Liberal Education

Achieving Equity through Applied Liberal Education

In 2017, the Association of American Colleges and Universities presented the Frederic W. Ness Book Award to The Aims of Higher Education: Problems of Morality and Justice. In this book, editors Harry Brighouse and Michael McPherson compiled a set of essays that analyzed the fundamental purpose of higher education: to develop a just and ethical citizenry. One contributing author, Erin Kelly, wrote that “higher education that is inclusive along the lines of race, gender, and socioeconomic class, and that has a participatory and deliberative orientation, has the potential to shape the values and aims of the members of its community of scholarship to make a valuable civic contribution beyond the university.”1

Kelly’s observation about the importance of inclusive education carries particular weight as our nation’s population, and the students attending our postsecondary institutions, grow more diverse. Over the past fifty years, college enrollment has increased by over 650 percent. Nearly 20 million students are now enrolled in higher education, and these students are more racially diverse than ever: by fall 2015, over 40 percent of students were nonwhite, compared with just over 15 percent in 1976.2 

As the student population has diversified, equity has become a popular goal for higher education institutions; but finding a common definition for equity is difficult. Achieving equity is not simply a matter of diversifying the student body. At its core, equity means providing each and every student with opportunities to attain comparable goals. The question then becomes, What are these goals? Measuring the number of college degrees we produce is not enough; more important are the experiences that shape who our students become. How well do we train our students to think critically? How well can our graduates express their thoughts and argue their viewpoints? Can they sift through facts, misinformation, myths, and propaganda to identify truth? Most importantly, can they apply their learning to solve real-world problems?

Most educators would argue that these outcomes may be more important than the degree itself. This is not a new concept: in 1852, Cardinal John Henry Newman, in discussing the purpose of a university education, wrote, “It is the education which gives a man a clear conscious view of his own opinions and judgments, a truth in developing them, an eloquence in expressing them, and a force in urging them.”3 However, these essential outcomes of a liberal education cannot be attained haphazardly, and will only be available to our students if we intentionally provide opportunities designed to elicit them. If we can ensure that each graduate, irrespective of racial, ethnic, socioeconomic, or academic background, is able to attain these key outcomes, we will be one step closer to bridging the racial and social divides that persist in our nation.

Indeed, it has become increasingly clear that providing an education that conveys the skills necessary for graduates to obtain and thrive in good jobs, while a critical goal, is not sufficient to ensure the advancement of American society. Recent events across our nation indicate that we have reached a crisis point—one that is underscored by the civic disenfranchisement of certain segments of our population and compounded by our collective inability to engage in effective discourse that leads to understanding, solutions, and, most importantly, healing.

To help address these challenges, every higher education institution will need to ensure that all its graduates achieve the outcomes necessary to contribute to society. Just as importantly, higher education as a whole will need to ensure equitable outcomes across institutions. This means that, as a nation, we cannot rely on traditional liberal arts colleges alone to convey critical liberal learning outcomes. If our aim is to ensure that liberal education is available en masse to our future citizens and leaders, then all of higher education must rise to the challenge. All colleges—including community colleges, which are increasingly and critically important due to the populations we serve—must find ways to combine employment and skills training with the broader goals of liberal education. It is no longer a question of either/or; it must be a matter of both/and.

My institution, Miami Dade College (MDC), is dedicated to democratizing opportunity through an open-access mission. We believe that one of our most essential functions is not just to provide our students with the skills and learning traditionally associated with workforce degrees, but to help each and every student find a voice—and most importantly, to help students learn how to project their voices. This commitment to our students has two components. First, our curriculum, grounded in the principles of liberal education, helps students gain the fundamental mind-sets and skill sets they will need to address the complex challenges facing the world today. Second, our focus on applied learning equips students with the intellectual depth and breadth to add value to any problem they are passionate about solving.

Beyond opportunity: ensuring achievement of learning outcomes

At the heart of MDC’s general education curriculum are our ten college-wide student learning outcomes. In October of 2007, the entire college community—students, faculty, staff, and business and government leaders—signed a learning covenant acknowledging that “liberal learning is essential to a free society and that the Miami Dade College Student Learning Outcomes hold the promise of guiding principles and practices that lead to empowered, informed and responsible citizens.”4 The MDC Student Learning Outcomes are embedded in each one of our degree pathways, effectively ensuring that every student has the opportunity to engage in deep learning that transcends any specific major.5

Our student learning outcomes are anchored in the belief that a liberal education has tremendous value to students and employers. It equips current and future employees with the ability to engage in thoughtful, meaningful, and engaged dialogue; it also helps students develop soft skills, including oral, interpersonal, and written communication, as well as the ability to work in teams. These skills are valuable for making decisions and interacting successfully with fellow employees and clients in the workplace. They also make for intellectually well-rounded employees whose contributions remain viable even when their technical and practical skills become obsolete in this rapidly changing world.

These outcomes are precisely the kinds of real-world competencies that working adults already possess or find they need to enhance. Therefore, for our adult and other nontraditional learners, competency-based education (CBE) is a natural extension of a holistic liberal education. MDC’s CBE programs honor and recognize these learners’ skills and experiences, and as a result, increase their access to college. Through MDC Accelerate, we are able to accommodate adult learners who possess relevant knowledge, skills, and work experience, with positive effects on their progression toward and completion of their credentials. Delivered online through self-paced modules adaptable to the needs of each learner and enhanced by embedded feedback, the program allows learners to proceed at their own pace as they demonstrate their abilities related to each program competency. Learners do not spend valuable time on competencies or skills that they have already achieved; instead, they continuously engage with activities that challenge them to practice or refine skills and knowledge they have not yet mastered. MDC Accelerate’s guiding premise is the principle of a growth mind-set—a commitment to the idea that one’s abilities are not fixed, but can expand with hard work.6

MDC is also engaged in a continuous improvement process to ensure that our students not only have the opportunity to participate in the learning process, but also that they attain the MDC Student Learning Outcomes. Opportunity only results in equity when accompanied by assurances of quality. To provide such assurances, we rely on a college-wide, authentic approach to assessment that provides an alternative means of documenting student learning beyond GPA and standardized test scores, measures that sometimes yield bias against racial and ethnic minorities and first-generation college students. Through a collaborative process, MDC faculty, administrators, and staff developed an Assessment Blueprint that provides a framework for ensuring consistent student learning and assessment practices. The Assessment Blueprint outlines policies and procedures for college-wide assessment of learning outcomes, related data collection and management, subsequent analysis, and use and dissemination of results. For faculty groups, the Assessment Blueprint is a starting point guiding expectations, standards, and activities related to student learning (such as Data Dialogues, a structured exploration of student learning data) that provide space and time for faculty to discuss student performance and educational quality.

The role of applied learning

Often, MDC students live in marginalized and disenfranchised communities whose members may be relegated to a permanent underclass. Our approach’s second key component, an applied learning environment, allows our students to break out of this cycle by transforming our classrooms into small laboratories for changemaking. MDC offers a robust culture of service that benefits our community while also creating opportunities that empower students to build the skills they need to actively engage and contribute, including through service learning. At MDC, service, service learning, and other opportunities for social engagement and changemaking find life primarily through the Institute for Civic Engagement and Democracy (iCED) and the recently established IMPACT Network for social innovation (Innovation Meets Purpose and Change in Teams). Together, these opportunities nurture the development of changemakers eager to improve their communities and the world. iCED and IMPACT prompt MDC students to become engaged citizens who take pride in their ability to add value to society.

iCED’s mission is to transform learning, strengthen democracy, and contribute meaningfully to the common good by awakening and empowering students for lifelong engagement. iCED oversees a myriad of curricular and cocurricular civic engagement initiatives that build essential civic and workforce readiness skills and mind-sets. In the 2017–18 academic year alone, over 7,500 students were engaged in academic service-learning opportunities thanks to the more than 275 faculty who integrated service learning in their course curricula. In the same academic year, over 580 MDC students earned the Presidential Volunteer Service Award, completing more than sixty-one thousand hours of community service.

Through voter engagement activities, iCED registered more than 6,100 new voters over the 2016 calendar year. iCED engaged students in a variety of different efforts toward this end, including more than sixty voter registration or voter education events, more than five hundred class presentations on voter registration, and various other college-wide campaigns. Our focus on voting is just one way in which we are empowering students to become active participants in democracy.

At its core, iCED’s work is rooted in MDC’s focus on social changemaking, which also grounds other key initiatives designed to strengthen the college-wide ecosystem. Our belief that all students can be changemakers expresses itself in our approach to educating for changemaking. We are working to ensure that students build key changemaking skills and mind-sets across all disciplines and not just in select ones.

To lead the broader work of engaging students to succeed not only in the classroom but also in their communities, MDC has established a “team of teams” approach involving faculty, staff, students, administrators, and community members in innovative problem solving. These teams, known collectively as the IMPACT Network, are designing, developing, and supporting changemaking initiatives that span curricular and cocurricular domains. Equally important at this incipient stage, the network is influencing current college systems and operations in order to more sustainably advance a changemaking approach to education. Through participation in IMPACT Network initiatives, MDC students apply their education in order to address real-world challenges and make a difference in their jobs and communities while being nurtured by the campus community.

Today, the IMPACT Network has cocreated a college-wide strategy map that covers eight key areas of MDC’s changemaking ecosystem: communications, campus pathways, student engagement, campus spaces, faculty engagement, professional development, curricular enhancement, and cocurricular enhancement. Inherently aligned with our college-wide strategic plan, this strategy map guides us toward fully integrating social changemaking into both our college identity and our operations. We want all our students to have a multitude of possible entry points and deeper opportunities to explore and hone the critical skills and mind-sets needed for tomorrow’s workforce and world.

As the IMPACT faculty continue to deepen the college-wide scholarship around changemaking, we have learned that some core changemaking skills and mind-sets particularly resonate with our college learning outcomes and are developmentally appropriate for our students. Through our IMPACT work, we are focusing on empathy building, problem solving, critical thinking, collaboration, innovation, and creativity for all students, not just some students, at MDC.

Connecting learning with our own equity challenges

The initiatives described above are designed to empower students, economically and civically, by applying their emerging skills toward the work of building a more just and equal society. These efforts contribute directly to MDC’s role as one of “Democracy’s Colleges”—a place that advances equal participation in the civic sphere, in part by developing the skills and capacities our students need for such participation. But the IMPACT Network in particular does more than just advance necessary learning outcomes; it also engages students, faculty, and staff in addressing equity challenges directly affecting our student body.

One exemplar among our IMPACT projects is the North Campus Food Pantry for Students. In partnership with Single Stop USA (SSUSA), Sarah Garman (senior associate professor of humanities) and Evelyn Rodriguez (director of the Multidisciplinary Academic Learning Lounges) have developed a program to identify students suffering from food insecurity and provide them with basic food and hygiene supplies. Students go through a benefits evaluation at MDC’s SSUSA office to determine needs, and qualifying students receive vouchers that they can use at the Food Pantry for Students.

One of Garman and Rodriguez’s primary goals in developing the program was to ensure that students were involved with every aspect of the pantry. Students are included in the Food Pantry Committee, and most donations come from students on campus. Service-learning students, overseen by an Americorps VISTA volunteer from SSUSA who serves as the North Campus Food Pantry manager, operate the pantry. Trained student ambassadors make class presentations about the pantry around campus. As a result, MDC North students volunteer more than 1,500 service-learning hours annually and distribute over nine thousand food and hygiene products each academic year in connection with this program. These students have served more than 1,300 of their fellow students, and MDC expanded the model to three other campuses this year.

A similar pop-up project at MDC’s West Campus also provided key just-in-time assistance to our student body. When Miami was affected by Hurricane Irma in September 2017, the aftermath of the storm created numerous challenges and obstacles for our students, our staff, and their families. MDC West Campus responded by creating a pantry focused specifically on hurricane preparation and relief. Many students had no idea how to prepare for an incoming storm like Irma, and many were affected by it afterward. This innovative pantry allowed the student body to become better educated about how to prepare to weather major storms, while also allowing campus members to contribute hurricane supplies and food.

Among all of the food pantries’ outcomes, one of the most important is the chance for student volunteers to see the immediate impact that their work has on others in their community. They learn that they can, indeed, make a difference.

Transforming individuals and communities

MDC is a vibrant example of the transformation that can occur in a single student, a campus, and a community when liberal education opportunities are provided in an accessible and equitable manner. While small, private liberal arts institutions must advance equity in student learning and position all students for equal participation in democracy, we cannot expect those institutions alone to provide liberal learning for the entire nation. If we want to achieve equality as a nation, we need to take an equitable approach within our communities. Community colleges are essential to this work.


1. Erin I. Kelly, “Modeling Justice in Higher Education,” in The Aims of Higher Education: Problems of Morality and Justice, ed. Harry Brighouse and Michael McPherson (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015), 144.

2. US Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, Digest of Education Statistics, Table 303.10, February 2017,

3. John Henry Newman, The Idea of a University Defined and Illustrated: In Nine Discourses Delivered to the Catholics of Dublin (1852; Project Gutenberg, 2008), 178,

4. “Miami Dade College Learning Covenant,” signed October 19, 2007.

5. A complete list of the MDC learning outcomes is available online; see “General Education Outcome Statements,” Miami Dade College, accessed December 14, 2017,

6. Carol S. Dweck, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success (New York: Ballantine Books, 2016).

To respond to this article, email with the author’s name on the subject line.

LENORE P. RODICIO is executive vice president and provost at Miami Dade College and a member of the 2018 Board of Directors of the Association of American Colleges and Universities.

Previous Issues