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The Year of Liberal Arts Colleges -- 6 Predictions for 2016

01/04/2016 02:41 am ET | Updated Jan 04, 2016
Bloomberg via Getty Images

Last week, presidential candidate Senator Marco Rubio concluded a presentation by giving his audience "a dark assessment of liberal arts colleges as 'indoctrination camps.'" This is a troubling notion and might indicate that it is now open season to insult schools like Whitman College where I am fortunate to work.

However, despite sporadic and press-grabbing sound bites like the senator's, this year Americans will witness powerful and meaningful positive developments on our campuses and from our graduates which will lead to a resurgence of enthusiasm for the broad education that our institutions offer. In fact, I am confident that 2016 will be the year of liberal arts colleges.

I offer the following six predictions for why this is the case:

1. We will become more accessible to more talented young people from more backgrounds, who will share their positive experiences with others

Liberal arts colleges have been creatively finding ways to allow bright and curious teens to better understand the educational and professional benefits that our schools offer, and we will ratchet up those efforts in the coming year. We are inviting a wider array of students, from a wider array of school systems, to our campuses and they are liking what they see. (A recent story about Hamilton College demonstrates one of the many ways in which we are opening up opportunities for high school students to learn about and connect with our communities.)

2. Our student protesters will create break-through moments with our administrators and model ways for colleges and universities to address campus tensions

Because of the small and intimate nature of many liberal arts colleges, opportunities exist for effective dialogue between students, staff, faculty and administrators to address concerns about inclusion and diversity that dominated higher education news in 2015. Those conversations, which will be challenging and will in many cases be successful, will model how student protesters can bring their concerns into a respectful dialogue to make real progress on the issues they care about.

3. At the same time, our students will continue to push for needed changes on our campuses and in the society around them, which we will support

President Obama, himself a liberal arts graduate, recently invited college students to continue to voice their critiques of their campuses and to continue to learn about what it means to become leaders of the messy, complex society in which they live. In 2016, last year's student activism will continue, which we recognize as an opportunity for significant student learning. Because liberal arts colleges regard ourselves as creating citizens we want our students to passionately engage with the issues they face. Without opportunities to practice bringing their concerns to those in positions of authority, how will they become skilled at raising these vital questions in less supportive or less friendly contexts?

4. Our graduates will be as conversant with algorithms and big data as they are with Snapchat and Instagram

Liberal arts colleges, with our goal of creating moral citizens and our multidisciplinary approaches to examining problems, are the perfect homes for creative academic initiatives focusing on understanding the implications of our increasingly technologically complex world.

Steve Mutkoski, Director of Government Affairs, Microsoft Worldwide Public Sector, has shared with me that as the tech industry seeks to increase the numbers of students gaining computer science skills during their college years there is an increasing need "to complement that training with discussions of the social and ethical issues that students will encounter as they go out into the world and exercise those skills," which is precisely how our campuses can make unique contributions in this arena.

At Whitman, we recently brought Professor Janet Davis aboard to create a liberal arts computer science initiative which she has been chronicling in her amazing blog. (As full disclosure, Microsoft is helping Whitman launch this initiative.)

5. Philosophy (and other humanities) majors will triumph

Senator Rubio grabbed attention last year with a quip that plumbers make more than philosophy majors and, by implication, have more value to society - an assertion that many financial commentators and economists questioned.

The reality is that philosophy majors will continue to be pursued by employers because they are both intellectually as well as professionally valuable, a truth that has been recognized far beyond the academy. The broad intellectual skills set that liberal arts graduates, including philosophy majors, possess perfectly aligns with what employers say they are looking for when they bring new talent to their workplaces.

6. We will change the higher education "value" debate to focus on benefits other than positive salary trends

Despite the positive lifetime earning trends, a broad liberal arts education, with its emphasis on helping young people become active and engaged learners throughout the entire course of their lives, is not something that can be measured using a pure "dollars and cents" metric. Rather, if it is going to be evaluated, it must be done in a way that acknowledges that this form of education repays a student's initial investment in both earned income over their lifetime as well as in enriched humanity, as I argued last year in a column here.

As the Weekly Standard beautifully put it last week, liberal arts are "good for both mind and pocketbook."

In conclusion, 2016 will be a positive and celebratory one for liberal arts colleges. It will be a year that will remind our nation of the enduring value of studying the world both widely and deeply in order to be able to enjoy as well as contribute to it for the common good.

p.s. What are your predictions for liberal arts colleges in 2016? Please feel free to write me at leavitns@whitman.edu and let me know. Best wishes for a productive and multiperspectival new year!

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