Liberal Education and
America’s Promise:
Excellence for Everyone as a
Nation Goes to College
Debra Humphreys
Vice President for Communications and Public Affairs
Association of American Colleges and Universities
Goals Of AAC&U Campaign for
Liberal Education
 To
engage the public with the nature and importance of a
contemporary liberal education
 To
mobilize support for changes that campuses already are
making to improve undergraduate education and ensure that all
students receive an engaged and practical liberal education
 To
document the outcomes that business leaders need in their
employees and those that citizens need in a diverse democracy
 To
assist campuses as they become more intentional about
ensuring that all students receive a liberal education
 To build the capacity of colleges and universities to communicate
more effectively about liberal education and what really matters
in college
 To document how well students are achieving the key goals that
characterize a quality liberal education
What is Liberal Education Today?
A philosophy of education that empowers individuals with core
knowledge and transferable skills, and a strong sense of ethics,
values, and civic engagement.
Involving challenging intellectual encounters with important
and relevant issues today and throughout history, a liberal
education prepares graduates for socially valued work and civic
A liberal education usually includes a general education
curriculum that provides broad exposure to multiple disciplines
and ways of knowing, along with more in-depth study in one or
more field.
A liberal education provides students with the knowledge and
skills employers are calling for and the society needs.
Frequently Confused Terms
 Liberal
Education—a philosophy of education that
provides broad general education, cultivates intellectual
agility, and fosters ethical and social responsibility
 Liberal Arts and Sciences—specific disciplines
traditionally associated with liberal education
 Liberal Arts College—a small, residential college
with close interaction between faculty and students and
strong focus on liberal arts and science disciplines (not
official designation)
 General Education—the part of a curriculum shared
by all students; provides broad study in liberal arts and
forms basis for developing intellectual and civic capacities
What is the Same and What is Different
About Liberal Education Today?
Today’s liberal education helps students discover clear
connections between what they are learning and the lives
they will lead as workers, citizens, community and family
 A strong foundation in arts and sciences disciplines remains
absolutely essential to a quality contemporary liberal
 Today’s liberal education focuses both on important content
and on teaching the arts of analysis and argument that can be
carried to any field of study or endeavor.
 Liberal education has always and continues to introduce and
examine diverse perspectives on any subject and to teach
students how to evaluate competing claims and different
perspectives while they form their own judgments.
Why is a Campaign Needed Now?
 “While
issues of access and affordability in higher
education remain important, there is also a compelling
need to focus on what all students should achieve once
they enroll in college. Behind the scenes, a consensus
is emerging among business, civic, educational, and
some public policy leaders about the kinds of learning
Americans need to thrive in a knowledge-intensive
economy and a globally engaged democracy. This
consensus underlines the value of a liberal education
for all students.”
Ron Crutcher, president, Wheaton
College, chair AAC&U board of directors
Main Campaign Messages
We must raise the level of college student achievement to meet the
rising expectations for work and life in the 21st century. This should be
a national priority or we will not meet the demands of a globally
interdependent world and volatile economy.
Today’s students need to hone their abilities to analyze and solve
problems, communicate effectively in writing and orally, and across
cultures, understand numbers and the natural and physical world, and
develop a sense of ethical and social responsibility.
A liberal education—retooled and calibrated to 21st century needs—is
the best way to ensure that all students achieve these needed skills,
knowledge, and competencies to succeed and make a difference in the
21st century.
Key Learning Outcomes:
The Emerging Consensus
 science, social sciences,
mathematics, humanities, arts
Intellectual and Practical Skills
 written and oral communication
 inquiry, critical and creative
 quantitative literacy
 information literacy
 teamwork
 integration of learning
Individual and Social
 civic responsibilities and
 ethical reasoning
 intercultural knowledge and
 lifelong learning
A Nation Goes To College
Nearly All High School Students
See College In Their Future
Fewer Looking To Alternative Schools
Do you plan to go to college sometime after high school?
2003 2002 2001
Four-year college
Two-year college
Community college
92% plan to
continue their
vocational school
Don’t plan to
go to college
Not sure whether I
will go to college
State of Our Nation’s Youth. Spring 2004. Conducted by Peter D.
Hart Research on behalf of Horatio Alger Association.
College Readiness: How Prepared
for College Are Today’s Students ?
College instructors estimate that 42 percent of their students are not
adequately prepared.
 24% of high school graduates say they faced high expectations in high
 35% of college students report large gaps in at least one area of key
learning skills.
Only 44% of high-school students nationwide report that they are enrolled
in college preparatory (25%) or advanced placement (19%) classes.
Only 34% of students in the class of 2002 left high school with minimum
standards for college admission (including graduating from high school).
Sources: Rising to the Challenge: Are High School Graduates Prepared for College & Work. 2005
Achieve; State of Our Nation’s Youth. Spring 2004. Conducted by Peter D. Hart Research on behalf
of Horatio Alger Association; Public High School Graduation and College Readiness Rates: 19912002, February 2005. Manhattan Institute.
Do They Know Why They Are There?
Are They Getting What They Need?
