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Private Higher Education
July 21, 2023

Many developments have led leaders in higher education to conclude that liberal education, the bedrock model for higher learning in the United States, is under threat. Since 1970, there has been a gradual but decisive shift in students’ educational priorities from intrinsic educational aims toward extrinsic financial goals. Meanwhile, rising costs and declining public and private funding have placed an ever-growing debt burden on students.

As a result, more students are prioritizing specialized training they believe will boost their earning potential over exploring a wide range of disciplines. In this context, higher ed institutions have struggled to persuade students of the relevance of a broad-based liberal arts curriculum.

In addition to shifting student priorities, many commentators have also pointed to the lack of coherence in liberal arts gen ed curricula as a major cause of this difficulty. For example, a frequent faculty contributor to Inside Higher Ed recently observed that “there is a widespread sense that the gen ed curriculum has degenerated into a buffet of disciplinary-based introductory classes.”  When students do not see clear connections between the courses they take in disparate fields of study, they are less likely to appreciate the value of a broad-based curriculum.

The linchpin of a liberal arts education is that it supplies students with a breadth and depth of learning, which yields attributes that employers find favorable. Research published in a report by the Association of American Colleges and Universities found that liberal arts skills such as effective communication, analytical reasoning, and application of knowledge, are the very abilities employers find most valuable.

While the value of a liberal arts education is supported by a sound evidence base, institutions of higher education are finding it difficult to convince students of its importance. As more students opt for narrow-focused educational programs such as vocational training, their learning often lacks the critical context that a broad-based curriculum provides.

“Regardless of a student’s major or degree choice, a liberal arts education has lifelong benefits that serve students not only in their professional lives but also prepare them for their civic responsibilities as the nation’s future leaders. It’s imperative that educators are equipped with resources to demonstrate the importance and need for an undergraduate curriculum that integrates learning across disciplines,” said AVDF President and CEO Michael Murray.  “Our hope is that faculty equipped with the tools to advocate for a liberal arts education will bring about changes within the core curriculum at higher education institutions across the country,” Murray said.

To help guide the higher education community on how to incorporate a multidisciplinary approach into curricular courses, the National Humanities Alliance (NHA) has received a $210,000 grant from AVDF to create and disseminate a report on integrative learning initiatives. The NHA is a nationwide coalition that works to research and communicate the value of the humanities to a range of audiences including on college and university campuses.

“The NHA report will feature case studies of curricular initiatives that are successfully demonstrating the value of liberal arts education to skeptical students by integrating learning across disciplines. Through nuts-and-bolts discussions of how these initiatives were implemented and survey data on how they impacted students, the report will support faculty and administrators interested in launching their own new initiatives,” said NHA Executive Director Stephen Kidd.

The NHA will begin research for the report by surveying the higher education landscape to compile case studies of effective curricular integrations achieved by scientists, artists and humanists. Each case study will provide an overview of an initiative, evidence of its success to date, lessons learned, and strategies for how others can implement their own integrative initiatives. In addition, the NHA will provide longer profiles with an in-depth analysis of some of the proven school approaches that will be featured as part of the report.

As a separate companion resource to the integrative learning report, the NHA will produce an advocacy guide that includes a persuasive rationale for promoting the use of multidisciplinary curricula. The companion resource will include data collected from students and faculty that showcases the personal, professional, and social benefits of learning across disciplines.

After the NHA report is completed, the alliance will share the findings through virtual convenings, conference presentations and the annual NHA meeting. The dissemination activities and development workshops will highlight diverse initiatives representing a wide range of disciplines including the sciences and the arts.

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