11/01/2013 08:51 am ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

Coming Out Strong

Sometimes people are so busy doing the work in front of them that they don't take time to promote what they do. Sometimes people believe so deeply in the intrinsic value of what they do that they don't feel a need to justify their work to an external audience. And, sometimes people who command the written and spoken word struggle to find just the right words to convey their own message. This may be the case for many who are advocates of the liberal arts.

The consequences? Misperceptions about "the liberal arts" abound: Liberal arts refers to the fine arts and the humanities, not the sciences. Not true. Liberal arts are grounded in a "liberal" political agenda. Not true. Liberal arts graduates lack employable skills. Not true. Liberal arts education is not affordable. Not true. Liberal arts graduates have an excessive debt burden. Not true. Liberal arts education is for the elite. Not true.

The Council for Independent Colleges (CIC) is one organization that is tackling these misperceptions head on. The CIC, representing more than 600 colleges and universities in the nation, is the major national service organization for all small and mid-sized, independent, liberal arts colleges and universities in the U.S. The organization is committed to telling the public the truth about the liberal arts and why liberal arts graduates are so important to our nation.

To do so, CIC created a Campaign Advisory Committee of CIC member presidents, chief enrollment officers, and chief public relations officers. The committee helped CIC prepare and launch a national campaign to make the case: "Securing America's Future: The Power of Liberal Arts Education." To support this effort, CIC received over $1 million in funding. CIC also reached out to leaders of other major higher education associations and organizations with similar initiatives to coordinate efforts and to support each other's works. As a member of CIC and with a 178-year liberal arts tradition, Albion College was an enthusiastic partner in this effort.

As part of the campaign, CIC used focus groups to better understand current messages about liberal arts education and communication challenges; identified the need for accurate data on critical topics such as affordability, access, and outcomes; saw the importance of creating and conveying socially-friendly messages; accepted the emerging power of social media; recognized the impact that alumni can have if they are willing to provide testimonials about success in their personal, career, and community lives; and, appreciated the benefits of current students willing to talk in an authentic voice about their academic and social experiences on campus.

To convey this information in an easily accessible, user-friendly format and one that can be updated on a timely basis, CIC designed and launched an impressive new campaign website this month which offers a plethora of resources about the liberal arts - research, data, op-eds, copies of articles in the regional and national media, blog posts, stories and speeches in campus press, and videos and images.

There are many surprising facts on the website about independent liberal arts colleges and universities. Here are just a few:

  • A slightly higher percentage of students enrolled at independent colleges are from low-income backgrounds (annual family income less than20,000) than students enrolled at public research universities (18 percent vs. 17 percent).
  • The four-year graduation rate at independent colleges is 52 percent, compared with 31 percent at public institutions and 20 percent at for-profit institutions.
  • Young people who are enrolled in independent colleges and universities are more likely to volunteer: 64 percent of 16- to 24-year-olds at independent colleges and universities volunteered, versus only 22 percent of all 16- to 24-year-olds in the general population.
  • Young people enrolled in independent colleges and universities are more likely to register to vote: 77 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds at four-year independent colleges and universities registered to vote in the 2008 presidential election, versus only 53 percent of all 18- to 24-year-olds in the general population.

The liberal arts needed to find their voice. CIC's recent initiative is providing a megaphone for those who believe deeply in the liberal arts. The message is compelling, persuasive, and backed by data. Now we need to make sure people are listening.