“Today’s students and their parents have heard the message
that college is essential to success in today’s world. But no
one has told them what they really need to gain from
college or how to prepare for it.”
Lee Shulman, president, Carnegie Foundation for
the Advancement of Teaching and member, LEAP
National Leadership Council
What Business Leaders Say About
What Really Matters in College
Executives will need a broad understanding of other
cultures, other languages, history, science, and the arts, if
they are to successfully navigate a rapidly changing future
business environment.
Good writing skills and good public speaking skills are
crucial to business success.
The real challenge of today’s economy is not in making
things but in producing creative ideas.
Reading, writing and basic arithmetic are not enough.
These skills must be integrated with other kinds of
competency to make them fully operational.
 Sources: Paul Dillon, The College Board Review, no. 164; David
Kearns, quoted in Reclaiming the Legacy by Denis Doyle; SCANS
Report, “What Work Requires of Schools”
What Do Private Employers Think?
Findings from Recent Focus Groups
 The
most important outcomes: problem-solving
and analytic thinking; oral and written
communication; critical thinking; teamwork skills;
strong work habits.
 Recent graduates most lack: work ethic, people
skills, and communication skills.
 Civic engagement is not an important outcome of
 Limited and/or misguided understanding of liberal
education; believe it is less rigorous.
The New Global Economy and
 Today’s
graduates are likely to change jobs and
careers several times.
 Complex oral and written communication skills
more important than ever and lacking.
 Creativity and innovation are keys to success.
 Scientific and quantitative literacy increasingly
important and lacking.
 Cross-cultural communication and knowledge
increasingly important.
Goals Of Preliminary Research with
High School and College Students
 To
explore college students’ and prospective college
students’ hopes, concerns, expectations, and goals
regarding college
 To
assess college students’ and prospective college
students’ understanding of and attitudes toward liberal
education and key outcomes of college
What Do Students Think About
Liberal Education?
Peter D. Hart Research conducted 8 focus groups for AAC&U between July 26
and August 3, 2004 and 2 focus groups in March, 2005 (WI), among:
 Rising public high school seniors who plan
to attend a four-year college or university
 Rising juniors and seniors at public and private
colleges and universities
 The groups were held in three locations:
Indianapolis, Indiana
Portland, Oregon
Alexandria, Virginia
Milwaukee, Wisconsin (March, 2005)
The discussions focused on personal aspirations relating to college and not on
outcomes of college as they relate to
society as a whole.
 Note: because this is qualitative research, results should not be interpreted as
broadly representative of the sampled populations.
Sources Of College Information
Limited resources are available on how to prepare for
college life academically and socially.
Most valued sources for honest answers and relevant
information are those with recent experience:
 Siblings
 Friends
 Recent graduates
Less valued sources include:
College counselors
Colleges and universities
Importance Of College Education
The primary motivation is self development and
maturation to enhance potential for success in the
How college contributes to career success:
 More career choices and job opportunities
 Specific skills and knowledge required by field of
 Knowledge that will be helpful throughout life (on and
off the job)
 Capabilities, ethics,
professional success
Importance Of College Education
A means to an end or an end in itself?
Students have varied opinions.
 “I don’t think it means much of anything, it’s just
a piece of paper. But that piece of paper will get
you the interview at whatever job you want.”
College student, Alexandria, VA
 “Well, I just think that it’s about the journey. Like
the whole process – you have to have all these
general requirements to making you that wellrounded person…becoming a better thinker…it’s
more the process rather than the piece of paper.”
College student, Portland, OR
Outcomes Of College For High School And
College Students
(VA, IN, OR)
Most Important Outcomes
Maturity and ability to succeed
on one’s own
Time-management skills
Strong work habits
Teamwork skills and ability to
get along with different types
of people
Challenge: students don’t readily link these outcomes to the college curriculum
Outcomes Of College For High School And
College Students
(VA, IN, OR)
Middle Tier Outcomes
Tangible business skills and
specific expertise in field of focus
Critical thinking skills
Communication skills
Problem-solving skills and
analytical ability
Exposure to business world
Leadership skills
Outcomes Of College For High School And College
(VA, IN, OR)
Least Important Outcomes
Values, principles, ethics
Tolerance and respect for different
cultural backgrounds
Competency in computer skills
Expanded cultural and global
awareness and sensitivity
Civic responsibility and
orientation toward public service
Outcomes Of College For High School And
College Students
Most Important Outcomes
 Maturity and ability to succeed on
one’s own
 Tangible business skills and specific
expertise in field of focus**
 Strong work habits
 Teamwork skills and ability to get
along with different types of people
 Self-discipline
Outcomes Of College For High School And
College Students
Middle Tier Outcomes
 Communication skills
 Critical thinking skills
 Time-management skills
 Values, principles, ethics
 Knowledge of and respect for people
of different cultural backgrounds **
 Exposure to the business world
 Leadership skills
Outcomes Of College For High School And
College Students
Least Important Outcomes
 Community involvement and civic
 Competency in computer skills
 Expanded knowledge of cultures
outside the U.S. **
 Expanded knowledge of American
culture and history **
 Expanded understanding of science
and its relation to other fields **
Students’ Familiarity With And
Impressions Of Liberal Education
Awareness of liberal education is non-existent among HS
students, and college students are only somewhat aware.
