It is impossible to pick up a newspaper, turn on the radio, or log on to a mainstream news site without reading or hearing about higher education. Many of these stories have focused on the cost, the value, and, in some cases, the practicality of pursuing a college education. For example, Frank Bruni’s recent column ("The imperiled promise of college," Eagle, May 1) questions the value of higher education in terms of both affordability (college as "a luxury item with newly uncertain returns") and relevance (students entering the economy with "the wrong portfolio").
In the same edition of The Eagle, columnist Lindsey Hollenbaugh reflects with concern about the debt she incurred pursuing her education ("Numbing student debt numbers"). The following day, Paul Krugman wrote that we must be willing to make an investment in education to ensure our economic well being ("Wasting our minds," The North Adams Transcript, May 2). Finally, correspondent Tovia Smith filed a story on the May 1 edition of NPR’s Morning Edition ("Economy puts value of liberal arts under scrutiny") about the pressure on private liberal arts colleges to justify their missions in the face of a challenging economy.
These stories are part of a broad national conversation that is currently taking place in Congress, in state legislatures, workplaces, and on college and university campuses. They also reflect real concerns in the homes of students newly accepted to college, those in college, and those soon to graduate. What is troubling, however, is the degree to which concerns about affordability are increasingly being sidelined in favor of questions about the inherent value and purpose of higher education itself. More troubling still is the ongoing debate whether a liberal arts education -- private or public -- prepares one for success.
For students who aspire to earn a college degree, and those who sacrifice along with their families to realize that aspiration, the knowledge and skills developed through the liberal arts offer significant advantages and opportunities. The liberal arts foster the development of deep knowledge about students’ major fields of study, combined with communication, analytical, and problem-solving skills, and an increased sense of personal and social responsibility. The current national discourse pits the liberal arts against the sciences and professional programs; rather than embracing them as the center of a well rounded education. The fields of science, math, engineering, and technology are deeply rooted in the liberal arts. These fields demand creativity, curiosity, problem solving, and the ability to communicate outcomes and possibilities.
The Association of Ameri can Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) commissioned the Hart Research Associates to survey employers regarding their expectations from college graduates. The Hart study noted that graduates are in high demand who can demonstrate depth of knowledge in their academic major and their acquisition of analytical, problem-solving, and communication skills. Sim ilarly, employers look for candidates whose academic experience included internships or other community-based field experiences that connect classroom learning with practical applications -- experiences that are the hallmark of a liberal arts education.
As companies compete on the global stage, and as the American workforce includes increasing numbers of professionals from China, India, and other nations, knowledge and skills that demonstrate an appreciation for diversity and cross-cultural understanding are also increasingly valued. For sure, colleges and universities have work to do to close the skill gaps. A 2011 report from the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce found that by 2018, the U.S. will be 3 million college-educated workers short to meet demand, and that college graduation rates need to rise to meet that demand. Improving access to affordable, high-quality higher education opportunities helps address this challenge.
Global interdependence and complex cross-cultural interactions increasingly define modern society and the workplace and call for new levels of knowledge and capability. These are skills and competencies that are familiar to philosophy or anthropology majors, but also to biologists, chemists, and computer scientists. Understanding these and other liberal arts disciplines helps inform their understanding of their chosen major fields of study. This is particularly valuable as we continue to roll back the frontiers of our understanding in the sciences; as the barriers between disciplines break down, knowledge from multiple fields advances learning in biochemistry, biophysics, and biotechnology.
This ability to integrate, innovate, and adapt is the competitive advantage of the liberal arts. These skills provide a foundation for career mobility and essential preparation for an evolving job market. The U.S. Department of Labor estimates that more than one-third of the U.S. labor force changes jobs annually, and that half of American workers have been with their companies for fewer than five years. Liberal arts graduates have the knowledge and the adaptability to navigate these changes.
Affordability remains a serious concern for students, families, and for college and university faculty and administrators. The prospect of doubling federal loan rates is a significant concern, and even more troubling is the amount of private loan debt many students incur. This is where the value proposition of public higher education offers great promise and a great return on investment.
While many private institutions, notably those cited in Tovia Smith’s piece, are deeply committed to access and do offer generous aid packages, the average tuition and fees at public higher education institutions nationally run about 70 percent below costs at their private counterparts. In New England, the disparity is even greater -- nearly 80 percent -- and our public institutions offer comparable academic and student life opportunities to our students.
As an example, consider the student experience at Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts (MCLA) in North Adams, where I have the honor to serve as president. MCLA ranks among the top ten public liberal arts colleges and universities in the country, according to U.S. News and World Report. We are in good company on this list; the top three public liberal arts colleges in the United States are the service academies. Who questions the value of a West Point or Annapolis education?
MCLA faculty are dedicated educators and engaged scholars who choose to teach here because they believe in the mission of the college, and because they value the quality of life in our community. At MCLA, and across the nation at the campuses of member institutions with the Council of Public Liberal Arts Colleges (COPLAC), students and faculty create a range of unique and transformative educational experiences. Over the past year at MCLA, for example, our students and faculty have:
n Traveled to Abu Dhabi and the United Arab Emirates to study women’s issues in the Middle East;
n Provided relief efforts to tornado victims in Kentucky as part of a service learning course;
n Planned, curated, installed, and promoted an original art exhibition in a working gallery; supported the work of the many partners in the Berkshire Compact for education to introduce new opportunities and raise the educational aspirations throughout the region; researched and published as part of a national neutrino scattering experiment based at FermiLab; received an award for outstanding undergraduate research at a meeting of the American Physical Society; and organized a student-initiated business venture competition.
These are just a few examples of the life-changing work that public higher education and the liberal arts make possible. Higher education is the best investment anyone can make. We must do all that we can to support access, and limit future debt, but we must not discourage prospective students from pursing their passion, expanding their opportunities, and securing their ability to compete. As Krugman notes, "the young aren’t just America’s future; they’re the future of the tax base too."
College changes lives by creating opportunities, breaking boundaries, challenging assumptions, and demanding personal accountability. We make a mistake when we think of education as the "glittering centerpiece" of the American dream rather than as an indispensable tool in the work of building, earning, and achieving that dream.
Mary K. Grant is the president of the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts.