Liberal Education

From the Editor

Over the past few years, AAC&U has been calling attention to and documenting a growing national consensus about the essential outcomes of a quality undergraduate education. This consensus underlines the value of a liberal education for all college students, regardless of their background or choice of field. Yet even as business, civic, educational, and some public policy leaders are reaching consensus about the kinds of learning Americans need to thrive in a knowledge-intensive economy and a globally engaged democracy, it is becoming increasingly apparent that students and the public at large remain, for the most part, unaware of this consensus or how colleges are responding to it.

One year ago, in an effort to expand student and public understanding of what really matters in college, AAC&U launched Liberal Education & America’s Promise (LEAP), a decade-long initiative to champion the value of a liberal education. As part of that effort, AAC&U has been querying the various constituencies of higher education about the national consensus around outcomes. Through a series of focus groups, for example, students were asked, as Debra Humphreys and Abigail Davenport put it, “whether [they] see liberal education, as we do, as the most valuable form of education for our time.” From Humphreys and Davenport’s report, published in the previous issue of Liberal Education, it seems the answer is, well, not really; no. In fact, “the learning outcomes business, civic, and academic leaders consider the most important either are not understood by, or are low priorities for, today’s students.”

The first report from the LEAP campaign, Liberal Education Outcomes: A Preliminary Report on Student Achievement in College, further documents the emerging consensus about the essential outcomes of a quality liberal education. It also reveals, however, that little national data is available on how well students are achieving these key outcomes, and what evidence does exist suggests that too few students are achieving them at levels high enough to meet the demands of the twenty-first century.

The challenge of leadership in the New Academy, then, is twofold. First, students’ understanding of the kinds of learning that will empower them to succeed and make a difference in the twenty-first century must be increased; students must join the consensus. Second, colleges and universities must develop, improve, publicize, and institutionalize educational innovations that demonstrably help students achieve key liberal education outcomes.

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