Today, an article at InsideHigherEd.com attempts to address the death of liberal arts in the American higher education system.
I call shenanegans.
Proportionately, liberal arts colleges graduate more students who attend graduate school, receive higher degrees, and become part of a skilled labor force as doctors, lawyers, PhDs, and various other professions. The universities churning out “vocational” students, as referred to in the article, are doing a poorer job at this.
Small liberal arts schools have far better records of alumni giving. They are also less beholden to state funds, and so don’t suffer nearly as much in quality when the state slices the budget. For instance, Centre and Transy will be less devastated than UK by the Kentucky governor’s plan to make a 12% across the board budget cut to institutions of higher ed.
Of course fewer people know what liberal arts means — the larger universities are churning out diplomas to people who can barely read. (Heard more than once from a 5th year senior: “I’ve never been to the library, and I made up my data for lab.” Exactly the person I want running FDA trials.) Professors are increasingly dumbfounded by the barely literate papers that are turned in, and the lack of attention span evident in their students, and the same strive-for-mediocrity philosophy that has prevailed in K-12 education is slowly poisoning higher education. At new faculty orientation, faculty are told that they should of course never lower their academic standards, but that they need to do everything in their power to keep a student’s grades up, because, after all, that’s where tuition dollars come from. When faculty do send students to Honor Court, or whatever passes for a disciplinary body, students are rarely expelled for egregious academic offenses at larger universities, while many of the smaller liberal arts colleges take such breaches of the academic trust very seriously. At my alma mater, the professors gave you various resources and study tips, but if you couldn’t hack it, they eventually culled you from the system rather than water down the education.
About the smaller salaries for professors: this is not an indication of how smaller institutions value their professors. It’s often an indication of smaller budgets and spending more on resources per student, where student learning is the priority, as opposed to research universities. For most professors at smaller liberal arts institutions, and I know quite a few, it is a conscious choice of accepting less pay for the opportunity to work with truly motivated undergrads in an environment that supports learning and deep relationships between faculty and their students and a sense of true community.
Small liberal arts institutions win on the quality vs quantity scale — a university education nowadays is given by TAs and adjuncts, often without PhDs. Universities also have ridiculously large classes where it is notoriously difficult for students to develop relationships with faculty (who are overworked and generally more concerned about research than teaching). A single professor is often left with 150 essays or – god forbid – research papers to grade. there is no way students can expect useful, in-depth feedback when their professor has such an overload of student work to attend to.
Students at liberal arts colleges do not have to compete with graduate students for professors’ attention. At many liberal arts colleges, students get a jump on graduate level work by collaborating with full faculty on labwork and papers, and present at conferences before many graduate students get the opportunity to do so.
Given that today’s students change *careers* (not jobs, but careers) seven or so times during their lifetime, vocational schooling leaves us with a workforce that is constantly ill-prepared to deal with new challenges and think in innovative, cross-disciplinary ways. A liberal arts education trains the mind to address problems from various angles and not from a single paradigm. A liberal arts education actually increases the employability of a student, and it often exposes them to so many fields in their studies that they have a firmer footing about what they want to do for a living once they graduate. Having a liberal arts education in no way precludes students from pursuing internships and work-related experience while in college. In fact, at most of the liberal arts schools I know in the South, this is highly encouraged. The close relationship most of these schools have with their communities – usually smaller towns and cities – makes such opportunities abundant.
As a beneficiary of a liberal arts education, I am admittedly biased. A liberal arts education is a necessary preparation for graduate study in many fields, and benefits students in a variety of ways, including forcing them outside of their comfort zones, unlike the faceless Ginormo-versity. Things to think about before declaring liberal arts colleges an endangered species, since many of us running the world – or healing its leaders – have a liberal arts background.