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New Era Ahead for Liberal Arts Education

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America's higher education system -- a world model for many generations -- is under siege.

Changes in economics, technology, demographics and attitudes regarding the relevance of a college degree are forcing many institutions to rethink the way they operate. These changes are likely to endure well beyond the eventual recovery of the overall economy. Not since the 1960s, when the number of students attending colleges doubled and all-male institutions began enrolling women, has there been such a paradigm shift in higher education.

But momentous challenges can be a powerful incentive to do things better. They can also force us to take a necessary pause from the status quo to explore new and creative ideas for future development.

This was the impetus behind a first-of-its-kind conference held this spring at Lafayette College.

Titled "The Future of the Liberal Arts in America and its Leadership Role in Education and Around the World," and supported with a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the conference was cosponsored by Lafayette and Swarthmore colleges and drew more than 200 college presidents, provosts, faculty and foundation and association officers from around the country.

Three days of concentrated discussion reinforced our belief that the model represented by the small residential college offers undergraduates a highly personalized education, and is of enduring importance in the development of 21st citizen-leaders.

A recent survey by the Annapolis Group, a consortium of 130 leading liberal arts colleges including Lafayette, found that 77 percent of alumni from liberal arts colleges rated their undergraduate experience as "excellent" compared to 59 percent from private universities and 56 percent from the top 50 public universities. Alumni from liberal arts colleges also reported being more satisfied with their graduate experience and felt better prepared for life after graduation, changing careers and attending graduate schools than did their peers from other institutions.

While this study reinforces that what we do has value, value is a relative term if what we offer is not within the financial means of many families. So how do we control rising tuition without impacting the educational experience we offer?

Sharing academic resources with other institutions and the private sector is a start. The Associated Colleges of the South, a consortium of 16 liberal arts colleges and universities, is already doing this. Through the use of video conferencing, a student at one institution can take courses at another. The five undergraduate and two graduate institutions that comprise Claremont Colleges in California also share campuses and resources.

This approach allows colleges to focus and invest precious resources on their strengths or centers of excellence without sacrificing diversity of offerings. It also provides a path for controlling costs.

Eugene Tobin, program officer of The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, pointed out at the conference that liberal arts colleges "struggle alone with faculty development, curricular renewal, globalization... and with a vast array of administrative and operational service." These are areas of operation ripe for collaboration. It's unsustainable to be all things to all students, even though many of us have tried, adding programs and initiatives in an effort to fulfill our critical mission more thoroughly.

We also need to make a stronger case for the liberal arts narrative, which sometimes gets lost amidst a perception that the 4,000 institutions within our system of higher education are all the same.

Public and private universities, community colleges, and online and for-profit institutions employ different models of education than small, residential, undergraduate colleges. These liberal arts colleges provide a hand-tooled education that requires students to work collaboratively in small groups to solve complex problems.

Conducted on close-knit residential campuses, this approach fosters intellectual confidence, a sense of community and the ability to assess risks and move forward with courage in uncertain times. These are skills of the type needed by 21st century citizen leaders who will face problems not yet defined. But when they are, solutions will not come from the narrow margins of vocational training, but the interdisciplinary crossover of fields.

A recent study by the Social Science Research Council found those who tested best at the liberal arts skills of critical thinking, thoughtful communication and broad-based problem solving were far more likely to be better off financially than those who scored lowest. They were also three times less likely to be jobless, live with their parents and far more likely to avoid credit card debt. In addition, a 2011-2012 College Salary Report by Payscale.com lists the median starting and mid-career salaries of graduates from national liberal arts colleges among the highest in the nation.

Despite our meaningful new dialogue that reveals common philosophies, values and shared challenges, it is also clearer than ever that no two colleges are the same -- and as we collaborate and fine-tune what we offer, each institution must understand and clearly articulate its own unique mission. At the end of the day, we must discover more efficient ways to do what we do while preserving the best of who we are.