Participants associate liberal education with:
 The arts and humanities or liberal arts colleges
 General education and broad requirements
 Being well rounded, promoting individualism,
and encouraging critical thinking
 Being politically skewed to the left
 Total freedom for students in their approach to education
 No right or wrong answers
Students’ Volunteered Definitions
Of Liberal Education
 “It’s a well-rounded education that exposes you to a variety of ideas,
disciplines, and fields. It encourages appreciation and awareness of a
variety of fields. It helps create a well-rounded individual who is
knowledgeable about a variety of things. Life is interdisciplinary, and so is
a liberal education. Thus, this type of education is valuable both personally
and professionally. It also allows a person to find and focus on what they
truly love to study.”
--College student, Portland, OR
 “It brings up both liberal arts, which to me means a broad education not
involving the hard sciences. It also means a politically liberal education,
which is the way a lot of colleges are.”
--College student, Alexandria, VA
 It is an education that requires the student to participate in studies not
necessarily related to the major in order to give them a well-rounded
--High school student, Milwaukee, WI
Students’ Volunteered Definitions
of Liberal Education
“It is broad, encompasses a little bit of everything. I think people who
go into this are a little unsure of what they want to do. For me, this
would not be the type of education I want.
--High school student, Milwaukee, WI
A liberal education would be the opposite of a conservative education.
Conservative education focuses on a more individualistic approach to
problem-solving, while liberal would focus more on a more communal
approach to problem solving.
--College student, Milwaukee, WI
It makes me think about the knowledge I have and the critical thinking
that takes place, as well. It is the ability to reason, understand, and
make good decisions in life.
--College student, Milwaukee, WI
High School Students’ Mixed Reaction
To Liberal Education
“Liberal education is a philosophy of education that empowers individuals, liberates the
mind from ignorance, and cultivates social responsibility. A liberal education comprises a
curriculum that includes general education that provides students broad exposure to
multiple disciplines and more in-depth study in at least one field or area of concentration.”
Most of the high school students preferred to attend a college that offers a
liberal education curriculum as defined above.
They have heard very little about a liberal education from any source.
Those who are more career-focused expressed less enthusiasm for liberal
education. WI students expressed more neutral views of liberal education.
For those more positive about liberal education, specific areas that are
appealing include:
 Mix of general education and major field,
 Opportunity to explore and make informed
choices about major,
 The social responsibility component is not a
major draw.
College Students’ Mixed
Reactions To Liberal Education
College students embrace the goals and concepts of
liberal education in theory.
 Benefits of liberal education:
 Diversity of curriculum – exposure to multiple
disciplines, complements skills learned in major
 Preparing students for life after graduation –
ability to adapt, tools to meet challenges and take
advantage of opportunities
But they also identify a gap between the ideal and their
own experience with general education:
 Dissatisfied with limited options of general education
 No sense of connectedness or integration of major
What do we know about Liberal
Education’s Benefits?
Students attending a college that provides strong liberal
arts experiences (rather than just calling itself a liberal arts
college) graduate with better skills:
Reading comprehension
Critical thinking
Science reasoning
Writing skills
Openness to diversity/challenge
Learning for self-understanding
Sense of responsibility for one’s own success
Source: Wabash Center of Inquiry in the Liberal Arts
How Well Are We Providing the
Outcomes of a Liberal Education?
 Serious
lack of national data on outcomes
 Majority of students self-report high gains
 Written and oral communication
 Critical and analytic thinking
Source: Liberal Education Outcomes: A Preliminary Report on
Student Achievement in College (Washington DC: AAC&U 2005).
How Well Are We Providing the
Outcomes of a Liberal Education?
 Fewer
students report gains on:
 Civic responsibility and engagement
 Developing a code of values and ethics
 Understanding people of other racial and ethnic
Source: Liberal Education Outcomes: A Preliminary Report on
Student Achievement in College (Washington DC: AAC&U 2005).
How Well Are We Providing the
Outcomes of a Liberal Education?
ETS Academic Profile Shows 8% of seniors proficient at
Level 3 Math—up from 5% as freshman
ACT CAAP math scores show decline from freshman to
senior year
ETS Academic Profile Shows 11% at Level 3 writing
ETS Academic Profile Shows 6% of seniors proficient in
critical thinking; 77% not proficient
Source: Liberal Education Outcomes: A Preliminary Report on Student
Achievement in College (Washington DC: AAC&U 2005).
An Urgent Agenda For
Today’s World
“Liberal Education is essential to an economy dependent on
innovation and to the success of a deliberative and diverse
democracy. We must do far more to ensure that students
achieve key liberal education outcomes. When we make
the aims of liberal education our compass, we build
society’s ability to creatively solve problems, engage and
learn from our differences, and forge a stronger
community. It is for just these reasons that liberal
education is our best investment in America’s promise.”
Carol Geary Schneider, president, AAC&U
Liberal Education and
America’s Promise
Debra Humphreys