Advancing the Liberal Arts

26 September 2023
By Alison Byerly
President Byerly and Carleton students at the Minnesota state capitol

The last few months have seen an outpouring of public commentary about higher education: on the overall value of a college degree, on whether student loan debt should be forgiven, on whether race should be considered in the college admissions process, and other issues.

In our current strategic planning process, we have emphasized that any choices we make about the future of Carleton must be situated within the context of this rapidly evolving higher education landscape. While we always seek to make Carleton stronger and more distinctive among its liberal arts college and university peers, it is not enough for Carleton to be successful on its own. It will only thrive as part of a vibrant ecosystem of institutions with similar values.

I believe we have a responsibility, therefore, to not simply promote Carleton, but to help educate the public about the value of liberal arts education and why what we do matters, not just to individual students, but to the nation as a whole.

As president, I try to look for opportunities to comment in the national media on issues related to liberal arts education. Sometimes they jump out at me, like when I read an editorial that makes me particularly annoyed! In April, I had a letter published in the Washington Post in response to a piece by George F. Will that attributed declines in college and university enrollments to skepticism about the value of a college degree. I explained the straightforward demographic reasons for that decline, and cited evidence from a recent study documenting the continued “wage premium” offered by a bachelor’s degree. Later that month, a letter from me appeared in The Economist. There, responding to an article headlined “Useless Studies,” I noted that liberal arts degrees are not the source of most student loan debt, and provide a foundation in critical skills that lead to robust careers in a variety of fields.

More recently, I spoke out in several interviews about the likely negative impact of the Supreme Court decision eliminating race-conscious admissions. The day the decision came out, I was featured in an interview on NPR’s Here and Now, and I was also quoted in The New York Times and Minneapolis Star Tribune. In all of those venues, I tried to stress the idea that admissions decisions at colleges like Carleton are not simply about ranking individual students; they are about assembling a diverse community in which students from a wide range of backgrounds can learn from each other.

Another important way to change the narrative is through educating our local, state, and national legislators. At the state level, we have worked with the Minnesota Private College Council to advocate for specific policy measures, such as greater support for the Minnesota State Grant Program, which provides scholarship aid to students at both public and private colleges. In April, I traveled with a group of Carleton students to the state capitol to meet with individual legislators and share information about the affordability and value of private colleges like Carleton. Students are much more compelling spokespeople than college administrators!

If there are aspects of higher education operations, financing, and philosophy that are not well understood by the public, that is a challenge we must embrace. Not just college presidents, but college faculty, staff, students, and alumni have an important role to play in conveying the social and civic benefits, as well as individual value, of an excellent liberal arts education. Carleton alumni are wonderful examples of the value of a liberal arts education. I hope I can count on you to help get the message out.

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