Liberal Arts Colleges and Liberal Arts Education: New Evidence on Impacts: ASHE Higher Education Report

Liberal Arts Colleges and Liberal Arts Education: New Evidence on Impacts: ASHE Higher Education Report


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The long-term impact of liberal arts education

Liberal Arts Colleges and Liberal Arts Education: New Evidence on Impacts: ASHE Higher Education Report summarizes the impact of a liberal arts education on college students' intellectual and personal growth. Based on data from a study covering 6,500 students at 40 institutions, these findings reveal the elements of a liberal arts education that best serve students in the long term. As higher education faces increasing pressure to condense and narrow focus, this book provides a cogent argument for keeping the liberal arts education alive.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780787981235
Publisher: Wiley
Publication date: 05/13/2005
Series: J-B ASHE Higher Education Report Series (AEHE) Series , #107
Pages: 168
Product dimensions: 5.93(w) x 10.28(h) x 0.38(d)

About the Author

Ernest T. Pascarella is the Mary Louise Petersen Professor of Higher Education at the University of Iowa. He has received numerous awards for his research from national professional and scholarly associations. In 2003 he received the Howard R. Bowen Distinguished Career Award from the Association for the Study of Higher Education.

Patrick T. Terenzini is distinguished professor and senior scientist in the Center for the Study of Higher Education at The Pennsylvania State University. He has received research awards from the Association for the Study of Higher Education, the Association for Institutional Research, the American Society for Engineering Education, the American College Personnel Association, and the National Association of Student Personnel Administrators.

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Liberal Arts Colleges and Liberal Arts Education

New Evidence on Impacts
By Ernest T. Pascarella

John Wiley & Sons

ISBN: 0-7879-8123-0

Chapter One

Background and Warrant for the Study

THE LIBERAL ARTS COLLEGE is the oldest form of higher education in the United States. With the founding of Harvard in 1636, the United States set forth what would become a tradition of education deemed "distinctively American" (Koblik and Graubard, 2000). According to Koblik (2000), residential liberal arts colleges in the United States stand alone in their total dedication to undergraduate education. An abundance of virtues have been connected to this form of higher education. Hill (1994) attributed the development of magnanimity and justice to liberal arts education. Spaeth (1986) and Cronon (1999) credited the liberal arts with the development of truth and humility, while Rosenfield (1985) ascribed active citizenship as a result of liberal arts education. Although much has been written extolling the virtues and benefits of a liberal arts education, relatively few empirical efforts have attempted to identify its unique effects on student development (Center of Inquiry in the Liberal Arts, 2004). The few studies that have been conducted have focused on different and narrow aspects of liberal arts colleges. As such, the resulting body of knowledge about the impacts of liberal arts colleges on students lacks any genuine systematic integration.

This reportattempts to contribute to our understanding of liberal arts colleges and liberal arts education by synthesizing the results of four sets of analyses. First, we examined whether differences existed in how students at liberal arts colleges, in comparison with their peers at research universities or public regional institutions, experience "good practices in undergraduate education" (Chickering and Gamson, 1987, 1991). Second, we investigated whether liberal arts colleges uniquely impact students' intellectual and personal development during college. Our third set of analyses was guided by the notion that an institution's ethos may have an influential impact on students. Moving beyond the more traditional institutional type comparison, we synthesized pedagogical practices and experiences associated with liberal arts education by creating a scale we consider to capture an institution's liberal arts emphasis and investigated how a liberal arts emphasis influenced student development during college. Fourth, we investigated the long-term effects of attending a baccalaureate liberal arts college (versus a public regional or a private master's level institution) on graduates' work and life experiences. In each set of analyses, we additionally explored whether differences in the estimated effects of liberal arts colleges occur in magnitude for different kinds of students (for example, differences in race, sex, precollege educational characteristics, and the like). Together, our analyses form a comprehensive effort to systematically study liberal arts colleges and liberal arts education by assessing the impacts of different institutional types and different institutional ethos on students both during college and beyond.

