Liberal Education

Losing Our Way on the Meanings of Student Success

In June, I had the pleasure of taking part in Elmhurst College’s annual graduation ceremonies. Witnessing the speeches and dialogues, I found a welcome congruence between the educational vision AAC&U seeks to advance through our Liberal Education and America’s Promise (LEAP) initiative and what both alumni and students had to say about their liberal education at this “hybrid campus” where many of the students major in professional programs. But the experience, inspiring though it was, also reinforced my sense of the widening disconnect between a data-driven obsession with “student success” and the values and experiences that graduates themselves report as transforming.

Elmhurst’s graduation speaker, Linda Marshall, is an alumna who worked her way through college and then went on to be a pioneering leader in the development of the telecommunications industry. The students listened with rapt attention as she shared her views on what she looks for in new employees and what it takes to achieve long-term success in career and life. Ms. Marshall had never heard either of the Employer-Educator Compact described in this issue of Liberal Education, or of the Hart research on employer priorities for college learning presented here. And yet, she might have been sent from LEAP central casting. What she looks for in young graduates, she said, is the passion for learning, the driving intellectual curiosity, that shows her they are ready to hit the ground running in industries and organizations that are in the midst of dynamic growth and constant change.

She gave a good speech, one that would be well worth recounting in more detail. But my point here is that this exemplar of career success touted values, love of learning, the importance of the humanities—whose worth she recognized only after she left college—and the kind of intellectual hunger we traditionally associate with a liberal arts education. Yet, like most of her student audience, Ms. Marshall majored in a professional field.

In a separate baccalaureate service, students themselves took center stage to think and talk together about their own educational journeys. Selected presenters, reflecting a diverse array of ethnicities and backgrounds, held a colloquy on the specific “core values” Elmhurst espouses as a context for all aspects of student learning and experience: intellectual excellence; community; social responsibility; stewardship; and faith, meaning, and values. Using their own stories and their own vocabularies, the graduating seniors questioned one another about the meaning of these values in their own experience and their own imagined futures. And, by the very format they chose—queries back and forth to one another—they modeled the idea that the meaning of a complex value is always in the making, always being negotiated, not just through the prisms of our own experience, but rather and perhaps especially in encounters and dialogue with people whose perspectives and histories can be very different from our own.

What particularly caught my attention in these colloquies was the students’ assumption that, no matter what the subject of their majors, values like striving for deeper understanding, taking social responsibility for the increase of social justice, and learning with and from their myriad differences were key components of their entire educational journey at Elmhurst. Policy analysts like to contend that the “liberal arts mission” requires that the majority of an institution’s students complete majors in one of the liberal arts and sciences disciplines. These students knew, from their lived experience, that Elmhurst’s core values permeated every aspect of their educational journey, not just a subset of the academic curriculum. Whether they majored in business, accounting, nursing, or philosophy, they believed that the “Elmhurst Experience” had led them to think in important ways about their responsibilities to themselves and to other people. Crucially, they recognized that the values-based challenges their institution placed before them were, in truth, standards for both reflection and action in all aspects of their lives.

Between them, the students and the employer at this event gave life and voice to the central idea in the LEAP vision for liberal learning and long-term success: big-picture thinking, values-framed questions, deep analytical inquiry, and collaborative dialogue should be blended together in all students’ educational journeys. Whether we call these liberal education outcomes, or, as New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman puts it, America’s “secret sauce,” these are the keys to lives lived well—and to long-term economic success.

Yet none of this is reflected in the national priorities for student success or in the metrics with which pundits propose to measure how well we’re doing in promoting student success. Indeed, there is a profound and persistent disconnect between the assumptions that now dominate student success policies, on the one hand, and the larger meanings of success that both students and alumna so beautifully embodied in the Elmhurst graduation, on the other.

The first of these is the assumption that college-level knowledge and skills are highly field-specific and, therefore, that the “right” major—meaning one that is closely tied to labor market openings—is all that really counts, both for the future of the individual student and in terms of the value added to the economy. Across all four of the AAC&U-commissioned employer surveys, four out of five responding employers strongly disagree with that assumption. “It takes more than a major,” as you’ll read in these pages, and as Ms. Marshall explained to a field full of new graduates and their families. But policy leaders, quite literally thrilled that they can wield a new metric drawn from correlations between major field and early career income data, don’t want to hear it. Market returns can stand in as a proxy for quality, one economist has assured me. But in fact, those particular market data hide literally all of the “secret sauce” that a good education provides—optimally across all majors. The key point is that every major should be infused with those larger values of rigorous inquiry, evidence-based reasoning, and deep engagement with ethical and social responsibilities that characterize liberal learning at its best. When this blend is achieved, the value added is the sum of all those parts. The content of the major certainly matters; but no single field of study, by itself, can make for a successful career or a worthwhile life.

The second assumption is that the economy is all that matters and, therefore, career preparation is the sole reason for going to college. The “greatest generation” knew better. In 1947, the President’s Commission on Higher Education spelled out a far more ambitious and inspiring set of principal goals for the nation: “education for a fuller realization of democracy in every phase of living; education directly and explicitly for international understanding and cooperation; and education for the application of creative imagination and trained intelligence to the solution of social problems and to the administration of public affairs.” How long has it been since we heard anyone of national stature articulate such a vision for college learning? And yet, the Elmhurst students who spoke at the baccalaureate service got these key points fully. Their education had underscored a larger sense of purpose, and they had taken this set of expectations to heart.

The third assumption, inscribed in the almost unbearably stupid conversation we’re currently having about MOOCS and cost economies, is that the whole point of college is knowledge transmission: great lecturers transmit, and automated “recognize and repeat” assessments are used to discern whether students have grasped the key concepts. Let’s be clear. The real key to high-quality learning is the student’s mastery of the capacities fundamental to evidence-based inquiry and reasoning: identifying and framing a significant question, organizing the analysis, generating and evaluating evidence, developing an argument, taking into account the likely objections, and then subjecting one’s own judgment to the verdict of others. These capacities—so central both to the knowledge economy and to a complex democracy—are developed through guided practice. No one can simply deliver them to students.

We have entered an era of far-reaching innovation in which we’ll make crucial decisions about what matters in learning and about how to foster it. Elmhurst shows that community matters. Context matters. Values matter. Integrative learning matters. Yet the vast majority of college students matriculate at public institutions where leaders are under pressure to save money by focusing only on completion metrics and asking no questions about educational quality at any level, much less about qualities of heart and mind. So long as policy is focused primarily on aggregated course credits and on majors, our metrics will remain deeply disconnected from our core strengths.

Carol Geary Schneider is president of the Association of American Colleges and Universities.

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