In tough times, liberal arts colleges defend their value

Half of graduates from liberal arts colleges were satisfied with the quality of their education.

David Anderson knows that parents today are skeptical about the liberal arts. That they worry about their children graduating in a tough economy with a degree that doesn’t spell out that first job. That they’re weighing a hefty price tag against the possibility of unemployment.

So, in a quick talk to a ballroom full of high school juniors and their families, the president of St. Olaf College made the opposite argument. “If St. Olaf had given me an education that prepared me exactly for 1974,” Anderson said, “I would now be unemployed and irrelevant.”

Questions about the value of higher education are pressuring small, liberal arts colleges that specialize in general degrees and depend on tuition — and Minnesota has many of those.

Some are now publicly pushing back. The Minnesota Private College Council commissioned a survey that shows their alumni are more satisfied with their degrees than graduates of other schools.

Augsburg College is moving its career center to the heart of campus. In May, St. Olaf will take the unusual step of putting detailed job and salary information of alumni online.

“People always ask me: Don’t people perceive this focus on people getting jobs as a threat to your identity?” Anderson said in an interview. “Actually, no. The people who work here, the faculty, they have children. Nobody wants the liberal arts to mean, ‘Would you like fries with that?'”

A 2011 Gallup poll shows half of those surveyed believe the main reason to seek higher education is to “earn more money.” About a third picked to “get a good job.” What about the classic liberal arts goals of becoming a better citizen? Learning how to learn?

Just 5 percent of those surveyed said “to become a well-rounded person.”

“To learn to think critically”? One percent.

Linda Lincoln graduated from St. Olaf but can’t get her daughter, a junior at South High School in Minneapolis, to even visit. “It’s an hour away, it would be nice, we could have lunch,” Lincoln said, laughing.

Louisa Lincoln’s reasons are many. She wants a big-city school. She plans to do plenty of hands-on research. She’s a news hound, so she hears of layoffs and unemployment.

“Kids are very practical in that way these days,” Linda Lincoln said.

Moving careers center-stage

Parents, too. With that in mind, St. Olaf has transformed its career center, called the Center for Experiential Learning. “I don’t know why that name was selected,” Anderson quipped, “but I’m guessing it was to avoid using the word ‘career.'”

Once on the fringes of campus, the center now shares a bright, newly renovated building with the president’s office. It’s a key stop on campus tours and a regular sight along students’ routes. Since the move, the center has seen a 69 percent increase in traffic.