Illuminating the Value of the Liberal Arts

The national debate among American citizens about current events has been veering toward unfortunate dichotomies that people who have been trained in the liberal arts know to be false. That’s just one reason (pointed out by Zakiya Smith) it matters so much that we find ways to clearly articulate not only the “what” and the “how” of the liberal arts experience, but also the “why.”

Smith was among the speakers at Liberal Arts Illuminated  (#WhyLibArts), a conference hosted last week by the College of Saint Benedict and Saint John’s University in central Minnesota for more than 200 faculty, administrators, and trustees for the purpose of facilitating pathways, possibilities, and partnerships to sustain liberal arts education. The mix of panel discussions and keynote addresses challenged participants to set their minds, wills, and activities toward finding solutions to some of the industry’s most intractable problems:

  • How do we make a liberal arts education more affordable? “Discounting has created a monster that is feeding a suspicion that the liberal arts system is rigged against the average family,” noted Chris Farrell. Lack of clarity about the real price creates a perception that certain people are favored and other people are taken advantage of based on ability to pay. Georgia Nugent added, “This is crazy when you can’t give an answer to ‘How much does it cost?’ We have got to find a way to fix that.”
  • How do we support liberal arts access and success for all students? Carol Christ posited that this is perhaps less a problem of failing to deliver on our core activities or even failing to innovate, but more a problem of being too accretive in our progress and failing to let go of doing what doesn’t serve the institution well. Instead of trying to make incoming students “just like us” in an effort to conserve our traditions, Mary Dana Hinton suggested adding to our communities in transformative ways.
  • How can we measure the effectiveness of a liberal arts education—and to what end? The liberal arts is a live concept that gets enacted in different ways at different campuses, noted Charlie Blaich. The liberal arts approach is not solely the domain of liberal arts colleges or of liberal arts majors, so educators can be driving toward any outcome (his own work has focused on measuring gains in critical thinking and intellectual curiosity) and arrive at it using practices that are rooted in a liberal arts education.
  • How do we create a new narrative and conceptual framework for the liberal arts?“In a time of unbundling, what we have to offer is a rebundling,” said Rebecca Chopp. She advocated for understanding the liberal arts as a holistic transformation that has expanded beyond a focus on the intellectual life of the mind to include high-impact experiences, intentional community, problem-based inquiry, and porous (interdisciplinary and collaborative) structures.
  • How can we keep the liberal arts foundational to the future of our nation? While the enduring elements of a liberal arts education—freedom to explore, mentorship, personal growth, a community of learning, asking big questions—will persist, the institutions that deliver them must evolve. Eric Blackhurst pointed out that just as employers need integrators who can synthesize, summarize, and conclude across areas of expertise, our world demands collaboration and not institutions that stand alone.

Because the conference was designed to facilitate sharing, collaboration, and continued constructive conversation, all of the conference materials and videos can be found online, and a post-conference publication that includes action steps for presenting the case for the liberal arts with potency, relevancy, and consistency will be posted soon.


Under-18 Demographics

In 14 states the population of children under 18 is “majority-minority,” meaning more than half are non-white. (Brookings)

Teen Smartphone Users 

An estimated three out of four 12- to 17-year-olds own and use a smartphone, up from less than 50% in 2013. (eMarketer)

Underemployment by Education Level

43% of Americans with a bachelor’s degree, 57% with some college, and 52% with a high school degree feel underemployed. (PayScale)


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During our Summer Seminar last month, Erinn Farrell spoke about the need to “find your why” and referenced a TED talk by Simon Sinek. While the reason a company, organization, or institution does what it does is always at its core, too often it communicates only the “what” and “how” of what it does. But to be emotionally compelling and rationally relevant to the consumer, it’s much more effective to lead with the “why” of what is being provided.

For liberal arts institutions, communicating the “why” means focusing on outcomes. Plenty of research connects the practices of the liberal arts experience with post-graduate results that are valued (and with skills that are desired by employers, as an AAC&U survey supervised by conference presenter Debra Humphreys demonstrates). Yet that connection is not widely perceived by the general public because individual institutions are not tracking data and providing evidence to prove it, especially when the desired outcomes are economic-based.

Even more foundationally, the industry is not leading with its differentiating and inspiring “why”—that the liberal arts experience makes you a better person and the world a better place. Andrew Delbanco (a former Summer Seminar presenter and the opening presenter at Liberal Arts Illuminated) asserted that at their best, colleges teach students “how to think and how to choose.” This outcome is a wonderful value-added benefit for liberal arts students and graduates because life’s career journey will be full of moments when discerning and choosing are necessary.

Today’s marketplace demands that colleges explain their value in terms that reinforce the return on investment, financial and otherwise. If you can’t or don’t do that, your institution’s educational experience will be seen as a commodity—and by many as a too-expensive investment proposition. No matter what, now is the time for liberal arts colleges and universities to become more proactive in illuminating their outcomes.