Higher Education, Liberally Applied

Higher Education, Liberally Applied - Spring 2007

As Ben bring ‘08 prepared to graduate from Columbus Academy in Gahanna in 2003, he knew two things: he wanted to go to medical school and he wanted to play basketball. He applied to a dozen colleges, was admitted to about five—including Denison university—and ultimately chose Case Western reserve university in Cleveland, a school well-known for its pre-med program. And, he’d have a spot on the basketball team. everything was going according to plan—or so it seemed.

On the first day of classes, Bring stopped short in the doorway to his introductory chemistry course. It wasn’t a classroom so much as a lecture hall and to Bring—whose high school chemistry class had seven students—the space was cavernous. Some 300 seats with folding desktops were bolted to the floor, and the room was full. The professor lectured at a fast clip from a small stage below, and Bring struggled to keep up. “I was sitting in this huge auditorium and the professor was about 100 yards away from me,” Bring recalls. “It was intimidating.”

By friday, Bring was ready to unwind with other students. He went outside his dorm and looked around, but there was no one to be seen. most students had either left for the weekend or were staying in their rooms.

After two weeks, Bring was beside himself. He called his parents. He’d made a mistake, he told them. It was a very good school and the people were nice, but the fit was all wrong. first impressions, it seems, aren’t always the best decision-making tools. “It was everything I didn’t want in a college,” Bring recalls.

So, what did Bring want in a post-secondary education? A reputable college that offered the rigorous courses required for admission to a good medical school, yes. But that 300-seat chemistry course convinced Bring that he also wanted small classes and close interaction with faculty. And as for basketball, well, he still wanted to play, but academics and campus culture were beginning to take a front seat.

Bring’s older brother, Dean ’05, was a senior at Denison at the time, so the younger sibling was familiar with the college’s close-knit campus environment, which Bring now knew he wanted. But what of his post-baccalaureate plans? Wouldn’t a degree from a nationally ranked research university with strong links to some of the best hospitals in the country give him a competitive edge when applying to medical school?

Bring’s father called a few medical school admissions offices. What’s the difference, he asked, between a 3.5 GPA from Case Western and a 3.5 GPA from Denison? The answer: nothing. So, Bring, having already been admitted to Denison, transferred to the Granville campus the weekend before the fall term began.

If Ben Bring—who knew of Denison via his brother’s experience—wasn’t sure a liberal arts college was the best place for a would-be doctor, what of those prospective students who have no experience with any liberal arts school? How many high school graduates, with plans for a career in business, engineering, law, or any number of professions, overlook liberal arts programs in favor of schools that offer specialized vocational training? Just 4 percent of all college students attend one of the 1,100 or so liberal arts colleges in this country. While many of these schools boast a robust enrollment, the competition for such a small number of potential students is fierce.

Denison University has consistently rivaled peer institutions for undergraduates, and in recent years has even pulled ahead of some in terms of application rates. But as the college celebrates the 175th anniversary of its founding, it must maneuver several obstacles to ensure another 175 years. Skyrocketing tuition, demands for accountability, and pressure from students and parents who want a college degree to translate easily and quickly into a good-paying job have many in the industry concerned about the future of liberal arts colleges. Indeed, some educators argue that these issues have raised questions about the relevancy of liberal arts education as a whole. And that presents a problem even larger, perhaps, than the success of any one school.

Defining Liberal Arts

Ironically, history—one of the hallmarks I of a liberal arts education—is perhaps its biggest hurdle. When the liberal arts were conceived in ancient Greece, scholars identified seven disciplines, which were divided into two categories: the trivium, consisting of logic, grammar, and rhetoric; and the quadrivium—mathematics, geometry, music, and astronomy. All seven formed the basic foundation of medieval universities, which were limited almost exclusively to society’s elite. centuries later, the liberal arts were expanded to include many more disciplines, but liberal arts education was still regarded as an upper-class privilege. even today, the liberal arts have been unable to completely escape the trappings of its elitist history.

