Liberal Education

Learning Everywhere: The End of "Extracurricular"

As a veteran university president of fifteen years, I’ve welcomed thousands of prospective students and their parents to Saturday recruitment days. But I couldn’t sleep last night, ruminating over welcoming remarks I was scheduled to give this morning. My shtick in these speeches has changed over time, but only on the margins, evolving from “Why the liberal arts?” to “Experiential education thrives in the liberal arts environment” or “We prepare you for any career, not just your first career.” And my inaugural addresses for two presidencies at the College of Saint Benedict and Drew University echoed the same themes: “The key imperatives of a liberal arts education are reflection, inspiration, connection, openness, and action,” and then, ten years later, “Drew University prepares students in the real world, not just for the real world.”

I believe the evangelical and didactic rhetoric that liberal education is about action and agency. But until now my descriptions have held up “liberal arts” as an ideal education, and my talking points were designed to convince the disbelievers. More recently, I’ve wondered about the adequacy of our descriptions. Take a look at the flat, banal Wikipedia entry on “liberal arts college” while reflecting on the fact that it is the first hit in a Google search for those words. In the Wikipedia entry, salient attributes of liberal arts colleges include smallness (something my own institution’s research shows that students generally don’t want), that we require discussion in classes (how exciting), and that our curricular “distinctiveness . . . is somewhat eroded.”1

So, as I lay awake ruminating about my welcoming remarks, I decided that for the first time I was not going to mention “liberal arts,” nor was I going to attempt to educate or to convince my audience that liberal arts colleges are superior options. Instead, I was preparing to simply describe our students’ experiences, ones that bear no resemblance to the Wikipedia entry.

This isn’t about eschewing Drew University’s identity. The epitome of a liberal arts college, we offer no undergraduate programs leading directly to specific careers or professions, despite a near perfect record of our graduates being situated in jobs or graduate school six months after graduation. Students major, double major, and minor in classic liberal arts disciplines, and we value and require broad and deep exposure to the arts, sciences, social sciences, and humanities for all of our students, regardless of major. Nevertheless, the phrases “liberal arts college,” “inside and outside the classroom,” and “curricular and extracurricular” don’t do justice to the integrative and immersive experiences that characterize our students’ educations.

Worse than these banal definitions is that the very concept of the liberal arts is a Rorschach test for misguided notions ranging from the political (we teach liberal politics) to the mythological (our students don’t get jobs) and the hyperbolic (one can’t live a full life without experiencing a liberal arts education). The veracity or the divergence of these viewpoints doesn’t matter; they are indelible for those who espouse them.

National conversations about higher education have also placed liberal education in the crosshairs of many debates about cost, student loan debt, merit-based versus need-based aid, online learning, and massive open online courses. These debates have distracted us from thinking about what has changed about how our students learn and from deeply reflecting on what society needs from a college-educated citizenry and workforce. We’ve been on the defensive, and it’s time to turn the tables.

This will require understanding how our students and the world of work have evolved, reflection on how we have adapted to those needs, and evaluation of where we still need to adapt. The place to start to understand the potential for reinventing our institutions is the astounding evolution and growth of the set of experiences that the Association of American Colleges and Universities calls high-impact practices, a subset of which are often grouped under the umbrella of experiential learning.2

While there is almost universal acknowledgment among educators that these experiences are important, we continue to describe them as add-ons, the icing on the cake: a liberal arts education is classroom education in the major and general education, plus “outside the classroom” experiences, high-impact practices, and/or residential life and community experiences. This additive, unintegrated description has held us back and excused us from thinking strategically about a new model.

For many years, while we’ve been touting and cumulating these high-impact experiences for our students in a relatively nonstrategic way, a quiet revolution has been happening. These experiences not only became de rigueur, they also transformed themselves over time from peripheral to central and from additive to integral:

  • Undergraduate research, an accepted pedagogical approach, became, well, simply research. At Drew University, students are working as collaborators with our professors and a group of retired industry scientists on several drug discovery projects, they are contributing to the understanding of the mechanisms behind diseases like HIV and Alzheimer’s, and they are key researchers on several projects in the digital humanities supported by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.
  • Service learning moved from volunteering to research and nonprofit management support in reciprocal settings where the lines between the volunteer and recipient are obliterated. There is no giver and no receiver but rather partnerships that result in untold benefits for all parties involved.
  • Study abroad evolved, first from the college-sponsored version of the grand tour to coursework in different countries and cultures, and then to place-based intensive research, nonprofit, or business collaborations that offer the talents and skills of our students in exchange for opportunities to study phenomena unique to particular geopolitical, corporate, or cultural environments.
  • Internships evolved from grunt work at worst, and a window into a profession or industry at best, to symbiotic partnerships in which our students’ twenty-first-century skills are valued for the innovative practices or technological knowledge they can bring to an organization.
  • And in the arts, our students are no longer observers and appreciators but creators. For example, Drew’s theater and dance students worked with an Emmy Award–winning screenwriter, alumnus Kevin Murphy, to produce, direct, and stage a musical production of Heathers on our campus.3 They then spent the next two semesters in the collaborative development of a theater production with an internationally renowned theater company. The production debuted in New York and then came to Drew.

