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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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Higher Education

Why make the investment in a liberal arts college?

I had the pleasure of visiting with a father recently that is on the verge of sending his daughter to Doane College.  He shared with me that he had not attended college and has held many manual labor jobs over the course of his career.  While successful, he acknowledged that he had to scrape and claw most of his professional life in order to not only succeed but at times simply to make ends meet.  He confided in me his concern for his daughter.  He said, “She doesn’t really know what she wants to do.  I’m concerned about spending so much given that uncertainty.”

If I had a quarter for every time I’ve heard that concern.  He went on to share that what makes him more comfortable – although not completely comfortable – with her lack of career direction is the fact that she is choosing a liberal arts college.  While I was excited to hear this, I’ll admit that I don’t hear that as often as I would like from parents.  He admitted that this is his first (and only) child so the entire process is new to him, but he has paid particular attention to what colleges and universities have shared about the educational value that they offer.  He acknowledged that attending a private college is more expensive, but he desperately wants to believe in what we’ve put in our marketing material.  He wants to believe that our liberal arts education is the best investment in his daughter’s future.

First, what a great guy!  There is a great deal of discussion regarding the value of the liberal arts in higher education (and I think a misunderstanding of the word liberal altogether.  But, we’ll leave that for another day.)  For example, consider this great article on 5 reasons to attend a liberal arts college.  When I encounter this issue with students or parents, I typically share my personal experience.  I was like many high school students who have an interest but not necessarily true direction for a career.  Back in the early 1990’s when Apple was big in education I heard a lot about desktop publishing.  I was not an artist, but I did enjoy working with layout software on computers.  As a result, I did some work on the profession as a senior project.  Given that I had started down this path I felt to a degree obligated to continue forward.  So, my interest brought me to a small private college which was in the early stages of a graphic design degree program.  All this to share that while I obtained my BA degree with a major in graphic design, I ultimately decided that I did not have the necessary talent to earn a living doing that work.  Frankly, I just wasn’t creative enough.

I share this because what I learned – which had always been told to me – is that the sum of my liberal arts experience prepared me for much more than I could have imagined – more than any single class.  While it prepared me to be a graphic designer by trade if I chose to, it also opened my future options to a career and profession that I could not have imagined while in college.  I still remember not wanting to take the history course or the marriage & family course.  But now, I understand why those were important and why they provided me with a great foundation.  I didn’t particularly enjoy math and like most college students majoring in art, I often asked why I need a math course when I’m not going to use math in my career.  I was a stupid, smart kid!

I believe the liberal arts experience prepares a student for more than what they think they need to know to be successful.  But, possibly more important, it gives students the foundation for a long successful professional life which will likely take twists and turns that at the moment may seem absurd.  I believe that people hiring students out of college are looking for college experiences that show the person can think critically, communicate effectively, listen, and learn.  I recognize that the student’s major can and does matter but I believe there should be more to it.  After all, how does a graphic design major end up as a successful fundraiser and higher education enrollment manager?  And, oh by the way, while I’ve continued to utilize the skills I learned through my graphic design degree, I also use math a lot!  A college degree prepares you for a job.   A liberal arts degree prepares you for careers – particularly those that don’t exist today.  While it’s true that students can obtain a liberal arts-type experience at a large, public institution, they will have to work at it and seek it out.  At colleges like Doane, it’s interwoven into the entire experience.  It’s what we do and I believe we do it very well.

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Higher Education

In Higher Education, What Actions Represent a Commitment to Diversity – Inclusion?

I am a white, blond, blue-eyed male working at a rural Nebraska private, independent, liberal arts college.  I’m comfortable here – possibly too comfortable!  Hear me out.  I tend to believe the college educational environment should be created to challenge many of our beliefs in a safe environment.  This is one reason why I love the idea that students should travel abroad or experience an urban plunge.  We need to see how others live. I believe it’s healthy to be in uncomfortable (yet safe) environments to learn and reflect on experiences that may challenge our beliefs or personal expectations based on our own experiences.  When I consider skin color and student demographics, (as well as faculty and staff) there are many others “like me” on this campus.  Skin color is the same and like me, many students, faculty, and staff come from a small Midwest community.  And, like me, many have not been – let alone spent much time in – a metropolitan area (not sure Lincoln, NE applies here).

