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Are liberal arts degrees in peril?

Ripon College and UW–Stevens Point recently announced changes to their liberal arts programs. Could it happen here?

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A private take

Just down the street from the UW–Madison campus, Edgewood College president Scott Flanagan agrees that higher education is challenged right now as every institution is trying to figure out how to navigate their culture and values and deliver what’s important.

“UW is probably immune because their inquiry pool and interest level is so broad that they’ll hit their enrollment target, but there are very few of us in the public or private sector that can say that.”

Edgewood, a private, Catholic-based liberal arts school, regularly assesses all of its academic programs, including but not limited to liberal arts. While Flanagan doesn’t anticipate changes related to its liberal arts curriculum, he says “any responsible higher educational institution is taking a look at what they offer, what they’re best at, where the demand is, and whether they should offer less or more.

“What’s important to us and our Edgewood mission statement is that our graduates are ready to build a more just and compassionate world.”

As broader discussions around the purpose of education narrow to become more jobs-focused, the habits, skills, and value of a liberal arts education becomes greater than ever, he maintains.

“There’s a reason that an education grounded in liberal arts has been in place for centuries,” Flanagan says, though he disagrees with the idea that education’s sole focus is to prepare people for employment. “We believe there’s more to education than that. That’s important, but not the only focus.”

Foundational basis

“The traditional liberal arts ... are not viewed as directly contributing to job prospects. Whether this is really true or not is an open question.” — Todd Stebbins, dean, School of Arts and Sciences, Madison College

Madison College, a technical college almost entirely vocationally based, is also rich in its history of liberal arts, argues Todd Stebbins, dean at the School of Arts and Sciences, adding that the Liberal Arts Transfer program is the single largest program at the school.

Stebbins wasn’t surprised that some state colleges were changing their program offerings in light of state funding reductions and what he calls “dwindling support for higher education coupled with shifting ideas of the purpose(s) of higher education.”

Madison College has experienced increased interest in STEM careers (science, technology, engineering, math) Stebbins explains, because of the belief in the promise of good jobs and moneymaking careers. By contrast, he says, “the traditional liberal arts ... are not viewed as directly contributing to job prospects. Whether this is true or not is an open question.”

Liberal arts provide a solid foundation for MATC’s associate degree programs, as well. The school’s technical program areas include requirements for general education coursework founded in the traditional liberal arts of communication, critical thinking, quantitative reasoning using computational and analytical skills, social interaction, and ethics.

Also, Madison College regularly reviews its course offerings, and recently added an in-house certificate in data analytics that he says “leads students through coursework in traditional liberal arts disciplines such as sociology, math, and psychology, but with an eye on what adds value to the student’s experience.”

So are liberal arts degrees in peril? They may be changed or massaged, perhaps, but as UW’s Scholz explains, “Teaching students to respect differences, gather information, interpret, and think critically about issues they’ll confront is the essence of a liberal arts education.”

No matter the cost or the degree, that will likely never change.

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