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Who values the liberal arts?

“Why did I have to take that math class?”

“First year seminar?  Are you kidding me? I don’t need to learn how to study!”

“Ugh, what’s the point of a common book? I want to be an accountant!”

“When will I need to know who was the 10th president of the United States?”

These questions are common of first-year college students, particularly those at a liberal arts school like Doane College, in Crete, Nebraska. And, to an extent, they are understandable. Today, possibly more than ever, I read blogs, articles, and comments challenging the value of a liberal arts degree. Enrollment managers and admissions professionals at liberal arts colleges around the nation, particularly those of us at colleges without national acclaim, address this question every day with prospective students.

But, truth be told, all of higher education is being challenged today relative to the value it brings. I’ve read research that justifies the value of a liberal arts degree, but also the value of a college degree in general. And for every article I find, I anticipate reading an online rebuttal. We want black and white data which gives us an absolute guarantee in the value, nevermind the fact that every student is different and controls in large part their ability to be successful both during and after college. Moreover, how many students have completed an undergraduate degree at both a liberal arts college and a public university in order to give what may be the best opportunity to create a real comparison?

So, instead of that elusive black and white apples to apples comparative data, liberal arts college admissions reps rely heavily on success stories, testimonials, quotes from HR managers who hire their graduates and CEO’s who believe in the liberal arts. This has an effect no doubt, and yet we all understand that the liberal arts college experience isn’t for everyone. And, for the moment, let’s keep the issue of cost out of this conversation because I think that muddies the water a bit and easily gets people wound up. Personally, I get a bit riled up when I read articles supporting liberal arts programs only to see crude, disparaging comments attacking those of us that believe in the value. Some will see value while others will not.

Here is my reality.

I’m from the small town of Wahoo in rural Nebraska. My graduating class was less than 100 students. I was a good student who participated in a number of activities including choir, band, Fellowship of Christian Athletes, football, basketball, track, and baseball. I had a paper route and detassled corn in the summer for money.  I took the ACT two times (only because my mom required me to do so hoping that I would get a higher score the second time and earn more scholarship money – nope!) and applied for colleges in the fall of my senior year. I applied to large schools and small schools alike to make sure I had “options”. Ultimately, I decided I wanted to continue to play basketball in college and quickly learned that not many NCAA Division I universities were calling me. But, that was okay because I was being drawn to these liberal arts colleges for some reason. The community feel and size quickly became appealing to me.

I enjoyed a class project my high school senior year in English Composition which required students to research a potential career. For me it was desktop publishing. This was an evolving profession in the early 90’s, particularly as computers really gained capabilities. I was not an artist, but for some reason graphics were of great interest. Ultimately I chose Morningside College in Sioux City, Iowa, as my college because it afforded me both basketball and graphic design opportunities while also offering the comfortable environment for which I was looking.

As a liberal arts college, Morningside required me to take a smorgasbord of courses that were not in my major; math, science, history, Spanish, and sociology to name a few. But, like most students I wondered why I needed those courses.  After all, I was an art major.  In addition, the college required me to participate in a speaker series which did not require homework but simply required me to show up and pay attention (the latter wasn’t always easy). And, my professors required me to participate in class. With only 20 students in my first-year English Comp class, the professor did not allow me to sit in the back of the class. He expected participation.  Even more scary, upper division classes required collaborative work in teams. YUCK! Finally, I was required to participate in a first-semester class which focused on study habits, adapting to college, and other trivial, yet ultimately useful information.  I was challenged every day and pushed outside my comfort zone while at the same time feeling supported by faculty and administration.

The above experience is not for everyone. But it was for me.

Although I enjoyed my major, it became clear to me during my senior year that I was simply not talented enough at graphic design.  I did not have the confidence necessary for it to be my ultimate career path. Can you imagine that feeling during your senior year? Yes you can, because many of you had it! It was at that time that I leaned on everything else that I learned through my college experience that prepared me to go out and find the job that started my career. Coincidentally – and like many others that I know – I found my first job as a result of a recommendation by a mentor at the college. This administrator helped me make a professional connection which landed me my first job. This is very common at small, liberal arts colleges. Who you know does matter!

I now work at Doane College, also a liberal arts college so yes, I “sell” this experience every day, but only because I believe in it as a result of what it did for me personally. I use math everyday, much more than I ever thought I would. I use graphic design much more than I thought I would, given my role as an administrator. I write more than I anticipated I ever would.  I wish I would have taken more Spanish and enjoyed history class more than I did. I value the lessons learned in a safe environment in college related to collaborative and group work because the real world is a challenge requiring people to work together. To this day I could call up or email my former professors across many disciplines at the college and they would reply.  Some receive my family’s annual holiday card. I’m glad I was forced to learn to study and use the library and research tools.

Bottom line is that a liberal arts education has been around for a long time and while it has evolved to meet the needs of today’s students, the foundation is still very present. We educate people to be life-long learners and adapt to the careers of tomorrow. We require students to take coursework that they won’t completely appreciate until 5, 10 or maybe even 20 years down the road.

A student with a 3.5 GPA in high school can likely be successful at both a large, public institution as well as a small liberal arts college. The true success is matching up the student with the type of college they want/need. So, the question is not whether liberal arts has a value, the more appropriate question is does liberal arts have a value to you?

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