“For a long time, liberal education was identified with elite institutions and only with elite institutions,” says carol Geary Schneider, president of the Association of American colleges and Universities (AAc&U). today, however, the liberal arts constitute the undergraduate backbone of every public college and university. the disciplines counted among the liberal arts curriculum are many and diverse, and most students, regardless of their major, must take a smattering of liberal arts courses in order to graduate. And at most large universities, the liberal arts college is often the largest on campus. Why, then, do educators such as Schneider fear for liberal arts’ future?

One reason is a lack of understanding of what a liberal arts education means. In today’s red-state/blue-state environment, the term bears obvious political connotation. But in the context of “liberal arts education,” liberal means “generous” and “broadminded.” As explained in Denison’s own course catalog: “A liberal education provides practice in the disciplines and processes necessary to function as a free-thinking human being…: listening, reading, and observing; reasoning critically and quantitatively; and expressing ideas clearly and convincingly in

Oral discourse as well as the written word. A life based on rational and humane self-determination requires those abilities as well as the understanding of ideas and principles in diverse areas of modern knowledge.” Another challenge for liberal arts colleges is the supposition that it costs too much. While there is no denying that tuition at private schools is higher than at public schools, the majority of students in college today receive some sort of financial assistance. At Denison, more than 90 percent of students receive some form of need-based or merit-based aid, or a combination of both, most of which come from donor-funded scholarships and grants and are stewarded by the college’s healthy endowment. other private colleges offer similar assistance packages. yet despite the various discounts, many find that a private education is financially inaccessible.

Get past the cost issue and another problem arises. A liberal arts education requires students to take a greater diversity of classes, and sometimes more classes in total, than is mandated by a professional school. “many students are annoyed by college requirements that make them achieve a broader education because they don’t understand its importance,” Schneider says. “to many, liberal arts is still considered ornamental.”

That’s why the AAc&U and other educational organizations have launched intense public campaigns designed to raise awareness about liberal arts education and its place in today’s higher education marketplace. “We are at a turning point in our discussion of higher education in this society,” Schneider says. “there is widespread understanding that almost everyone will need a post-secondary education, but nowhere in these conversations do you see the term ‘liberal arts.’ We are taking a very strong stand as an organization that every student that goes to college deserves a rich grounding in the liberal arts and sciences,” Schneider says.

Still, a public awareness campaign, no matter how successful, isn’t enough to overcome all the obstacles the liberal arts face. rising college costs have garnered nationwide political attention, and state and federal legislators have called on academic leaders to justify the increases and to measure quality control. the pressure is felt not only by public institutions funded in part by state dollars. Accreditation is required of any institution—public or private—that receives federal funding such as Pell Grants and work-study programs. that includes Denison, where 13 percent of students receive some sort of federal funding. Private liberal arts schools are at somewhat of a disadvantage, however, because the call for accountability is new for them. Public schools have always had to justify their budgets to state legislatures to maintain their state stipends. Performance assessments have not been as readily expected from private colleges.

“Higher education is under a lot of pressure to assess performance, both from regional accreditation boards and the Department of education,” says charles Blaich, director of the center of Inquiry in the liberal Arts, a national research center based at Wabash college. “college costs have increased dramatically over the last couple years, which is one of the reasons why the government is demanding accountability.”

Measuring Up

Measuring success in higher education isn’t a clear-cut process, Blaich says. Measuring the value of liberal arts education drifts into even murkier territory. When the center of inquiry in the Liberal arts formed in 2000, its founders were met with surprising resistance from liberal arts faculty around the country who claimed the intangible benefits of a liberal arts education couldn’t possibly be quantified or studied. others wondered if an institution housed at a liberal arts college could conduct unbiased research on the value of liberal education. and there were those who felt that studying liberal arts’ impact somehow demeaned the very thing being studied.

"Studying the liberal arts was a novel concept, and not a popular one, either,” says Blaich. “there’s still some resistance today. People are concerned about whether you can really research the kinds of things that liberal arts are supposed to do.”

The center has published a number of reports that examine everything from the impact faculty interaction has on student learning to how much liberal arts training is valued in the medical profession. But perhaps the center’s most ambitious project is the Wabash national study of Liberal arts education, which began in fall 2006 at 19 public and private colleges and universities across the country. it will follow about 4,500 liberal arts students for at least four years, collecting information about their college experiences and how their liberal arts education affected their professional, civic, and social lives. the aim is to measure the value of a liberal arts education by looking at more than just graduates’ salaries. career satisfaction and civic awareness and involvement can also be affected by liberal arts training, though those intangibles are difficult to assess.