Review of Existing Evidence

The literature on liberal arts colleges and, more generally, on liberal arts education spans many decades and disciplines. In his philosophical treatise, John Henry Cardinal Newman (1853/1996) described the purpose of a liberal arts education as well as the benefits individuals realized from it. Others have situated liberal arts colleges and liberal arts education of the United States in historical, social, and political contexts (Breneman, 1990, 1994b; Durden, 2002; Hawkins, 2000; Hersh, 1997; Marshall, 2003; McPherson, 1998; Rudolph, 1990). Educational researchers have also considered liberal arts colleges and liberal arts education from the perspective of a pedagogical experience, investigating their effects on intellectual and personal development (Hayek and Kuh, 1998; Kuh and Hu, 2001; Pace, 1997; Pace and Connolly, 2000; Umbach and Kuh, forthcoming; Winter, McClelland, and Stewart, 1981).

With volumes of books and complete journals dedicated to discussing the ideas and values of "liberal education," this review cannot begin to be exhaustive. Yet we seek to provide a meaningful context for a discussion of the impacts of liberal arts colleges and liberal arts education. The review of the existing evidence is framed in two sections. The initial section describes the nonempirical literature by situating liberal arts colleges in a historical context, contrasting the historical liberal arts college model with the present. We follow by detailing the vast heterogeneity within the institutional category commonly considered "liberal arts colleges, and we conclude by characterizing the modern challenges faced by liberal arts colleges and liberal arts education. The subsequent section reviews the empirical literature, focusing on what is known about the unique effects of attending a liberal arts college on students' engagement in the postsecondary experience, their intellectual and personal development, and their career success and personal lives after college.

Liberal Arts Colleges: Past and Present

Higher education in the United States is rooted in the liberal arts college (Rudolph, 1990). Modeled after Oxford and Cambridge in England, the American liberal arts college was small and residential, with traditional-age full-time male students studying a common curriculum, culminating in a bachelor's degree. The college was typically situated in a bucolic environment apart from the vice of the city in an effort to focus students' attention on their intellectual pursuits (Rudolph, 1990).

The historic purpose of the liberal arts college was to educate young men in a manner befitting civic and religious leaders of the Colonies. Calling on the tradition of the ancient Greeks, a liberal arts education was intended to free students from the bondage of habit and custom by tempering profound parochial convictions with a measure of tolerance and a judicious sense of humility (Freedman, 2000; Nussbaum, 1997). Moreover, a liberal arts education focused on the development of the "whole person" (Conrad and Wyer, 1982; Hawkins, 2000; Lang, 2000) by teaching students to understand not only themselves but also the foundations of a democratic society and the responsibilities of citizenship. This noble task was accomplished by introducing students to the methods of reasoning and instilling in them an understanding of the proper balance between the opportunities for individualism and the demands of community (Freedman, 2000).

Today's liberal arts colleges vary greatly from the historic image. Although many liberal arts colleges remain small and residential, most are coeducational and can be found in cities as well as small towns. Some are highly selective and boast large endowments while others have a virtually open admission policy and are heavily tuition dependent (Astin, 2000; Koblik, 2000). Variations between liberal arts colleges also include the level of religious affiliation, proportion of degrees granted to students in traditional liberal arts disciplines, and the financial base of the institution (Astin and Lee, 1972; Breneman, 1990, 1994b; Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, 2000; Pace, 1974). Despite this heterogeneity, the overwhelming mission of the educational experience remains to liberally educate the whole person (Breneman, 1990).

