Are liberal arts degrees in peril?

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

From the pages of In Business magazine.

Higher education is facing some headwinds as some schools wrangle with declining enrollments, state budget cuts, tuition freezes, or a desire to simply remain relevant in relation to a future job market. Liberal arts degrees, in particular, are under scrutiny, notably among small state universities and colleges competing for students.

Arguably, “soft-skill” degrees in English, social sciences, or the arts form the foundation employers seek, such as communication expertise and critical thinking, but job-focused students may be leaning more toward vocational programs.

Perhaps it’s time to do a hard sell on soft-skill liberal arts.

Rural repackaging

On March 5, faced with declining enrollment and fiscal challenges, UW–Stevens Point proposed a plan to alter (i.e., cut or restructure) 13 liberal arts majors to focus more on “high-demand majors.” The announcement was both cheered and jeered, but it wasn’t the first time a smaller institution of higher learning had taken that stance.

“We certainly didn’t start with the idea of cutting academic programs, but that’s where we are now.” — Bernie Patterson, chancellor, UW–Stevens Point

About four years earlier, Ripon College, a private liberal arts school in Ripon, Wisconsin, announced significant changes to its program offerings. Minors were added in American studies, applied communication, and criminal justice, but the school eliminated majors in German, Greek, Latin, and museum studies.

“The financial, demographic, and societal trends we face call for bold and decisive action, especially for small, private liberal arts institutions like Ripon who rely heavily on a steady and stable stream of tuition revenue,” stated Ripon College President Zach Messitte at the time.

So, when UWSP, one of 11 regional four-year UW–System campuses, proposed its plan in March, it joined a growing list of smaller colleges struggling to make ends meet, and it raised questions as to whether we would ever see a day when majors like anthropology, the languages, history, philosophy, and social studies would become obsolete.

We spoke with UWSP Chancellor Bernie Patterson, who presented his rationale for the decision, and then asked representatives from Madison College, Edgewood College, and the UW–Madison College of Letters and Science if the same could happen here. Ray Cross, president of the UW-System, deferred comment, calling it a “campus-based discussion.”

Point’s problem: Nowhere else to cut

Patterson understands the furor created by the school’s proposal — and it is still a proposal — but is feeling somewhat boxed in. “We certainly didn’t start with the idea of cutting academic programs,” he states, “but that’s where we are now.” In fact, UWSP has been working on the matter for the past four to five years.

“We’re trying to balance the budget. We’ve had some serious budget issues and declines in enrollment and we have a budget deficit that needs to be addressed. You cannot spend more than you take in. It doesn’t work at home or the office,” Patterson notes.

In the last biennium, UWSP absorbed $6.5 million in cuts, or 25% of its state support, without faculty layoffs. It currently has a two-year, $4.5 million structural deficit caused largely by enrollment declines of roughly 1,500 students, or 13%, translating to an annual tuition loss of about $9 million. The enrollment numbers may decline again this fall, Patterson cautions.

The university attracts nearly 20% of its enrollment from its five surrounding counties, but even more importantly, about 40% stay within the five-county area after graduation. That regional interest is also why the university wants to upgrade some programs to majors.

Roughly 90% of UWSP’s budget is in personnel, begging the question about administrative cuts. “That would be great if we hadn’t already done that,” Patterson responds. “Outside of our instructional areas, we’re really just about one person deep in every area.”

Recent headlines about a bad audit are a reflection of that, he believes. The audit, conducted between July 1, 2016 and Aug. 31, 2017 by the University of Wisconsin System, resulted in an “unsatisfactory” grade, the lowest possible, citing multiple bank management issues and failures dating back to 2012, according to the Stevens Point Journal.

“That can all be traced back to skeleton crews outside of the instructional area,” Patterson claims.

UWSP’s administration costs, referred on budget lines as “institutional support,” run about half those of 100 comparable four-year universities, according to an internal study. “On average, those universities spend 13% in institutional support,” Patterson states. “We’re at 6%, so it isn’t like we haven’t tried to tighten the belt.”

His goal is to emphasize the liberal arts experience for all students while redirecting resources across all majors, as well. ”Our vision is two part,” Patterson explains. “First, to provide students with a good grounding in liberal arts across all majors; second, to prepare them for a career path that they can follow long after graduation.” If the university were to cut the 13 humanities majors as proposed, 80% of its humanities courses would continue.

The decision to offer a major or a minor in a field of study is an academic decision made by faculty members within those departments, but the Board of Regents in Madison must approve any new majors, Patterson explains. The Board is not, however, involved in the elimination of a major unless a tenured instructor loses his or her job as a result.

Meanwhile, all UWSP students are required to complete general education courses in the liberal arts and sciences, which comprise about one-third of coursework at the university, and even if the Board of Regents approves the university’s proposal to eliminate all of the programs, which Patterson believes likely won’t happen,107 majors and emphases within those majors would still be available. “There would still be plenty of choices, but it may not be as robust a list as we’ve had in the past because we can’t afford them.”



