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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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Enrollment Management

Hard Times as Motivators toward Future Success

(Omar Correa is an admired colleague and great friend.  He is also guest blogger this week providing his perspective on the enrollment management and higher education today)

Do you remember the first time riding a bicycle on your own, your first ice cream cone, the excitement of riding a roller coaster? “Wow! Let’s do it again”! Is that what you said? Something similar?

I remember having the same experience during my very first high school visit as an admissions representative. It was a very small high school in southeastern Iowa. I was there early, had all my materials ready and I was prepared. I was nervous, anxious… would I represent my institution well? Will I remember my presentation? Will I be asked a question I couldn’t answer? I was there for about an hour, it was all a blur. Next thing I remember…I was driving on I-80 thinking,”WHOA!!!! Am I getting paid to do this?” What a great feeling, helping students, telling the institution’s story and having every student listen as if I was reading straight from Harry Potter (replace with whatever teen book is popular).

I count myself among those lucky individuals that have found a job they love. They have found more than a job, a vocation. Webster defines vocation as “a strong desire to spend your life doing a certain kind of work”. That’s how I feel about my work in higher education and I feel blessed for that feeling. Do I feel that way because it is an easy job? Absolutely not! Since those days as a road warrior, the job has always been challenging, long hours and many sacrifices, personal and professional, are made by those in the world of enrollment management. But these challenges and sacrifices are overshadowed by the rewarding nature of the work that we do.

We also know that these challenges and rewards come in every year. We all know that this fall’s first year’s class will be challenging, so is next year’s class. We also know how it feels to work hard and smart trying to bring that class and still come up short. We know the consequences to the bottom line and the morale in the office and around campus. But we also know how it feels to welcome that new class to campus and see them grow personally and as students. Furthermore, we know that feeling when four years later, we have parents and students reminding us of the path traveled, the challenges and successes, once the student reaches graduation. We know that regardless of these feelings, the pressure is there to bring more students, better students and able-to-pay students.

As stated by Eric Hoover in the September 15, 2014 Chronicle of Higher Education article, The Hottest Seat on Campus, the market pressures are pushing institutions to search for “silver bullets.” The challenges on enrollment management are amplified by declining demographics, stagnant economy and heightened competition. Last month I experienced this phenomenon personally, where my institution did not need my services any longer, as the goals of the institution were not in line with what we could deliver, although all the forecast pointed toward a successful year. It is often difficult to realize the blessings that come, even disguised in the form of the loss of employment.

Jon Boeckenstedt wrote on his blog on February 3, 2014. Bloody Monday: Not just for the NFL:

In some sense, my colleagues are like NFL Coaches: Success, a finite commodity based on the nature of the game, is parceled out by the whims of the gods, and your hard work and good fortune bless you with it on occasion.  But the organizational appetite never goes away, and when it’s not fed sufficiently, good people are shown the door, and often replaced with someone who–in many ways–is just like the person leaving.  Only different.  The NFL has its Bloody Monday, the day after the season ends and coaches get fired.  In enrollment, we have bloody springs.

Having done this for so long, I’m grateful that I’ve been able to stay in one place as long as I wanted, but I’m also surprised when the pressures and the issues and the expectations we deal with are not obvious to those who don’t do it every day.  Maybe the same could be said of most professions. But for as much fun as this profession is, and for all the rewards it brings, I do wish we could bring a little more sanity to the continual upward spiral of expectations.

There is an expectation of More, Better and Less Needy that is part of the recipe for failure. As you may imagine, this has allowed me a lot of time to reflect and do some soul-searching. What’s next? What would I do differently? Is my passion for what I do extinguishing? I would still say that higher education is my vocation; I still have a passion for what I do, although we get shaken every now and then, we must continue to examine ourselves, grow from our challenges and don’t give up. A good friend of mine always says, “If it was easy, everybody would do it”.

In the last several weeks I have followed 4 Steps to keep moving forward in this crazy world of higher education that I love. What must I do to assess the next steps toward success and stay motivated?:

  1. Be objective and do some soul searching

Earl Nightingale once said, “We are all self-made, but only the successful will admit it.” I have to ask myself, what could I have done better? What will I do differently in the future? It’s always easier to look for an external force to blame, but we must bring some objectivity and reflection to the process.

  1. Revise your goals and vision

Where did you see yourself next year, 5, 10 years from now? Do you still see yourself there?, then don’t stop, revise the plan, the path. See whatever obstacle is in front of you as a detour and not the end of the road. Remember, who we were, who we are and who we will be are three different people.

  1. Remember your passion and your purpose

Sometimes it is easy to lose sight of our purpose and passion. When times are tough, we must go back and remember why we started our journey in the first place. A good way to accomplish this is by surrounding ourselves with people that are passionate, and trust me, it is contagious.

  1. Let go of the past and embrace future success

Someone once said, “You can’t start the next chapter, if you keep re-reading the last.” Once we have learned from our past mistakes, we shouldn’t look back! Be willing to move on with purpose, remember the Chinese proverb that says, “The master has failed more times than the beginner has tried.”

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