The liberal arts model of higher education has predominated in the United States for over two centuries. Yet this approach to college education is viewed with increasing suspicion and even disdain by parents and students. A 2023 Gallup poll of parents with children in grades 7-12, for example, found them rating “no college at all” as a better path to a good job than “a liberal arts degree.”
This stands in stark contrast to the views of those within the academy. In 2022, Inside Higher Ed polled chief academic officers at colleges and universities across the country to determine whether or not they continue to see a liberal arts education as a valuable pursuit for students. The answer was a clear and resounding yes, with 89% agreeing that such an education is valuable even for students in professional programs. Yet these same leaders recognize that those outside of the academy hold liberal arts education in low esteem, with 64% indicating that “politicians, presidents, and boards are increasingly unsympathetic to liberal arts education.”
These survey results are consistent with other data showing a divide between those within and outside academia over the value of a liberal arts education. Students, faculty, and administrators believe that such an education equips students with a broad-based education that confers skills in critical thinking, effective communication, collaboration and teamwork, and engaging with others across lines of difference. Such skills are not only valuable but are among those that are most widely prized by employers.
Does a liberal arts education deliver the benefits its advocates claim? While much anecdotal information exists about the value of such an education, rigorous empirical evidence of its utility is frustratingly thin. In the absence of data demonstrating the financial and non-financial outcomes of a liberal education, institutions of higher education are finding it increasingly difficult to convince students and parents of its value.
To help begin to fill this evidence gap AVDF recently awarded a $355,000 grant to the American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS). The grant will support the AVDF/ACLS Fellowships for Research on the Liberal Arts, which provides funding and data training to up to five scholarly projects exploring the impact of liberal arts education using the College and Beyond II (CBII) data set.
The CBII data set was created by a team of scholars and staff at the Inter-university Consortium for Political and Social Research (ICPSR) based at the University of Michigan with support from the Mellon Foundation. The data set includes more than one million student records, 50 million course enrollments, and alumni surveys for 2,800 respondents. Through the ACLS-administered program, five researchers will be awarded grants of $45,000 to use the CBII data set to examine how a liberal arts education impacts graduates’ lives and careers.
“ACLS is excited to partner with the Arthur Vining Davis Foundations on this important research initiative,” said ACLS Vice President James Shulman. “As the rising cost of higher education leads students and families to question the value of a college education, we need a fuller understanding of the varied impacts of a liberal arts education. Research conducted with the Foundations’ support, the rich data of CBII, and this competitive fellowship program will deepen our collective understanding of an approach to education that aims for more than the specific pre-professional preparation for a graduate’s first job.”
Starting in September 2023, ACLS will invite project proposals that will examine the impact of a liberal arts education on career success and adaptability, objective and subjective well-being, civic participation, and other key outcomes. The five fellows will each receive project funding, participate in a two-day data training led by the research team at ICPSR, and convene for a subsequent symposium to share their findings with each other and invited journalists.
As with all other ACLS fellowship and grant programs, the AVDF/ACLS Fellowships will be awarded based on a highly competitive, peer-reviewed process. For more information about the new fellowship program, click here.