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Response to Chronicle article: ‘Career-Focused Majors Can Strengthen, Not Threaten, Liberal-Arts Colleges’

Posted by:
November 13, 2014

The presidents of the association of New American Colleges and Universities have been discussing this article via email this week, since it nicely captures the spirit of Ernest Boyer’s idea of the New American University–one that purposefully integrates the liberal arts, professional studies, and civic engagement.  Often at strictly undergraduate liberal arts colleges, there’s a reluctance to connect the professional disciplines with the arts and sciences disciplines.  At the NAC&U universities like PLU, we think such connections enrich students’ education and expand their opportunities in life.

Career-Focused Majors Can Strengthen, Not Threaten, Liberal-Arts Colleges

By Katherine Mangan, The Chronicle of Higher Education

Professional and vocational majors strengthen rather than subvert the mission of liberal-arts colleges, and students can get the same broad, liberal-arts education at those institutions whether they major in engineering or English, according to a report being released on Tuesday by researchers at the University of Iowa.

The report, “Abandoning the Liberal Arts? Liberal-Arts Learning Outcomes of Professional Majors,” focuses on 28 four-year liberal-arts colleges whose identities are not disclosed.

Traditionally, such colleges teach “a broad set of generalizable skills that equip students to adapt to a changing world,” the report notes. But with enrollment declining at many liberal-arts colleges, a growing number are giving in to students’ demands for professional and vocational majors like nursing, education, and engineering. That trend has been exacerbated by the rising cost of college and the growing focus, by students and their parents, on preparing for a job.

In the study that underlies the report, the authors compared the broad, nonvocational learning outcomes among students enrolled in professional majors with those of liberal-arts majors. The “liberal-arts outcomes” it focused on were critical thinking, moral reasoning, inclination to inquire and lifelong learning, intercultural effectiveness, psychological well-being, and leadership.

They found that students’ majors had little impact on those learning outcomes. The exceptions were that liberal-arts majors expressed greater enjoyment in reading and writing, while professional majors scored higher in socially responsible leadership over four years of college.

The authors of the report, which is to be presented this month at the Association for the Study of Higher Education’s annual meeting, are Ernest T. Pascarella, a professor of higher education at the University of Iowa, and three doctoral students in higher education and student affairs—the report’s first author, Graham N.S. Miller, as well as Cindy A. Kilgo and Mark Archibald.

Key to the appeal of liberal-arts colleges are their small size, focus on teaching, selective admissions, and residential campuses, the report notes. So what happens to those qualities when colleges introduce career-focused majors?

The components that make liberal-arts colleges distinctive are actually bolstered, the authors conclude. That’s because revenues generated by professional and vocational programs can “subsidize, protect, and strengthen” more-traditional liberal-arts offerings like English and history. As a result, economically pinched colleges can maintain their small, residential qualities and not feel the need to increase class sizes or offer classes online.

And in the most extreme cases, the report says, “adding these programs allows colleges to pursue their mission rather than close their doors.”

A Changing Education Paradigm

Tuition discounting has allowed many small liberal-arts colleges to maintain their enrollments, but experts question how long that practice can continue.

The bottom line, the authors say, is that “professional majors could represent change in the liberal arts, rather than abandonment of the liberal arts. At the very least, we propose that the adoption of professional majors at liberal arts colleges can be, in some cases, a defense of the liberal arts.”

The expansion of career-focused majors is just the latest evolution of liberal-arts curricula, the report says. The curriculum has evolved considerably since the time it focused on classical studies, incorporating natural, physical, and social sciences over the years.

A liberal-arts college that introduces professional programs can maintain its legitimacy by making them part of a robust general-education curriculum delivered on a small residential campus, the report says.

Still, professional degrees won’t be coming anytime soon to tradition-bound colleges like St. John’s College, a “great books” institution with campuses in Annapolis, Md., and Santa Fe, N.M.

“We’ve put our stake in the ground as a four-year college committed to liberal arts, but we’d be a lot happier if more colleges could survive as pure liberal-arts institutions,” said Christopher B. Nelson, president of the Annapolis campus.

“There is a tendency in many universities to go where the money flows,” he added. “The temptation to let the economic paradigm trump an educational paradigm is great.”

But not all advocates of liberal-arts colleges see professional programs as a potential threat. The introduction of disciplines like organizational behavior and operations research are part of the natural evolution of the liberal-arts curriculum, which was once limited to grammar, rhetoric, and logic, said Richard Ekman, president of the Council of Independent Colleges, which represents many of the nation’s liberal-arts institutions. He said he welcomed the report and agreed with its general findings.

“People who greeted the arrival of a business degree as the beginning of the end were wrong,” Mr. Ekman said. In the late 19th century, he said, many scholars rejected the introduction of sciences as too pedestrian and practical.

A top administrator at the Association of American Colleges and Universities, which represents liberal-arts education across a variety of colleges and universities, agreed.

“What matters is the overall quality and ethos of a school,” said Debra Humphreys, the association’s vice president for policy and public engagement. “If professional majors are introduced at an institution where faculty are dedicated to integrating what students are learning in general education with their majors, there’s no reason those students won’t do just as well.”

In a recent survey, the association found that 93 percent of employers said that job candidates’ ability to think critically, communicate clearly, and solve complex problems was more important than their undergraduate major. Any major could deliver those skills, she said, but liberal-arts majors tend to have a more explicit focus on them.

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