Liberal Education

From the Guest Editor: A Midterm for Liberal Education

Ten years ago, as the fall of Lehman Brothers was just kicking off the Great Recession, it was still possible to believe that fewer students, lower revenue, and the loss of public confidence were part of a brief phase in the cycles of higher education. We would lobby harder and make a better case for the public good of higher education. We would launch campaigns about the importance of a liberal education and eventually the students would return. We now know better. While the narrative supporting the case for higher education’s value to students for careers, lifelong happiness, and financial security has never been stronger, and while employers crave exactly the skills we provide, we can no longer assume incremental change will be enough. We can no longer be a place where bold ideas go to die in committee. We can no longer assume anything will get better soon by itself. We need to reinvent ourselves.

There is no shortage of doomsday predictions or radical advice for the future of higher education. There are interesting new visions and models emerging at institutions across the country, but we can’t all become online juggernauts like Southern New Hampshire University (which already occupies that space, by the way). Luckily for us, colleges are resilient places, and we are starting to see a host of new programs that seem to give both parents and employers the reassurance they need while staying true to our liberal education missions.

This issue of Liberal Education starts, as all good solutions must, with an honest look at the problem: Who and where are our future students, and what do they and employers want? A table on page 19 also gives an overview of some of the financial realities and responses across our sector.

Then the bulk of our issue is given to a diverse group of leaders who are trying to rethink and remake liberal education at very different types of institutions. Their quest was for innovations that were bold but also true to liberal education. We could have filled the issue with lists of new professional programs in e-sports management and cannabis science (both real examples) that will potentially immediately attract students and industry support, but instead we looked for examples of how and what we teach that might work at a variety of institutions, and how we could better integrate them while reducing costs.

We looked for specific programs and processes: what worked and what failed, what was embraced and what was resisted, and how leaders brought about these changes. At the same time, you will see repeated references to liberal education, programs from the Association of American Colleges and Universities, and well-understood high-impact practices (see

Two of our most thoughtful and provocative liberal education leaders, Leon Botstein and Brian Rosenberg, were also asked to respond to these ideas and provide a broader perspective about what all of this means for institutions and our sector. Are we being bold enough? Do we need to change at all? Are we addressing the right issues? If these are our midterm exam answers, how are we doing?


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