Perhaps the most salient example I can give of student work in the real world is the story of one of our students, Mallory Mortillaro, who discovered a long-lost Rodin sculpture in Drew’s hometown of Madison, New Jersey. A local foundation trusted with the upkeep and preservation of a historic building commissioned Mortillaro, instead of a professional, to catalog the art collection in the building. After noticing Rodin’s signature on the sculpture, Mortillaro persisted in her research, despite affectionate doubts from those around her, and eventually convinced one of the world’s foremost authorities on Rodin to travel from Paris to see her find. The rest is history, and Rodin’s bust of Napoleon is now on loan to the Philadelphia Museum of Art.4

In short, the distinction between what and how our students learn and their transformations from students to professional contributors to knowledge, society, and corporate activity is happily blurry. The earlier in students’ college careers that learning is applied in a meaningful context, the more relevant they will find the body of knowledge and the ways of knowing that we now call “liberal education.” And while it continues to be true that the “soft skills” associated with a liberal arts education are highly valued in hiring, when employers are asked to choose between two qualified candidates, the most influential factors are an internship in the particular company or within the target industry.5

As a sector, liberal arts colleges are not known for providing industry-focused experiences. If we are to describe a liberal education as an immersive education that fosters not only soft skills but also industry-specific skills, how do we grow into this new identity? What are the challenges and imperatives we face in solidifying this identity and communicating it, and more important, for sustaining and growing authentic student experiences around it?

First, we need to think more clearly and strategically about postcollege planning, what that means, and how to blend it seamlessly into the experience of all students, regardless of their intended careers. We need to consciously distinguish between robust preparation to make the transition after college and merely adding career-specific majors. The former will make our graduates more marketable and more desirable for leadership positions, and it will help them get their first job; the latter will only help them get their first job.

Second, we need to ensure that immersive experiences are universal for our students, regardless of their individual economic circumstances and their academic majors. This is the most important imperative: our strengths must impact each and every one of our students.

Third, we must reconsider the role of general education in preparing students for careers and professions. If, as is the case at my university, students need not be coaxed to take courses in a breadth of traditional liberal arts and sciences disciplines, we can flip the matrix on general education and use it as the curricular and experiential glue between the major and postcollege preparation. A course focused on solving “wicked problems,” for instance, can incorporate ways of knowing from several disciplines.

Fourth, we must be willing and eager to bring industry-related training—certifications and other modular learning opportunities—to our students as curricular supplements. Ideally, these programs—ranging from industry certifications that students wouldn’t normally complete until after they are employed to intense and compacted miniminors and microdegrees—are offered in partnership with industry sectors that need such credentials in their workforce. In my opinion, this is the best way to combine liberal education with immediately marketable skills, making students even more competitive for the first job and equipped for success as their career evolves. For example, while the field of cybersecurity needs coders and other practitioners, it also needs managers capable of leading their corporations in cyber risk management and human factors (human-caused error) training on resisting cyberattacks. A crash course in information security would make an ideal miniminor for a student majoring in the liberal arts.

Fifth, we need to blow up the classic formulation of the career center and its traditional role as the direct broker between students and the first job. The new approach must incorporate immersive experiences as conscious building blocks to careers and professional life, focus more on reflective documentation of skills these experiences build, serve as the facilitator for multimentor relationships with students, and better exploit an institution’s geography. Drew University, for example, has long used nearby New York City as a venue for cultivating natural mentors for our students in our New York semesters.6 In recent years, we have doubled the number of these programs and will continue to add more.

Finally, we need to remove the barriers between learning in classrooms and student or residence life. Our students are inundated with social programming and discretionary activities that compete for their limited time, but they have little strategic connection to the world they will encounter after college. Imagine instead a student activities program that is tied to career-clustered communities like arts and media, STEM and health, politics and civic responsibility, human behavior, intercultural competence, or international relations.

My colleagues and I have spent a year studying how Drew’s historical and academic DNA meets the needs of today’s student and where those needs form a nexus with the needs of our alumni/ae, community and corporate partners, parents, and donors. We emerged with an outline of a university with a liberal arts curriculum that has postcollege career and professional planning and mentoring at its core, and where student and community engagement (and campus traditions) reflect this focus.

Thus was born Launch, a new career and postcollege preparation initiative to be inaugurated with the class entering in fall 2019. Launch responds to all of the imperatives I outlined above: career self-reflection, postcollege planning, and, pending faculty final approval, a problem-based learning course integrated into general education. A new center, already affectionately called the Launch Pad, under single leadership reporting to the provost, merges the offices and functions that now focus on career development, global education and study abroad, civic engagement, internships, student work and work-study, research involving student collaborators, and other immersive practices. Students and alumni/ae will have access to growing numbers of industry certifications and microdegrees, chosen to support clusters of communities related to careers, industries, and cultures. The center will organize, support, and train a coalition of mentors from the faculty, alumni/ae, staff, and industry and community partners around these career clusters. As a partnership between academic and student affairs, student programming will be redesigned to support all of the initiatives above. Last but not least, all students will be guaranteed at least two immersive experiences.

When I described Launch in my welcome to parents and prospective students this morning, I said this: Drew University is a dynamic, responsive university that puts students’ postcollege professional and personal success at the core of everything we do. All students will have access to the Launch program and the opportunities it presents. As our provost, Debra Liebowitz, often elaborates, “When you graduate from Drew, you will say, ‘I am ready, my education is relevant, I am connected, and I am a part of Drew’s vast lifelong community.’”


1. Wikipedia, s.v. “Liberal Arts College,” last modified September 30, 2018,

2. Association of American Colleges and Universities, “High-Impact Practices,”

3. Drew University, “Drew Stages Heathers: The Musical,” October 2017,

4. Brigit Katz, “‘Lost’ Rodin Sculpture Discovered in New Jersey Borough Hall,”, October 19, 2017,

5. National Association of Colleges and Employers, “The Key Attributes Employers Seek on Students’ Resumes,” November 30, 2017,

6. Drew University, “nycTREC,” accessed October 18, 2018,

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MARYANN BAENNINGER is president of Drew University.

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