Life - and higher education - is about being a good adult, not about being a good student, nor only about the salary of your first job. Learning to be a good adult is infinitely more encompassing than just honing the intellect or the resum writing skills.
Despite the perennial "English majors drive a cab" myth, four years at a leading liberal arts college is a good start - perhaps the best - toward being a good adult.
Liberal arts colleges have gotten it right because no other kind of education better prepares a young person for a society in which adults can be expected to change careers, jobs, and lifestyles several times.
We are doing it right when 80 percent to 90 percent of our students graduate in four years, more than twice the national average. Graduation rates for our minority students are also well over twice the national average. Athletes graduate in four years in the same proportion nonathletes do. Why should anyone be surprised to learn that well over 50 percent of our graduates move on to excellent graduate or professional schools?
Although some people believe degrees in history, English, physics, psychology, or art are poor preparation for entry-level jobs, the fact is that corporations are looking more and more for graduates who can think, write, talk, analyze numbers, have a sense of history, have a grasp of the big picture, and know how to learn. They're looking, in short, for liberally educated people. Specialized training can be provided later when needed.
Liberal arts colleges provide this education with a lifetime shelf life at no greater cost than other forms of higher education. The only difference between the prices charged at public universities and private colleges comes from the fact that public universities are subsidized by tax dollars and private colleges are not.
Federal and state support to students has diminished considerably in the past few decades at a time when the average family income has declined in real terms. The liberal arts college is expensive, no doubt, for a family. But we deliver the goods and we also provide a lot of financial assistance through need-based and merit-based aid. The percentage of students who receive financial aid varies between 35 percent and 70 percent at leading liberal arts colleges. The question one needs to ask, however, is whether the value received is worth the price.
The list of skills that graduates of leading liberal arts colleges acquire is nearly identical to what Anne Lee Verville, a senior executive at IBM, described in a recent article in "Educational Record" as the skills that corporations are most interested in finding. These graduates can solve complex problems which are often interdisciplinary and require input from different specialists. They know how to get the information and what to do with it. They work with computers and other technologies. They can work cooperatively in teams or small groups. They can work with diverse people, here and abroad. They can develop a global view. They are able to change and adapt to change. They can sustain effort in a work environment and follow through on tasks. Mostly, they can learn and keep learning. Ms. Verville claims that the shelf life of a technical degree is less than five years, and that to know how to keep learning new things has become essential to economic survival.
Liberal arts colleges focus on critical inquiry. We teach students to ask questions, to question the answers they get, to evaluate critically what they hear, read, and do. We teach them to evaluate evidence. This is how judgment is formed and sharpened over time. It is hard work, and often it is uncomfortable work, because assumptions are revisited, compared with other perspectives and tested against other views. But this is what we mean by forming habits of mind, habits of thought.
We make our students work in small groups, the way most work is done after college. Students receive personal attention from teachers who enjoy teaching.
Reengineering and downsizing are not new. They are just our era's version of managing uncertainty. I doubt that the best preparation for tomorrow's uncertainty is to focus education on getting the first job (which technology or society may make obsolete within a decade).
The liberal arts college's approach delivers the goods. We provide the education with a lifetime shelf life.
* Michele Tolela Myers is president of Denison University in Granville, Ohio.