Liberal-Arts Colleges Should Take Initiative in Defining Themselves, Survey Suggests

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Published by The Chronicle of Higher Education

As colleges increasingly are pressured to focus their marketing on their students’ getting jobs, liberal-arts colleges may face an extra challenge: the very phrase "liberal arts."

In a recent report titled "What’s in a Name? College-Bound Students Weigh In on the ‘Liberal Arts,’" the Art & Science Group, a higher-education consulting firm in Baltimore, found that the "liberal arts" label isn’t a persuasive identification for prospective students.

The report summarized the results of a survey that was administered in March and April to a sample group of 418 prospective students. The survey concluded that such students conceptualize the "liberal arts" similar to how liberal-arts institutions identify themselves. The students said that the colleges possess "class discussion, intellectual, consistent amount of student-teacher interaction, critical thinking, and lifelong learning."

Even though the prospective students understood the various components of liberal-arts colleges, most respondents didn’t think a liberal-arts education was best suited to them.

In one test, the participants were divided into two groups and asked to rate the appeal of an institution on a scale of 1 to 10. One group’s test used descriptors of a hypothetical college that explicitly used the term "liberal arts"; the other group’s test did not. The group that didn’t see "liberal arts" in the descriptors rated them more highly.

The report concludes: "It doesn’t appear that the ‘liberal arts’ itself, as a category, enhances the appeal of the college experience for prospective students."

One reason for that is the common misunderstanding of the concept of the "liberal arts," said Richard Hesel, a principal at the Art & Science Group. "Just take the words ‘liberal,’ which has its own meaning in this world, and then ‘arts.’ So it’s really open to misinterpretation."

Politics in the United States could also affect people’s perceptions of the liberal arts, he said, and conservative politicians have been known to take aim at liberal-arts programs. "For people in the political realm, these make challenging citizens because they’re always thinking and they don’t accept the conventional wisdom," Mr. Hesel said.

An Effort to Distinguish Oneself

But the report doesn’t deal with the "why" of its findings so much as its implications. "It’s not necessarily that they [colleges] should be running away from liberal arts as a model of education," said Craig Goebel, a principal at the group. "Rather, they shouldn’t try to defend and educate, in an isolated case, why the liberal arts is the best model of education."

In other words, he said, liberal-arts colleges should demonstrate "why their specific college is the best education."

That advice reflects a broader trend among small, liberal-arts colleges, many of them in dire financial straits, to establish what makes them distinctive.

In 2016, Furman University, a client of the Art & Science Group, established the Furman Advantage, which sets up its 2,700 undergraduates with mentors — alumni, athletic coaches, or faculty members.

Elizabeth Davis, Furman’s president, said that such individualized attention "is at the core of a liberal-arts education and what it really means." As a result, the South Carolina college still identifies itself as a liberal-arts institution, but also explains "the pathway before explaining the components," said Ms. Davis. In other words, it emphasizes the experience of the student over a list of standard services that other institutions offer.

Agnes Scott College, in Decatur, Ga., debuted in 2015 the Summit program, which connects students with professional advisers through their entire college careers. Elizabeth Kiss, president of Agnes Scott, wrote in an email that the program has proved a "defining factor" for 76 percent of students who decide to attend the college.

Just like Furman’s program, Summit enables Agnes Scott, another client of Art & Science, to talk about itself as a liberal-arts college, Ms. Kiss said, "while emphasizing what that actually means in terms of powerful learning experiences that prepare students for meaningful lives and successful careers."

Denison University, in Ohio, recently created new majors to deal with a pressing issue for most liberal-arts colleges: what Adam S. Weinberg, its president, described as "this anxiety point of ‘What will I do when I graduate?’" Some of the new majors are health, exercise, and sport studies; data analytics; and global commerce.

In addition, Denison, another Art & Science client, met the full demonstrated need of all students it accepted last year, Mr. Weinberg said, and has observed a 56-percent increase in applications over the last four years.

Denison, Mr. Weinberg said, doesn’t shy away from identifying itself as a liberal-arts institution, "but what we learned is that we can’t just leave it at that."

"You have to define what it means," he said, "but more importantly you have to define how that translates into … a set of experiences that you will have here that you won’t have at another liberal-arts college."

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