Save the Dinosaurs!
In the interest of full disclosure, I am not totally objective about this. I attended a liberal arts college. My wife attended a liberal arts college. Our children attended liberal arts colleges. And while I currently lead an institution that prepares students for professions, that preparation is built upon a solid base of liberal education. Our faculty have just completed a revision of our General Education program and developed Institutional Learning Objectives that truly reflect the value and importance of a liberal arts education.
So when I read about a recent conference entitled, “The Future of Liberal Arts Colleges in America and Its Leadership Role in Education Around the World,” I was interested to learn more. The conference was advertised as an opportunity to discuss both the “sustainability” and the “evolution” of liberal arts colleges. One of the descriptions of this conference referenced these colleges as “dinosaurs of higher education, ambling into extinction.”
The debate about the various types of colleges and universities is going on every day. Some argue for more emphasis on community colleges, other public institutions, and still others for colleges like Anna Maria that focus on professional preparation at both the undergraduate and graduate levels. Some in the debate even question the need for a college degree.
Dialogue and debate are healthy and constructive exercises. We should always be open to the exchange of ideas and viewpoints and be willing to listen and change. Closed minds and strident positions cause more harm and limit our ability to work together for the Common Good. We do not have to agree, but we should always be civil and respectful of all people and all perspectives.
For me, this approach to learning … this approach to living … is endemic to liberal education. While there is value in a diverse higher education system, there needs to be a commitment to liberal education at every type of college and university and liberal arts colleges are an essential part of the system. In other words, save the dinosaurs!
At this conference, there was open discussion, dialogue and debate about the challenges facing liberal arts colleges. Quite frankly, these same challenges are true for all colleges and universities, especially private, independent colleges.
One challenge is affordability. In these uncertain economic times, it is becoming more and more difficult for families to afford a college education. While colleges continually increase financial aid opportunities, this can only help so much and there are limits to how far most colleges can afford to go.
A second challenge discussed at this conference was the skepticism of higher education in general. There have been repeated reports and media focus on scandals, accountability, student debt, etc. While most colleges have an impeccable record, we are all impacted by public perceptions of higher ed.
The future of liberal arts colleges is also challenged by the changing demographics in this country. This issue relates to both the percentage of traditional minority students and the geographic shifts away from the areas of the country in which most liberal arts colleges are located. With rare exception, most colleges and universities draw a vast majority of their students from a regional area.
What do you think about liberal education? If you believe it is valuable, what should liberal arts colleges do? More important, what should all colleges that believe in the core value of liberal education do? I will share some thoughts next week. I plan to do all I can to save the dinosaurs!
(As always, your comments and ideas are welcome.)