are very clear about our mission. We are preparing students to be highly successful and to be leaders across the professions.
* Using the most recently published comparable data, for graduates of 2011, Denison graduates’ average debt was $17,764; Ohio State graduates’ average debt was $24,840.
Q. What kind of financial aid or scholarships are available for people who want to pursue a traditional four-year degree?
A. Denison has a “need-blind” admissions process, which means that the University does not consider an applicant's financial situation when making admissions decisions. That’s no longer the case at several other top-tier colleges. We use the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) to determine the federal need of financial aid applicants, which most colleges use. To help meet students’ federal need, Denison awards need-based grants from federal, state, and institutional sources, merit scholarships, student loans and self-help work awards. Approximately 22 percent of Denison’s first-year students come from socioeconomic circumstances that qualify them for a federal Pell Grant, while 96 percent of our students receive some form of institutional gift aid.
Denison believes in rewarding outstanding scholars with merit-based scholarships. These scholarships are based on superior performance in their secondary school classrooms, leadership qualities, community service and other meritorious criteria. The scholarship amounts range from $12,000 to $44,000 and are guaranteed for four years, if the student maintains the required cumulative GPA. Because Denison is in excellent financial health, we have such generous aid packages that only 45 percent of our students have any debt upon graduation. We think these are astoundingly reasonable figures. A liberal arts education at a leading independent college need not put any student into overwhelming debt.
Q. Talk to us about choosing a career one is passionate about. Is this sound advice or the path to economic insecurity?
A. Life is about matching expectations with reality. College should do two things for students. It should help decide what kind of life they want to lead, and it should prepare them with the skills, values, habits and networks needed to meet those personalized needs.
This happens across the four-year arc of a student’s college career (or at least it should—I worry that too many colleges are forcing students to take 5 or 6 years to graduate). In the initial years, we want to help students ask deep questions about themselves, the world and their place in the world. We want them to explore big ideas and develop passions that will last a lifetime. During the latter part of their college career, we want to equip them with the skills and networks to succeed.
The issue is not what career they select, but making sure students can succeed in any career they select.
Q. What else would you like to share with us on this subject?
A. There has been a lot in the media the last few years about higher education and careers. The conversation is a good one. We have an ethical obligation to make sure that our students are receiving a top quality education and are prepared to succeed in life. However, I worry that the jobs debate has been framed incorrectly. I have three concerns. First, we are overly fixated on what jobs students will have when they graduate. This is the wrong question. Any college can make sure its graduates have a job. We need to make sure our students are prepared to thrive across the decades of their post-college working career. If you frame the question this way, the needs change dramatically. Second, we must recognize that all of our students are going to be working in highly competitive, rapidly changing markets. Given this, they are going to need education across their life course. Part of the role of our college is making sure students graduate as lifelong learners who can adapt and help their businesses adapt with them. Finally, I do believe that the future will belong to entrepreneurs and entrepreneurial thinkers. While some people are born natural entrepreneurs, it is also a skill set that can be taught. The liberal arts are the skills, habits, and values of entrepreneurship.
Lastly, I want to make a pitch for the residential part of what we do. Students learn a lot outside the classroom through co-curricular activities. Residential halls, student organizations, athletic teams, and arts organizations can be incredible sites of learning. In particular, these venues are fantastic places to learn management skills, to sharpen design and problem-solving capacities, and to strengthen perseverance, humility, competitiveness, and other important professional attributes. Our debates over higher education and job creation are missing this completely. Many of our nation’s economic leaders talk about how much they learned in college in both the curriculum and co-curriculum. This raises some serious questions about learning that lacks a strong residential component. In other words, the debates over online learning miss a large part of the value of a college experience.