The Liberal Arts Advantage Affirmed

President's Perspective

January 2012

Dear Friends,

In a recent Chronicle of Higher Education article, reporter Jeff Selingo noted, “About half of Americans think that the higher-education system is doing a poor or fair job in providing value for the money spent, according to a survey last spring by the Pew Research Center.” Selingo concluded that “academic rigor will play a greater role in the value proposition, as a simple credential will no longer cut it.”

I read this shortly after receiving an email from alumna Sarah Kennedy. Currently pursuing an advanced degree in environmental health medicine, she lamented not being as challenged in her work as she was at Ursinus. With her permission, I quote from her e-mail:

I graduated from Ursinus College in 2006 and studied Biology. At that time I knew I had attended the right college and I felt more intelligent and prepared upon entering the workforce. However, now I appreciate the school more than ever. The curriculum was difficult—really difficult. General Chemistry made me cry. A lot. I hated it sometimes but my professors gave me feedback, met with me regularly, tried to understand where I was struggling and provided me with tools to help me through the course. Any class I struggled with was handled this way. Not once did any of the professors let me off easy. They kept the coursework challenging. They didn’t curve grades. They made sure we were aware of their expectations and that we met them. For this, I am truly grateful.

Students work hard to manage their time and finances to earn a college education. They should be expected to work hard for the degree too. I have not felt this way since leaving Ursinus College … I feel arrogant saying this as a graduate of UC, but it produces intelligent, driven individuals. At this point, my only real complaint with Ursinus is that it set the bar too high and I don’t think that I’ll ever feel as accomplished academically as I did upon graduation in ’06.

To complement Sarah’s testimony, I want to offer more data-based evidence of the value and benefits of a liberal arts education from a recent national study. The Annapolis Group, a non-profit alliance of 130 residential liberal arts colleges, of which Ursinus is a member, commissioned a study by the research firm Hardwick Day to determine how liberal arts graduates perceive the effectiveness of their education. (The study will be linked on our web site when it is available.)

This study confirmed that liberal arts graduates are more likely than graduates of both private and public universities to have benefited from academic rigor:

  • Most of these graduates’ grades were based on essay examinations and written reports, as opposed to the short answer and multiple choice examinations reported more frequently by public sector alumni. Their experience entailed far fewer lecture-based classes and often included extensive classroom discussions.
  • They developed a broad range of important skills which include problem-solving, making effective decisions, thinking analytically, writing and speaking effectively, working as part of a team, and leadership.
  • They were far more likely to have lived on campus, and the residential experience created a greater sense of community that supported their academic progress, including greater levels of interaction with professors who both challenged them academically and personally helped them meet those challenges.
  • They were more likely to graduate in four years and to find that their education continued to help them with career changes and advancement.

This last finding goes hand in hand with a recent piece in the Huffington Post, “A Liberal Education: Preparation for Career Success,” by A. G. Lafley, the former Chair of Proctor and Gamble and an alumnus of Hamilton College, for which he serves as Chair of the Board of Trustees. Lafley writes:

By studying art, science, the humanities, social science, and languages, the mind develops the mental dexterity that opens a person to new ideas, which is the currency for success in a constantly changing environment … The formula for businesses trying to compete in today’s economy is simple: hire employees with the mental agility, leadership and passion to navigate constant change—in other words, hire those who are liberally educated.

During my first fall semester as President of Ursinus, I have delighted in hearing from graduates like Sarah Kennedy who have told me how their Ursinus liberal arts education has impacted their lives. I invite you to share your stories with me so that we can continue to demonstrate how the rigor of an Ursinus education has lifelong benefits.

Go Bears!
President Bobby Fong

I have enjoyed your comments from the previous editions of President’s Perspective. Please continue to send comments to perspective@ursinus.edu.