In tough times, liberal arts colleges defend their value

  • Article by: JENNA ROSS , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 20, 2012 - 6:59 AM
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Kirsten Heikkinen, left, a junior from Rogers, checked out a dorm room during an admissions tour at St. Olaf College in Northfield.

Photo: Richard Tsong-Taatarii, Star Tribune

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NORTHFIELD, MINN. -- David Anderson knows that parents today are skeptical about the liberal arts. That they worry about their children graduating in a tough economy with a degree that doesn't spell out that first job. That they're weighing a hefty price tag against the possibility of unemployment.

So, in a quick talk to a ballroom full of high school juniors and their families, the president of St. Olaf College made the opposite argument. "If St. Olaf had given me an education that prepared me exactly for 1974," Anderson said, "I would now be unemployed and irrelevant."

Questions about the value of higher education are pressuring small, liberal arts colleges that specialize in general degrees and depend on tuition -- and Minnesota has many of those.

Some are now publicly pushing back. The Minnesota Private College Council commissioned a survey that shows their alumni are more satisfied with their degrees than graduates of other schools. Augsburg College is moving its career center to the heart of campus. In May, St. Olaf will take the unusual step of putting detailed job and salary information of alumni online.

"People always ask me: Don't people perceive this focus on people getting jobs as a threat to your identity?" Anderson said in an interview. "Actually, no. The people who work here, the faculty, they have children.

"Nobody wants the liberal arts to mean, 'Would you like fries with that?'"

A 2011 Gallup poll shows half of those surveyed believe the main reason to seek higher education is to "earn more money." About a third picked to "get a good job." What about the classic liberal arts goals of becoming a better citizen? Learning how to learn?

Just 5 percent of those surveyed said "to become a well-rounded person."

"To learn to think critically"? One percent.

Linda Lincoln graduated from St. Olaf but can't get her daughter, a junior at South High School in Minneapolis, to even visit. "It's an hour away, it would be nice, we could have lunch," Lincoln said, laughing.

Louisa Lincoln's reasons are many. She wants a big-city school. She plans to do plenty of hands-on research. She's a news hound, so she hears of layoffs and unemployment.

"Kids are very practical in that way these days," Linda Lincoln said.

Moving careers center-stage

Parents, too. With that in mind, St. Olaf has transformed its career center, called the Center for Experiential Learning. "I don't know why that name was selected," Anderson quipped, "but I'm guessing it was to avoid using the word 'career.'"

Once on the fringes of campus, the center now shares a bright, newly renovated building with the president's office. It's a key stop on campus tours and a regular sight along students' routes. Since the move, the center has seen a 69 percent increase in traffic.

Soon, it will get a new name: the Center for Vocation and Career. If St. Olaf once eschewed the word, now it's shouting it from the hilltop.

Like other schools, St. Olaf has touted alums with cool jobs in its publications and released an employment figure or two. But soon, a prospective student will be able to browse a database: What share of grads with English degrees have jobs? What are they earning?

In May, the college will begin publishing employment and salary data for the class of 2011, building on it with every class. A spokeswoman for the Council of Independent Colleges said its president and researcher had never heard of a nonprofit, private college making such data public.

Anderson knows the risks: "First, people might look at your data and not be impressed. The other risk, though, is that you have no data, and you're this black box where people dump $50,000 a year for four years.

"If I could pick one of those two risks, I'm going to take the first one."

St. Olaf's price tag for the 2012-13 year is $48,650 for tuition, room and board, though most students will pay less than that after subtracting scholarships.

Adding to the equation

Arguments about value are fueled by studies with competing messages. New reports by the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce show that graduates with "soft" majors in areas like fine arts are more likely to be unemployed and make less money.

But a survey by the Social Science Research Council, out in January, demonstrates that recent grads who scored well on liberal arts skills like reasoning and writing are doing better financially than those with lower scores.

Colleges are commissioning their own studies. A new survey partly sponsored by the Minnesota Private College Council shows that about 53 percent of alumni of the group's 17 schools reported being "completely satisfied" with the quality of their education, compared with 32 percent of those surveyed from six Midwest public flagship universities. They also beat the public schools on questions about "sense of community," courses taught by professors and four-year graduation.

That report mirrors a national one released in November by the Annapolis Group, which represents 130 private liberal-arts colleges.

Both surveys show that engagement matters -- and that private college students are more likely to be engaged, said James Day, of Hardwick-Day, which conducted the national and Minnesota surveys. They also indicate that growing debt has affected students' optimism, especially on the question of whether the investment was worth it.

Anderson, addressing a group of college presidents in January, argued that numbers are key in combating skepticism. "No parent wants to spend tens, even hundreds, of thousands of dollars on college only to have their student return home and live in the basement," he said. "We have to demonstrate that that is not what happens with our students."

Colleges can then extend the conversation to "the outcomes of a liberal arts education that are less tangible, though not less important."

'What can you be?'

The less tangible was on display at St. Olaf last month during a day for high school juniors. Families feasted on mini-bagels, fruit and yogurt, explored stone-clad buildings and attended sessions on studying abroad, the fine arts and the residential experience. For a session on "Why the Liberal Arts?" juniors, flanked by their parents, filled the seats and, when there were none left, sat on the stage.

Anne Groton, a classics professor, commanded the room with her theatrical delivery. "I think people ask the wrong question," she pronounced. "People always say, 'What can you do with a major from St. Olaf?' The question should be, 'What can you be with a major from St. Olaf?'"

At 16, Jack is the oldest child in the Beahler family, "so this is all new to us," Sara Beahler said after the session.

She and her husband, Blake, attended Iowa State University and began their careers with jobs related to their majors -- industrial engineering and early childhood education, respectively -- but have since experienced "reinventions." They now own a bookstore in Sheldon, Iowa.

"Most likely, throughout your life you're going to do something completely different than what you studied," Blake Beahler said, "and you need an education that is general enough that you can apply it to those different areas."

Jenna Ross • 612-673-7168

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