Recently, a gentleman conducted a workshop on our campus on diversity; Finding Common Ground.  He shared many things that stick with me but one activity in particular really got me thinking.  He was working us through our mission statement and strategic plan highlighting key words in the documents and engaging us in conversation about what these words meant to us.  Not the definition via Wikipedia, but the meanings in our minds.  There were many words we discussed but two that really hit home from our mission statement; “inclusive” and “commitment”.

What really struck me was the notion that both these words can mean slightly different things to different people.  I hadn’t thought of it that way.  I say them with relative ease and believe that they mean the same thing to most everyone.  That’s simply not true.  Put us all in a room and ask for each of us to interpret the meaning of “inclusive”.  There will be similarities no doubt but the speaker pointed out vividly an example in which context and culture impact the meaning of words to each of us.

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Reflect on this through-provoking example.  Consider the word “ethical”.  I believe that my understanding of what it means to be ethical is in line with most people.  But, picture for a moment a father with three children in a poverty stricken area where there is no food readily available.  He has no money to purchase food [Forget any argument that he should have a job or that he shouldn’t have had children if he can’t support them].  This man sees a food stand which in his opinion has plenty of food.  He makes the decision to take some food – not too much, but just enough – for his children to eat.  In fact, he doesn’t give himself any food.  He simply provides for his children.  In this man’s world, could he consider it to be ethical to steal in order to provide for a family?

I’m not condoning stealing nor is this an argument on ethics.  Rather, I’m pointing out the fact that what I tend to believe is a common understanding of a word or situation can be quite different from another person, particularly when you consider context.  So, when the topic of diversity is brought up, it is important to engage in a discussion in order to best understand what people think diversity means.  I believe there is a good chance that not everyone is thinking exactly the same way. 

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Back to my two words.  I believe in being inclusive.  But, to what extent do I believe in being inclusive?  Am I inclusive to the extent that I remain comfortable?  The fact that we at Doane College have a 13% minority population doesn’t make me uncomfortable.   I’m disappointed that our population isn’t more diverse as a college, but I’m certainly not uncomfortable.  So, it’s easy for me to say I want to be more inclusive.  In fact, is there a certain percent that would justify me saying we are inclusive?  What if 50% of our student body was Black, Hispanic, Asian, Pacific Islander, or Native American?  Is that now inclusive?  It’s much more inclusive no doubt.  At that level of diversity, would I still be comfortable?  And, if I’m uncomfortable do I still believe in being inclusive?  My point is that it’s easier to believe in inclusion because the antithesis may be frowned upon.  Who is going to say, “I don’t want to be inclusive?”  But do we truly believe?  Keep in mind my example is only related to skin color or ethnicity.  I don’t believe that the idea of inclusion is limited to our skin color.

Now, “commitment”.  Again, I believe most people understand the word commitment.  I wonder, however, if the level of commitment and the word commitment itself can be easily misleading.  At Doane we have a commitment to increasing diversity on our campus for students, faculty, and staff.  My question, what actions adequately represent commitment?  This diversity training workshop included 40 staff out of at least 200 potential attendees.  Does this workshop represent commitment?  To some it may.  We are moving forward with the appointment of a cabinet level position, Vice President for Access, Equity, and Diversity.  Will the appointment of a person in this position fulfill our commitment?  Or, is commitment ongoing regardless of what has been accomplished?

I bring this point up not to question our (Doane’s) commitment but to encourage people to reflect on a personal commitment to diversity and inclusion.  I’m working to reflect on my personal commitment and what I can do in my role to increase diversity and be more inclusive.  Thinking about it for 2 hours once every couple months may be one person’s definition of commitment because it represents movement forward beyond what was before.  To another, it may still not represent a true commitment.

I believe in the Doane College mission which embraces diversity.  I don’t say this as an expert or even someone who has experienced an environment with great diversity.  I want to be a man who embraces diversity personally and learns from my fellow man regardless of skin color or background.  I’m seeking to put myself in a position which may challenge my comforts and seek a greater appreciation and learning from those who have different experiences than me.  And, I believe higher education is the perfect environment to learn both as young adults and those of us old dogs that need to be taught new tricks.

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Doane College’s mission is to provide an exceptional liberal arts education in a creative, inclusive, and collaborative community where faculty and staff work closely with undergraduate and graduate students preparing them for lives rooted in intellectual inquiry, ethical values, and a commitment to engage as leaders and responsible citizens in the world.