Schneider and other advocates say such studies will only strengthen the aac&u’s stance that a reform in higher education is necessary if the united states is to remain an active and important participant in the global society and economy. a report released earlier this year by the aac&u bolsters this position. Produced by a council of policymakers and leaders in academia and business, the report identifies four qualities that all college graduates should possess to lead successful, productive professional and personal lives. they include: a broad base of knowledge across multiple disciplines; intellectual and practical skills such as teamwork and problem-solving; a sense of personal and social responsibility, including ethical reasoning; and experience applying what they learn to real-world problems.

“In an economy fueled by innovation,” the report authors wrote, “the capabilities developed through a liberal education have become America’s most valuable economic asset.”

The report goes on to state that liberal arts education is important in all professions and should be a part of every higher education experience. the prospect of revamping curriculum requirements for all professional majors is daunting, and with good reason. it requires an enormous amount of time, energy, and money—and will almost always be met with resistance from the student body. take, for example, the reforms in engineering programs in the united states. about seven years ago, aBet, the nation’s leading accreditation organization for college and university programs in the applied sciences, engineering, computing, and technology, instituted new requirements for accreditation that called for colleges and universities to incorporate more liberal arts classes in their engineering and technology curriculums. the move was met with widespread resistance in higher education, but since the driving force behind the reforms were the very businesses that would hire the schools’ graduates, they had little choice but to comply. 

Now, those reforms have led to a more broadly educated workforce in industries that once only asked for specialized training. “We were concerned about the quality of people coming into the workforce,” says Wayne Johnson, vice president for university relations worldwide for hewlett-Packard. Johnson, himself a graduate of a liberal arts college, was one of many who helped to draft the new requirements as well as the more recent aac&u report. industry leaders say they need employees who can think technically and creatively; people who can see how the small task they’ve been assigned fits into a larger picture, says Johnson.

Part of the aac&u’s findings were based on a series of focus groups conducted with business leaders in atlanta, Milwaukee, and Fairfax, Virginia. one of the most common complaints about recent graduates on their staffs was a lack of communication skills, work ethic, and ability to work as a team. Business leaders said that while they wanted graduates who had some job experience, they were more interested in finding “360-degree people” capable of adapting to changing circumstances in the workplace and industry markets.to survive in today’s education marketplace, liberal arts advocates must abandon the long-held mantra that liberal arts is non-vocational, says schneider. “I think we have to claim that it’s the best vocational training out there, with the understanding that we’re defining vocation in the broadest possible sense.” this is one of the philosophies behind the curriculum at denison, says university President dale Knobel. “We don’t offer a career track,” Knobel says, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. today’s college graduates will likely change jobs a half-dozen times throughout their lifetimes, he estimates, in part because the marketplace is less secure today. a Fortune 500 company one day could be filing for bankruptcy the next. "There is a declining likelihood that one will attach one’s star to one employer and stick with that employer.” college graduates narrowly trained in one field will struggle more in such uncertain times, Knobel predicts, while those educated in a broad, liberal arts program will flourish.

“A good education, in any field, should be developed around these sorts of skills,” schneider says. “Liberal education is indispensable. it’s what everyone should get when they go to college. it’s what you need to navigate the world we’re in, and we need to break out of the old idea that you can only get that in certain disciplines. “If a student goes to an institution in which she is being trained to solve technical problems and not being asked to think about the social context and the civic implications of the particular technical problems that she’s solving,” Schneider continues, “then something is seriously missing.” And that something, she adds, is the type of education taught in the liberal arts.

“One of our biggest tasks is to help families and students make the connection between liberal arts education and a vocation,” says Robinson.

Making The Grade

So, what must liberal arts colleges do to meet the challenges described by Schneider and blaich? For starters, “Smaller institutions have to take full advantage of their small environment,” blaich says. “They must take advantage of a residential environment where learning goes on 24/7. they must require a lot of intellectual work and be demanding of their students. when small places do those things, they do a really good job.”

