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Can Outcomes Save the Liberal Arts?

02/09/2015 09:21 am ET | Updated Apr 11, 2015

One of the great battles ongoing in American higher education centers on the continued vitality and relevance of a liberal arts education. Nearly every American has seen some video variation of an underemployed liberal arts graduate at a fast food window asking: "Would you like biggie-sized fries with that?"

Historically, the defense of the liberal arts was much more high minded and cerebral. For those of us who made it, the argument was plausible and a feel good moment where we spoke of liberal arts graduates who were well-rounded and productive citizens. Many of us still make it. We meant it. And, best yet perhaps, it was and still is true.

The problem is that while the argument is right, it no longer resonates with most American families. Higher education lives in a world that values inputs and is now only slowly coming to realize that the broader society beyond the college gates is dominated by output measurements. We have lost the consumer edge to our argument on the liberal arts.

It is critical, therefore, to develop a new defense for a liberal arts education. In doing so, this argument must combine equal measures of language and outputs. And, happily, it can be done without sacrificing the integrity or spirit of the older arguments.

This approach begins with a simple question: What is the value of a liberal arts education?

The answer is to focus first on process, by reassessing how we characterize and explain the liberal arts to American families.

This explanation relies on a series of output measures. Arguably, the liberal arts teach us how to think more deeply and give us the skills to do so. Specifically, they train us to communicate, write, apply quantitative methods, use and integrate technology, and work in collaborative settings. These are measurable outcomes.

They are also the specific skills that employers seek, that workforce development requires - and perhaps most important if not the lead story - that produce an educated citizenry.

Would an employer rather hire a highly but narrowly trained engineer or one who was equally well trained in a discipline but who can also communicate, write, and work cooperatively with his peers?

This shift to "output" language offers a plausible and effective defense of the liberal arts. And the effect is the same and helps build a case for their special relevance in a rapidly changing higher education environment.

In addition to the change in language, there may be one powerful tool to support the case for the liberal arts. And, happily, it would be an output immediately understood by Americans.

In the 1990s, many of Pennsylvania's private college and university presidents commissioned a sector-wide study in which dozens of schools participated to determine what happened to students once they graduated. This alumni survey measured a number of factors but perhaps was most effective because of the type and range of questions that it asked. The survey covered topics like marriage status, income, and home ownership but it also asked other questions about issues like the levels of volunteerism.

The point then was to make the case that liberal arts schools produced successful, productive citizens who shaped and gave back to their communities, locally and nationwide. It received a great deal of favorable press.

In a sense, the Pennsylvania-based "baccalaureate outcomes" alumni study is a test case for new thinking about how to defend and make the case for the liberal arts. This "outcomes" analysis put research behind the words. And, it worked.

Many college administrators believe that offering a student a comprehensive education, infused by the liberal arts, prepares students - and therefore the workforce - better than more narrow specialization for jobs that require a college degree. What is needed is a change in language, using outputs more closely to align the case for the liberal arts with the needs of the workforce and the American consumer mindset.

It may be time for one of the great foundations to step forward to fund an ongoing baccalaureate outcomes project that calls the question. Or, it may be necessary for America's liberal arts colleges to incur the common "business expense" to determine what happens individually and collectively to graduates as they become alumni, with a definable time frame through which to measure success.

There is also the possibility of a deep partnership that answers a question that could change the tone, tenor and some of the direction in national higher education policy.

It will be important to link these output measures to language that explains in terms agreeable to American consumers what "success" means.

Liberal arts colleges are losing the public debate as they nuance old language that has been badly compromised. They must seek a bold new approach to prove their assertions about value while they can still claim the home court advantage.