 

The opinions expressed in this blog are that of Joel M. Weyand alone and do not reflect the position of Doane College.

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Higher Education

What if you could start over?

One-course-at-a-time, gap-year, 2-year programs, and on-line programs!  Gone are the days of one-size-fits-all in higher education.  Today, higher education is challenging historical and traditional practices.  Parents want to know outcomes!  They want programs that translate into results.  They want to know what “works”.  Why does a bachelor’s degree take four years?  Why is college typically relegated to two semesters or three trimesters between September and May?  Who makes these rules and are we confident that there isn’t a better way?

Like a little kid, one of my favorite questions is “why”.  The questions above are great examples of questions I ask myself often.  And most recently, I asked if Doane College can graduate a student in less than four years.  The answer led me to try and impact our approach to AP tests and dual-credit coursework.  Although Doane College is a 4-year traditional college, we are taking steps to think differently.  Today, Doane College is rolling out a 3-year graduation program in which certain majors are backed by a 3-year graduation guarantee.

As a quick digression, Doane College has offered a 4-year graduation guarantee for many years.  We were one of the first to offer such a guarantee and the first in the state of Nebraska.  I believe the 4-year guarantee is a component of our culture and while the 4-year guarantee red-tape can be duplicated almost anywhere, I’m not certain that the culture can.  In that same vein, I look at the new 3-year program.  This is not rocket science.  The academic requirements for graduation have not changed.  Instead, we’ve packaged our academic programs with the understanding that a student may choose to accelerate their educational experience.  In the event they want to do that, we provide them the road map.  But make no mistake; this is not for the faint of heart.  Eighteen credits a semester and summer coursework wasn’t in my college plans, but it is for some students today, particularly those that have already taken over 24 college credits while in high school.  And by the way, we have a few Doane students graduating in three years without this program.

Now, before even the first faculty member says, “you can’t do that,” I say yes, we can and yes we are.  Today, high school students are taking more college level dual-credit courses and AP tests than ever before.  And I believe they are doing this because they believe there is a benefit to doing so.  They believe they are getting ahead.  Moreover, high schools are helping to facilitate programs to encourage more college coursework prior to graduation.  But, how many colleges and universities are acknowledging this openly and actually embracing this proactive approach to college?  If a first-year college student enrolls with 36 credits, doesn’t it stand to reason that they consider themselves at the sophomore level relative to credits earned?  And, furthermore, if that’s the case, wouldn’t it be logical to assume that they need only three more years to graduate in college.  If that’s not true, why are we talking about college being four years?  Shouldn’t we talk about it being four-and-a-half or five years?  (Truthfully, there are colleges that do speak to honest fact that it takes more than four years at their school).  Why would high schools encourage their students to do college coursework before high school graduation without some understanding of a benefit?

The four-year model is tried and true and a tough mold to break.  But, I believe colleges and universities should embrace the fact that there are quality students working hard in high school with expectations of getting ahead both academically and financially.  More importantly, colleges must get in the game and respond appropriately with packaged programming that helps a student to leverage pre-college credit toward an accelerated degree plan.  Obviously this assumes that the student wants this.  A student could also want to double or triple major.  They could want to study abroad.  They could want to stop out for a year.  All these options are acceptable and may prolong any accelerated program to four years or beyond.  That’s not the point.  The point is that there are students who want this and their current success in graduating in three years is often predicated on the strong collaboration with a faculty advisor who shepherds the student through any red tape.  I vote for making it easier for a student to see these opportunities.  Notice I didn’t say make it easier to graduate.  In fact, I think it goes without saying that graduating in three years is more rigorous than a four year plan.

A three-year program isn’t a game-changer in higher education.  In fact, changing higher education today is difficult and requires patience.  But, who doesn’t like to dream?  To that end, give some thought to this question.   What would you do if you could start your own college and take advantage of all the lessons learned over time?  Start fresh!  Would you use one-course-at-at-time?  Would you use a hybrid approach to online and classroom work?  Would your program encompass year-round programming?  Would you require an urban plunge or an international experience?  Would you require an internship?  Would you still require the liberal arts?  This all gives me goose bumps just thinking about it.  Part of me fears the pace of educational change is impacted more by the inability to insert new ideas into old structure.  So, what if you could start over?

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