Higher education is dying a death by a thousand cuts. The biggest victim?
A robust liberal arts curriculum, long the centerpiece of collegiate education.
The ongoing erosion of general education requirements may be the deepest cut of the campus culture wars. Originally designed to ensure that all students take courses in core arts and science disciplines, many universities have diluted their programs to the point that hundreds of niche, esoteric courses can fulfill a single “distribution requirement.”
Several colleges well known for their strong humanities programs, such as Tulsa University and Wheeling Jesuit University, have cut humanities and social science programs altogether. And of the 84 colleges that have closed since 2016, a disproportionate number were small liberal arts colleges.
Between 2011 and 2017, the number of history majors declined more than 30%. Literature, philosophy, and religious studies departments have all experienced similar slumps. Even more alarming, the Modern Language Association reported this year that American colleges and universities cut 651 foreign language programs between 2013 and 2016.
An explosion in college costs and student debt has coincided with the rapid death of the liberal arts. But how are these two alarming trends related?
College costs and debt have eroded the freedom from immediate want that the liberal arts depend on. As a result of financial pressure, learning for the sake of learning, rather than learning as a means of career advancement, has lost social currency. Will a student drowning in debt pursue a philosophy major or a petroleum engineering major? In reality, high costs mean the average student is more likely to study what they think will land them a job than what truly interests them.
It’s true that the liberal arts disciplines do not teach students how to produce a particular product or perfectly set them up to find a job tomorrow. Instead, they teach other skills that employers are demanding such as critical thinking, written and verbal communication, intercultural fluency, interpersonal skills, and so on.
Thus, liberal arts graduates may find themselves better equipped for the rapidly evolving job market. There is already evidence that millennials are changing jobs far more frequently than previous generations and that students with narrowly-focused pre-professional degrees may lack the flexibility to keep up.
Unfortunately, studying the liberal arts has been painted as an upper-class luxury. The top 25 liberal arts college, as ranked by U.S. News & World Report, have an average tuition north of $50,000. But the depiction of the liberal arts as a luxury ignores a crucial point: Humanities and social sciences are generally much cheaper to teach than STEM and many pre-professional majors.
So college affordability and the liberal arts should not be viewed as separate issues in the academy. Investing in the liberal arts program can save money for colleges, while cutting costs and discounting tuition can incentivize majoring in the liberal arts.
Right now, our higher education system is failing to produce critical thinkers that can adapt to the unpredictable 21st century economy. The liberal arts can help get things back on track but only if people can afford to study them.
Erik N. Gross is a communications associate at the American Council of Trustees and Alumni.