But liberal arts schools must also respond to business leaders’ request for graduates with real-world job experience—especially since this now has become a request from the students themselves. indeed, students are no longer content with just classroom lectures. they want to practice what they’re learning through independent study, internships, and research programs. indeed, the demand for these programs at denison has risen dramatically over the last several years, says don Schilling, a professor of history and associate provost who oversees student research and independent study.

“When I came to denison in the 1970s, students really didn’t worry about that next step,” he says. “Now they recognize that it’s a competitive marketplace, whether you’re looking at medical school, law school, graduate school, or moving into the workforce.”

Last year, Schilling received more than 250 applications for the university’s Summer Scholars Program, an initiative that gives students a chance to conduct their own research or develop their own creative work. Students receive a stipend and housing for eight weeks on campus. Funding for the program, which comes from endowments and external grants, has increased over the years. Still, there was only enough to award about half of the proposals submitted, Schilling says. Interest in senior research projects—which aren’t a requirement for graduation—have increased. Independent study participation is also on the rise. “It’s an opportunity to do something that’s much more focused than the normal array of courses,” Schilling says. “It requires a student to develop skills of selfdiscipline and self-motivation and it says a lot about a student’s capacity for sustained work over time, which is valuable in any field.”

Independent study and research projects certainly bulk up students’ resumes. but more and more, employers want to see how potential employees function in an off-campus work setting. In this regard, an internship carries a lot of influence.

About one-quarter of all students at the sophomore level and higher take part in internships, an experience that helps them, “Test drive a career,” says maureen Feeney, director of internships at denison. the university organizes four career fairs during the academic year, inviting representatives from graduate schools, large and small businesses, and nonprofit organizations. representatives from another 40 or so businesses visit the campus at other times during the year. Students who plan to do an internship can register with Feeney’s office, which entitles them to a stipend of up to $2,500 to cover costs that an intern’s salary (which often doesn’t exist) can’t cover. And students participating in local internships can stay on campus during the summer for just $55 a week. the stipends are funded through endowments set up by donors. “Students want these experiences to help them synthesize what they’ve learned in the courses at denison,” Feeney says. “It helps them build a bridge that takes their experience at denison into the workplace.”</p>

“There are always going to folks who question if liberal arts is relevant to the world today. And that’s a reason able question.”
What Lies Ahead?
According to admissions statistics, Denison university is faring well in the higher education marketplace. Application rates have risen steadily over the last several years, which has enabled the college to be more selective in its admissions process. For example, Denison admitted just 37 percent of the more than 5,000 students who applied for the class of 2010. more importantly, larger numbers of admitted students are making Denison their first choice for enrollment. 
Still, providers and proponents of liberal arts training can’t afford to become complacent, blaich says, no matter how impressive their enrollment and endowment figures may be. Policymakers, parents, and students will continue to demand, with increasing pressure, accountability from colleges and universities. “Parents want something they can look at that is not produced by the university, some kind of outside evaluation,” blaich says. those colleges that currently have no method in place to measure their effectiveness had better develop one, he adds, and soon. “If they don’t offer these sorts of measures themselves, parents will go looking for them.”
Indeed, they already are, says Perry robinson, denison’s vice president for admissions. Selling parents on the notion that a liberal arts education can, indeed, translate into a paying job after graduation is a large part of a successful admissions campaign. “One of our biggest tasks is to help families and students make the connection between liberal arts education and a vocation,” robinson says. “There are always going to be folks who question if liberal arts is relevant to the world today. And that’s a reasonable question.”
At a recent breakfast for area business leaders, President Knobel remarked that schools like denison are “Engaged in ways that build students as whole persons.” if the nodding heads in the crowd were any sign, then college officials have done a good job of educating their community about the type of learning that goes on at Denison. but to survive, Schneider maintains, liberal arts institutions must join with colleagues at similar schools as well as large state institutions to advocate for liberal arts education—not just at their own school, but everywhere. 
“We have to move beyond thinking what is good for denison, what’s good for mount holyoke, what is good for the university of maryland,” Schneider says. “We have to think of what’s good for this country and promote a framework of excellence where all students, wherever they go to school and whatever their choice of career, have access to this kind of learning.”
Published March 2007