ACTA is an independent, non-profit organization committed to academic freedom, excellence, and accountability at America's colleges and universities.

ACTA is an independent, non-profit organization committed to academic freedom, excellence, and accountability at America's colleges and universities.

ACTA is an independent, non-profit organization committed to academic freedom, excellence, and accountability at America's colleges and universities.

Education or Reputation? Executive Summary

January 2014

The residential liberal arts college is a distinctively American tradition, and for generations its distinguishing feature has been the broad, yet rigorous intellectual experience in the arts and sciences that it required of all students. Studies have demonstrated the success of individuals in a wide variety of roles whose college education was in the liberal arts rather than a narrower technical field. As early as 1956, Bell Laboratories began scientifically tracking the career progress of staff with different academic preparation. Over a 20-year period with the company, liberal arts majors progressed more rapidly and in greater percentage than other staff. Bell’s report, released in 1981, concluded:

[T]here is no reason for liberal arts majors to lack confidence in approaching business careers. The humanities and social science majors in particular continue to make a strong showing in managerial skills and have experienced considerable business success. We hope and expect this to continue.1

And a recent study commissioned by the Association of American Colleges and Universities also supports the marketplace competitiveness of liberal arts majors.2

The economic reality of the 21st century is that the skills, knowledge, and intellectual agility that come from a solid liberal arts education are more valuable than ever. The Bureau of Labor Statistics now reports that the average person born between 1957 and 1964 held an average of 11.3 different jobs between the ages of 18 and 46 alone. In a recent survey, 93% of employers asserted that mastery of a range of skills that are traditionally associated with the liberal arts was more important than the college major.3

Yet students have been migrating from arts, humanities and social sciences to fields that seem to promise easier paths to employment, like communications and business. And some governors and schools are taking a narrow and rigidly vocational view of higher education—one that steers students toward high-demand majors and preprofessional programs at the expense of a wider liberal arts background.4

The battle between advocates of the liberal arts and those who call for a narrower, ostensibly more efficient and pragmatic training for a professional career has raged for centuries.

Cardinal John Henry Newman argued passionately in The Idea of the University, that the liberal arts remain the core mission of higher education. A narrowly trained individual, Newman warned, “trained to think upon one subject or for one subject only, will never be a good judge even in that one: whereas the enlargement of his circle gives him increased knowledge and power in a rapidly increasing ratio.” And Newman admonished his readers to remember that a liberal education is not only preparation for all careers, but it is a preparation for living in and serving a community:

It aims at raising the intellectual tone of society, at cultivating the public mind, at purifying the national taste, at supplying true principles to popular enthusiasm and fixed aims to popular aspiration, at giving enlargement and sobriety to the ideas of the age, at facilitating the exercise of political power, and refining the intercourse of private life. It is the education which gives a man a clear conscious view of his own opinions and judgments, a truth in developing them, and eloquence in expressing them, and a force in urging them. It teaches him to see things as they are, to go right to the point, to disentangle a skein of thought, to detect what is sophistical, and to discard what is irrelevant. It prepares him to fill any post with credit, and to master any subject with facility.5

Now, as the cost of attending liberal arts institutions has risen sharply and steadily, there is increasing pressure to define how these institutions add value commensurate with their high costs.

We have focused on these 29 elite liberal arts institutions because they are widely held to represent the highest standards of collegiate education. They were listed by U.S. News & World Report as the “Top 25” liberal arts colleges and universities nationwide: several “ties” in these rankings brought the actual number of schools to the 29 covered in our report. Students and their parents believe that those who attend these institutions benefit from the close attention of outstanding teacher scholars, dedicated to preparing students for a lifetime of meaningful professional, civic, and cultural life. These leading liberal arts colleges and universities are deemed to be communities of learning devoted to the development of intellect and character.

Overall, however, the prestigious liberal arts colleges and universities in this report have abandoned the rigorous and disciplined curriculum that prepares a graduate for the challenges of a dynamic and changing world economy and for meaningful service to their community. Of seven key subject areas: Composition, Literature, intermediate-level Foreign Language, U.S. Government or History, Economics, Mathematics, and Natural or Physical Science, six of the colleges in this study require only three; nine require only one or two; five require none at all.

Far from preparing students for vigorous debate and giving them the intellectual courage to pursue truth wherever it may lead, they all too often suppress free speech and free inquiry. Of the colleges and universities in this report, not a single one merited a “green light” rating from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, meaning no interference with freedom of speech and expression. Instead, 14 earned a “red light” warning for substantial restrictions of free speech and another 11 have received a “yellow light” warning for restrictions that jeopardize free expression.

Despite these troubling deficiencies, many of these elite institutions are steadily raising their costs. Over the five years between 2007-08 and 2012-13—in other words, over the course of America’s Great Recession—these institutions increased their “sticker price” anywhere from 6.2% to 17.1%, adjusted for inflation. Given the full cost of attendance, an undergraduate degree would total between $213,000 and $245,000. In all cases, a single year’s attendance exceeds the national median household income of $52,762. It is not comforting to know that at many of these institutions, expenditures on administration exceeded one-third the amount spent on instruction; in one instance, more than 58%.6

It is the goal of this report to encourage boards of trustees, administrators, faculty, alumni, and students to bring the nation’s outstanding liberal arts institutions back to their birthright of excellent teaching and learning, manageable costs, and rigorous academic standards.


End Notes

  1. Robert E. Beck, Career Patterns: The Liberal Arts Major in Bell System Management (Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges, 1981), 13.
  2. Beckie Supiano, “How Liberal Arts Majors Fare Over the Long Haul,” Chronicle of Higher Education, January 22, 2014, < Fare/144133/>; Allie Grasgreen, “Liberal Arts Grads Win Long-Term,” Inside Higher Ed, January 22, 2014, <>.
  3. Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Number of Jobs Held, Labor Market Activity, and Earnings Growth Among the Youngest Baby Boomers: Results from a Longitudinal Survey,” news release, July 25, 2012, <>; Hart Research Associates, It Takes More than a Major: Employer Priorities for College Learning and Student Success (Washington, DC: 2013), 1, <>; Stephen Breyer, interview by Iaonna Kohler, “On Reading Proust,” New York Review of Books, November 7, 2013, <http://www.nybooks. com/articles/archives/2013/nov/07/reading-proust/>. Reed College, a college whose mission since 1908 has been “to provide a balanced, comprehensive education in liberal arts and sciences,” ranked first nationwide in producing future Ph.D.s in the life sciences, according to a 2003 study. “About Reed: Mission and History,” Reed College, accessed December 13, 2013, < history.html>; “Facts about Reed,” Reed College, accessed December 4, 2013, <>.
  4. Heidi Tworek, “The Real Reason the Humanities Are ‘in Crisis,’’ The Atlantic, December 18, 2013, <>. A significant detail is that the downward slope appears to be most pronounced at elite institutions. Scott Saul, “The Humanities in Crisis? Not at Most Schools,” New York Times, July 3, 2013, <>; “Addressing a Decline in Humanities Enrollment,” Harvard Magazine News, June 5, 2013, <>.
  5. John Henry Newman, The Idea of a University (London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1907), Discourse 7, <>.
  6. “USA QuickFacts,” United States Census Bureau, January 7, 2014, <>. National median household income is based on the average from 2007- 2011.