The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

College rankings crush liberal arts education. It’s time to revalue it.

Franklin & Marshall College (Photo courtesy of Franklin & Marshall College)
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Daniel Porterfield, the president of Franklin & Marshall College, an English scholar who previously worked as senior vice president for strategic development at his alma mater, Georgetown University, wrote about college rankings after several were released recently.

He suggests how the difficult-to-quantify yet important fundamentals of a liberal-arts education might be evaluated more fairly — in a way that highlights its value. 

By Daniel R. Porterfield

For college educators, September is now shaped by the thunderclaps of rankings, each with its own data, fanfare and false hierarchies.

[Look at U.S. News 2015 ranking trends for hundreds of colleges.]

For those who believe that liberal arts education forms young adults and fosters freedom — endeavors that are impossible to quantify and rank – it’s tempting to curse the skies, Twain-like, about the rise of “Lies, damned lies, and statistics.”

But we’re better off lamenting less and building a better case for the value of liberal arts education for the world we live in now. And this month we have an ideal invitation to do so with the release of the Obama administration’s much-anticipated College Scorecard.

This new online instrument allows users to compare institutions based on price, debt, completion rate, and average salary of graduates, regardless of major, 10 years after finishing their degrees.

For families exploring financial aid options, it provides helpful information, but as a tool for learning about the value of college, it has two limitations.

It oversimplifies and over-emphasizes salary data that may not be predictive of future earnings and, more problematic, it fails to bring into view many beneficial aspects of the college experience, especially the value of rigorous liberal arts learning.

For example, the scorecard doesn’t quantify whether students can take a broad range of core courses (taught by permanent faculty) in subjects like history, math, science, literature, philosophy, anthropology, psychology, government, languages or religion.

Nor does it measure student opportunities to work individually with faculty, improve their writing skills, do independent research, or solve intellectual problems with peers of diverse backgrounds.

It doesn’t try to take account of student learning, the rigor of a college’s grading practices, the depth of its majors, the reach of its study-abroad programs, the strength of its advising, or its success in preparing graduates for advanced learning.

True, only a miraculous tool could quantify all that, but these aren’t minor benefits, they’re life-enhancing opportunities.

So, too, are campus activities, such as work, athletics, service, religious life, group living, and leadership roles.

Of course, it’s easy to complain that, because of the inherent limitations of their genres, the College Scorecard and other rankings devalue liberal arts education. So, how should it be revalued?

First, working within the terms of today’s income-obsessed rankings, we can and should show how the liberal arts empowers students economically in today’s dynamic science- and tech-fueled economy.

This is a key part of our value – especially when, according to a new Georgetown University workforce report, 97 percent of the 3 million good new jobs created since 2010 have gone to applicants with a four-year college degree.

And when, in survey after survey, business leaders say they recruit new team members with liberal arts educations because of their ability to think, create, calculate, communicate, collaborate and solve hard problems.

Take the “earnings value” of my institution, Franklin & Marshall College — a highly selective liberal arts institution for 2,300 undergraduates in Lancaster, Pa.  We’re pleased that, six months after commencement, 94 percent of the Class of 2014 reported working fulltime or studying in graduate school.

Taking a longer view, we’re even more pleased that F&M graduates ranked 40th out of 972 colleges in mid-career earnings according to a 2015 Brookings Institution report.

In recent years we’ve worked actively to strengthen this dimension of our value – from enhancing the curriculum to growing funded internships to expanding career-related advising.

But in today’s world, enhancing earning power simply isn’t enough.

There are at least four other ways that liberal arts education offers great value to students and society — arguably, more value than in the past.

First, because we have entered the Information Age, with digitally driven torrents of news, facts, falsehoods, and culture flying at us all the time, minds that can reason, analyze and discern matter even more. An educated person can cut through the clutter, separate what’s right or relevant from what’s not, and make informed choices.

It’s more important than ever to train our young minds not to be slaves to technology or talking points. Today, knowledge is still freedom, even more than when Thomas Jefferson coined the saying.

Second, given the opportunities and threats we face with the rise of globalization, legions of well-made minds are crucial to protecting America’s interests, quality of life, and leadership. Because we compete in a punishing, lightning-fast global knowledge economy, it’s the intellectually agile inventors and knowledge creators who will drive the innovation that keeps our economy strong and on the cutting edge.

The builders of tomorrow’s better world will be those with the education to utilize multiple fields to help solve multifaceted problems like terrorism, emerging infectious diseases, climate change, global poverty, displaced persons, and runaway digital technology.

It will matter profoundly that America continues to create some of the planet’s top experts in everything from physics to genetics and from diplomacy to economics.

Leaders with advanced intellectual abilities — vital to our future global strength — must be built upon the foundation of a robust undergraduate education that fosters questioning, breadth, depth, creativity, research, and perpetual learning.

Third, because we live in a rapidly diversifying country and interdependent world, our citizens need to be able to create, collaborate, compete, and solve problems across the supposed divides of identity and culture.

Liberal arts education allows talented 18-22-year-olds from many walks of life to engage deeply with one another – and our liberal arts colleges have been especially good at expanding opportunity to students from under-represented groups in ways that build vibrant multicultural campus communities. That’s invaluable.

Cultural isolation will hold America back as the world moves past us. The real impact-makers of tomorrow will learn to interact across cultures today — and that’s exactly what happens in our liberal arts seminars.

Finally, because our more diverse world is also more dangerous, as America and, more broadly, the West, face economic, military and political threats from many adversaries, we must renew our culture and the very idea of being American.

If we don’t teach our children and youth to value America’s freedoms, history, literature, culture, political philosophy, pluralism and regional differences, we’ll be eroding from within all that we’ve built at the precise moment that we’re being attacked from outside.

In short, given the 21st century’s national and global landscapes, liberal arts education is a vast American resource for developing our talent and protecting our culture. The way we rank colleges ignores that. We shouldn’t.

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