09/13/2012 11:34 am ET Updated Nov 13, 2012

Liberal Arts Is About More Than Money

It's hard to avoid the chatter about how colleges and universities should be run more like businesses -- how, for example, we should jettison academic programs that do not earn their economic keep. As a college president, it pains me that we should equate centers of intellect with unprofitable product lines. As someone who sees more than financial value in the production of knowledge, I cry balderdash.

But that's not to say that there aren't businesslike approaches that serve us well. One of the areas in which many consumer businesses outpace education is in how well they use the tools of market research to survey their clients and measure themselves against the competition.

That's just what a consortium of 130 independent liberal arts colleges has done. The liberal arts have clients, too. We call them students and graduates. To learn what they value about their college experience and what they do with it, the Annapolis Group commissioned a national study, a customer satisfaction survey, if you will. The results are bracing and instructive.

Among the key findings: Liberal arts students are academically anchored -- not adrift -- and community minded. They value supportive learning environments and teaching that stretches their abilities. Strong mentoring, abundant intern and community service opportunities, and working directly with professors rather than graduate assistants -- these things matter.

So, what is the ultimate liberal arts payoff? Alumni declare they are well prepared for both graduate study and the workplace, having developed intellectual, practical and leadership skills vital to scholarly inquiry, career advancement and life as public citizens.

High rates of satisfaction and positive outcomes are reaffirming, especially because the liberal arts are often knocked by critics as being less than relevant to career preparation. But the study also reveals another distinction. Notes James H. Day, a principal of Hardwick Day and the study's director, "On virtually all measures known to contribute to positive outcomes, graduates of liberal arts colleges rate their experience more highly than do graduates of private or public universities."

Of course, one size mortarboard does not fit all. When students and their families weigh their options, many variables and circumstances are in play. It is a great strength of higher education in this country that students can choose from different types of institutions, each able to meet their particular needs. And, in fact, at least 89 percent of alumni in each of the study's sectors rated their overall undergraduate experience as good or excellent.

That's a good rate of "customer satisfaction," but the score is even better for the liberal arts colleges. Seventy-seven percent of the Annapolis Group alumni, graduates of that group of 130 liberal arts colleges, rate the experience as excellent, and 18 percent rate it as good. Try finding a consumer product of comparable price that can equal that 95 percent satisfaction rate.

Ultimately, surveys are only valuable if we take action with what they tell us. Here are one president's takeaways, applicable, I believe, to colleges and universities of every stripe:

  • Let teachers be teachers. Students benefit from experiences that are purposeful and personal: being challenged academically by the very professors who help them meet those challenges; collaborating with faculty in research and participating in faculty-directed independent study; and engaging the classroom as a place for intensive discussions rather than rote lectures. Faculty must have the resources that let them bring their own best selves to campus every day.
  • Laurels are not rest stops. The Annapolis Group findings give us much to celebrate. But these results also frame decisions that college presidents must make, not to forestall change but to ensure that it is dynamic, necessary and grounded in our core mission: to teach what is known, to discover what is not and to shape global citizens.
  • The playing field is not level. We must be even more resourceful to expand access and strengthen financial aid, ensuring that education is an achievable opportunity for students from all backgrounds.

An unknown future demands known and knowing skills. Our graduates are prepared for full and fulfilling lives because as students, they immerse themselves in cross-disciplinary studies, diverse communities and collaborative inquiry. These intentional pursuits hone the critical thinking, global awareness and agile minds so valued by businesses and so crucial to entrepreneurship and innovation. They are necessary for taking on educational, economic and social inequities that call for fresh solutions.

Just how enduring are the benefits of an education that hits these marks? At my college's reunion weekend this summer, I found it uplifting to be around multiple generations of enthusiastic alumni. And hearing them reflect on the ways in which their college education directed them toward successful careers -- and, yes, lives of purpose and active citizenship -- was wholly energizing. I find myself rededicated to the work we do, the people who do it and the people who benefit from it.

These are the kinds of learning outcomes worth more than money in the bank.

Published originally on, Sept. 10

Barry Glassner is the president of Lewis & Clark College in Portland and author of The Culture of Fear: Why Americans Are Afraid of the Wrong Things.