Liberal Arts Colleges and Global Learning

Past Shared Futures Project

"Liberal Arts Colleges and Global Learning" was a research project investigating how liberal arts colleges address global preparation and democratic engagement for their students. This project was funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.


AAC&U surveyed the institutional approaches to global preparation and democratic engagement in approximately one hundred AAC&U member liberal arts colleges between 2002 and 2003.  The findings of this research  project have served as a foundation for the General Education for Global Learning project.

Research findings underscore the importance of clarifying definitions, articulating learning goals, and establishing ways to assess whether students are actually achieving those goals by the time they graduate.

Research Findings

Two pieces of good news from the research:

  • Awareness of Global Interdependence: A large (and growing) number of liberal arts colleges specifically indicate in their mission statements that their graduates should be prepared to thrive in a future characterized by global interdependence.
  • Awareness of the Interdisciplinary Challenge: Those institutions that embrace global education have recognized its interdisciplinary nature and, therefore, the fundamental challenges posed by disciplinary structures and the need for significant faculty development.

Four disturbing findings that require action:

  • Lack of Effective Interdisciplinary Curricular Structures: There is little evidence that students are provided with multiple, robust, interdisciplinary learning opportunities at increasing levels of intellectual challenge to ensure that they acquire the global learning professed in mission statements.
  • Inadequate Focus on Interdependence: The overwhelming number of students satisfy global awareness requirements within general education by taking a single course on some aspect of non-Western culture, thus avoiding interdependence as an object of study itself and reinforcing a fractured view of the global community.
  • Separation of U.S. and Global Diversity: The idea that the United States somehow stands outside of global analysis is reinforced within general education programs that treat U.S. diversity requirements and global awareness requirements as discrete, unlinked units.
  • Humanities-Centered Approach: Science is largely missing as a site for global learning.

Additional challenges for global learning:

  • Narrow Scope of Existing Global Education: Global education is overwhelmingly approached in cultural terms rather than through a focus on such issues as economic disparities, environmental sustainability, health and HIV/AIDS, security, human rights.
  • Compartmentalization of Global Learning: Global learning is often defined as a desired outcome of general education, but is utilized neither as a frame for the design of coherent, integrative general education curricula nor as a way to link general education and learning in the majors.

Ambiguity of Social Responsibility and Civic Engagement in Global Learning:

While social responsibility and civic engagement are often cited as markers of successful student preparation for global interdependence, these learning outcomes are poorly defined and not well integrated into global components of the curriculum.

  • Overemphasis on Study Abroad Programs: Study abroad programs, the primary mechanism by which students experience foreign cultures, can be excellent vehicles for global learning, but they are not inherently so. Moreover, the vast majority of students across all sectors in higher education (well over 90 percent) either lack access to high-quality study abroad opportunities or choose to forgo them.
  • Academic Structure of Study Abroad Curricula: For those students who participate in study abroad programs, the experience is often disconnected from their subsequent studies.

Further conclusions can be found in two AAC&U publications, Shared Futures: Global Learning and Liberal Education and Assessing Global Learning.