Typologies of Liberal Arts Colleges

Many of today's liberal arts colleges boast of the historical purpose and benefits of a liberal arts education to their students and stakeholders (Aleman and Salkever, 2002). In today's diverse environment of higher education institutions, however, the simple act of identifying and defining liberal arts colleges is a complex and at times contentious practice. In an attempt to differentiate between institutional types in American higher education, Pace (1974) employed a cluster analysis of the College and University Environment Scales (CUES) to distinguish eight distinct institutional types, three of which were variations of the liberal arts college (Pace, 1974). These efforts distinguished between the selective liberal arts college, the denominational liberal arts college, and the general liberal arts college, based on the characteristics of institutional intellectual emphasis and degree of religious affiliation. For example, the selective liberal arts college was defined as academically selective, private, nonsectarian, and intellectually demanding; the denominational liberal arts college was strongly denominational, either Catholic or Protestant; and the general liberal arts colleges comprised some denominational and some non-sectarian colleges, but not as strongly denominational as the denominational liberal arts colleges or as highly selective or intellectually demanding as the selective liberal arts colleges.

Similar to the typology defined by the College and University Environment Scales, the Carnegie classification created by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching has also used the selective nature of liberal arts colleges to draw institutional distinctions. In 1973, the classification separated liberal arts colleges into two groups. The differentiation rested on the selectivity of admissions and the number of graduates who went on to complete the Ph.D. at "leading" universities (Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, 2000). The latter criterion was removed from the classification scheme in 1987 and was replaced with a measure of the percentage of degrees awarded in traditional liberal arts disciplines. In 1994, categories such as Baccalaureate (Liberal Arts) Colleges I and Baccalaureate Colleges II were created based on whether 40 percent of degrees awarded were in a liberal arts discipline as well as the selectivity of the institution. More recently, the 2000 Carnegie classification eliminated selectivity as a distinguishing characteristic and raised the threshold of degrees granted in liberal arts disciplines to 50 percent, resulting in a category distinguishing between Baccalaureate Colleges-Liberal Arts and Baccalaureate Colleges-General (Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, 2000). Under the 2000 Carnegie criteria, 228 colleges remain with the distinction of Baccalaureate Colleges-Liberal Arts.

Before Carnegie's use of the percentage of degrees awarded in traditional liberal arts disciplines as a distinguishing criterion, Breneman (1990, 1994b) used percentage of degrees awarded in liberal arts disciplines and the source of institutional revenue as the criteria for another typology of liberal arts colleges. Based on these two criteria, liberal arts colleges were divided into two halves: those colleges that granted 40 percent or more of their degrees in liberal arts disciplines and were financially rooted in revenue from undergraduate programs; and those colleges that granted fewer than 40 percent of their degrees to students in liberal arts disciplines and had a financial base that included professional and graduate programs. The latter Breneman labeled "small professional colleges." Under these criteria, the number of liberal arts colleges in the United States decreased to 212.

Although the number of traditional liberal arts colleges has decreased, Breneman (1990, 1994b) concluded that, despite the decline in total numbers, liberal arts colleges were not failing but rather evolving to meet the needs of a changing economy. Alternatively, Delucchi (1997) criticized the curricular shifts taking place at many liberal arts colleges, particularly those Breneman classified as small professional colleges, arguing that there is a "liberal arts myth" in institutions' efforts to legitimately connect themselves to their more selective and high status peer institutions. Ultimately, the classification system used to distinguish between institution types and the debates over identifying and defining liberal arts colleges is one of the dynamic characteristics of American higher education.

Challenges to Liberal Arts Colleges and Liberal Arts Education

Liberal arts colleges have faced and continue to face a host of challenges. Their existence has been threatened by the increased focus of postsecondary education on vocational education. Additionally, liberal arts colleges are confronted by the public's lack of understanding of or complete misperception about the goals and benefits of liberal arts education and career skills. Finally, the public disconnect between the goals and benefits of liberal arts education and career skills leads to a belief that a liberal arts education and attending a liberal arts college are luxury educational experiences for the wealthy. This section discusses the challenges faced by liberal arts colleges and liberal arts education in greater detail.