Declining enrollment

The programs being eyed for elimination at UWSP represent less than 6% of the school’s current enrollment. Of the students admitted this fall, only 3.6% expressed an interest in majoring in one of the programs being discontinued. Last fall, of 2,100 new freshmen enrollees, only five indicated they wanted a philosophy degree, while twice as many freshmen chose music over art or history.

“[Plato’s idea], brought up to current times, is that a liberal arts education is necessary for an informed citizenry.” — John Karl Scholz, dean, UW–Madison College of Letters and Science

Students deviate from those career paths all the time, Patterson acknowledges, which makes a liberal arts background even more essential. “When people talk about graduates needing to write, communicate, present persuasive arguments, or understand computations, they’re absolutely right,” he says, “but those skills shouldn’t be limited to the 6% majoring in liberal arts. They should apply to every student who graduates from the university.”

Isn’t it more important, he wonders, to prepare a student not just for graduation, but also for a promotion 10 years hence?

“If one of our graduate accounting majors works her way up the corporate ladder and one day takes her rightful place at the head of the boardroom table, many might consider that a success, right?

“But I think what really counts is that when she takes her place at the head of that table, she also recognizes the Van Gogh painting on the wall. That’s when we should check her off as a success.”

While he agrees that pairing philosophy with business or political science as a double major provides an attractive, rich education, the question, Patterson asks, “is can we afford to do that? We really can’t.”

For now, UWSP’s proposal is moving through the necessary checkpoints. Its common council (campus governance committee of faculty) wrote a response in spring and formed an ad hoc group to continue studying the issue. The student government association has also weighed in. Patterson hopes to receive a more substantive response about alternatives by the end of the summer so a formal proposal to the Board of Regents can be made this fall.

“We’re proposing a new kind of university that not only prepares people for a career path — not to be confused with technical college preparation — but also shares and enhances liberal arts preparation for every major at the University of Wisconsin–Stevens Point.”

Could it happen here?

Highly unlikely, opines UW–Madison College of Letters and Science Dean John Karl Scholz. “There’s a lot of confusion about liberal arts,” Scholz says. “It has a venerable tradition all the way back to the ancient Greeks.” In his day, Plato identified seven subjects that provide the education worthy of a freethinking person: arithmetic, geometry, logic, astronomy, grammar, rhetoric, and music. “The idea, brought up to current times, is that being that a liberal arts education is necessary for an informed citizenry,” he adds.

“It’s important to understand that liberal arts has nothing to do with ‘Liberal’ in a conventional, left-right political sense, nor arts, like a painting or sculpture. Rather, it’s an approach to thinking about the world.”

“We believe there’s more to education than [jobs]. That’s important, but not the only focus.” — Scott Flanagan, president, Edgewood College

​Scholz cites a Google study conducted in 2008 called Project Oxygen, which sought the top attributes of a Google manager. “I think everyone was surprised by the results,” he says. “There were eight key characteristics. Technology expertise came in at No. 8.”

The top seven were soft skills: being a good coach; empowering a team/not micromanaging; creating an inclusive team environment; being productive and results-oriented; being a good communicator that listens/shares information; supporting career development/discusses performance; having a clear vision or strategy for the team; and finally, having the technical skills to advise the team.

“Employers were saying, ‘we can teach the technical aspects in business, we need people who think out of the box,’” Scholz says. The ability to respect differences, gather information, and interpret and think critically about issues is the essence and value of a liberal arts education.

Sure, many of the majors in UW’s College of Letters and Science are less immediately vocational than others, he agrees, but “that just puts the responsibility on us to help students translate the skills they learn to potential employers that they’ll create value out of the gate.”

History majors, for example, are well adept at writing, communications, and analytical skills, and history is the study of change, he notes. “What organization doesn’t have to adapt to change?” In fact, he explains, the ability to make connections across disparate pieces of information is the hallmark of a high-quality liberal arts education. “We need to get out of the mindset that a history major only has seven things to go into. That’s absolutely, unnecessarily limiting.”

The challenge is convincing others to believe in the value of a liberal arts degree.

“I have to be able to look at a parent and say that for the right student, philosophy can be a magnificent major. We have philosophy graduates at Google and in med school and in the tech industries, but I have to be able to back that up, too.

“The holy grail is avoiding the student that comes in after graduations asking, ‘What now?’”

To that end, UW–Madison’s College of Letters and Science, which offers 62 undergraduate majors, recently opened SuccessWorks, a career center designed to help liberal arts students better articulate their knowledge into careers after graduation. Major employers such as American Family Insurance have partnered on the project.

Scholz can’t imagine a day when the University of Wisconsin would not offer liberal arts majors, which, he reminds, also includes computer sciences. “Our students are in high demand and they’re getting good jobs. They go everywhere.”



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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