Historically, one of the greatest challenges to the liberal arts has come from vocational education (Brint, 2002; Freedman, 2000; MacTaggart, 1993; Miles, 1986; Neely, 2000; Rudolph, 1990; Scott, 1992; Shea, 1993; Thelin, 2004). Curricular changes have been a common feature in American higher education and have been the most direct manifestation of the tension in defining and meeting the evolving public and private need (Grubb and Lazerson, 2005; Lattuca and Stark, 2001; Rudolph, 1990; Thelin 2004). During the last two centuries, high schools, colleges, universities, and (more recently) community colleges have at different times responded to the often conflicting demands of a democratic and capitalistic society (Labaree, 1990). In a changing economic and political context, students and their families have sought higher education that would fulfill their aspirations for economic success and social mobility. At times, these goals have been best served by a liberal arts education, while at others and for many of the same reasons, students and their families have found vocationally oriented education to best serve their goals. Thus, the value placed on liberal arts education by the populace has largely been a function of the economic and political context of the society.

During the colonial period, a liberal arts education was seen as cultivating broad rather than specialized skills and was thus viewed as imminently useful for serving the needs of the Colonies. By the early 1800s, however, not all members of the citizenry embraced these same broad skills resulting from a liberal arts education. Critics of liberal arts education found the curriculum provided inadequately for the emerging needs of society. Yet these first cries for a "new modeled" (Rudolph, 1990, p. 132) curricula were met with sharp criticism. The Yale Report (Goodchild and Wechsler, 1828/1997), a bold statement defending the traditional curricula, repeatedly stressed the purpose of a college education was to build a foundation that serves the vast and ever-changing needs of society. The report concluded that the business character of the nation was best served through the traditional liberal arts curriculum.

As the Industrial Revolution flourished at the end of the nineteenth century, the traditional liberal arts curriculum was threatened by the notion that colleges "should train citizens to participate in the nation's economic and commercial life ... through the offering of career-oriented programs buttressed by general education electives" (Lattuca and Stark, 2001, p. 4). Rudolph (1990) characterized developments in higher education in the years following the Civil War as a "redefinition" (p. 241), where "everywhere the idea of going to college was being liberated from the class-bound, classical-bound traditions which for so long had defined the American college experience" (p. 263). With the growing industrial economy and the rise of the professions, students recognized the value given to school-based knowledge over work-based knowledge and obtained this professional expertise from universities that could provide the necessary credentials (Grubb and Lazerson, 2005). In contrast, the dismal job markets of the Great Depression fueled students' desire to major in traditional liberal arts disciplines to acquire the broad skills that provided career flexibility (Lattuca and Stark, 2001).


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Table of Contents

Executive Summary.



Background and Warrant for the Study.

Review of Existing Evidence.

Liberal Arts Colleges: Past and Present.

Evidence About the Impacts of Liberal Arts Colleges.


The Study.

Datasets Analyzed.

Sample Descriptions.

Effects of Liberal Arts Colleges on Good Practices in Undergraduate Education.

Data and Analyses.


Total Effects.

Direct Effects.

Conditional Effects.

Timing of Effects.

Effects of Liberal Arts Colleges on Intellectual and Personal Development.

Data and Analyses.


Total Effects.

Direct Effects.

Additional Analyses.

Timing of Impacts.

Conditional Effects.

Effects of an Institution’s Liberal Arts Emphasis and Students’ Liberal Arts Experiences on Intellectual and Personal Development.

Data and Analyses.


Liberal Arts Emphasis I.

Liberal Arts Emphasis II.

Liberal Arts Experiences.

Timing of Impacts.

Conditional Effects.

Long-Term Effects of Liberal Arts Colleges.

Data and Analyses.

Results: Total and Direct Effects.

Results: Conditional Effects.

Impacts of Liberal Arts Colleges and Liberal Arts Education: A Summary.

Good Practices.

Intellectual and Personal Development.

Long-Term Effects.

Conditional Effects.



Appendix A: Operational Definitions of Variables.

Appendix B: Statistical Controls Introduced in the Analysis of Different Study Outcomes.


Name Index.

Subject Index.

About the Authors.

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