As a graduate of Gettysburg College with a major in political science and minors in Spanish and history, I am a passionate advocate for the liberal arts. Following my time at Gettysburg I’ve devoted my career to promoting and advancing colleges with a historical emphasis in the liberal arts (Elizabethtown College and Augustana College).
However, there have been several occasions when my commitment to the liberal arts has been questioned. These questions often focus on recruitment and promotional materials and typically involve accusations of deemphasizing or not fully appreciating the humanities. Throughout the last nineteen years I have often heard that we “just need to market the humanities better.”
I agree. But, I am still struggling with what exactly that “better marketing” looks like. (I suspect most who are calling for better marketing may also be struggling with the vision, too.)
A little more than a year ago, Daniel Fusch, of Academic Impressions, contacted me to ask for my reaction to some media attention about the decline in students majoring in the humanities. He asked me for my views on what could be done. You can read Daniel’s piece and my comments in the article, “Recruiting for the humanities.”
Daniel based much of his piece on an essay I’d been working on for years and I thought I might share it with you today.
I am interested in your thoughts on this subject and welcome your comments.
W. Kent Barnds @bowtieadmission
What does it take to recruit students to majors in the humanities?
This tome has been in the making for years and I thought it might be a good chance to clarify my commitment to the liberal arts and offer my views on how to make traditional liberal arts programs more attractive within a very competitive and often “drive-by” marketplace.
The fuzziness of the liberal arts does not help
Whether we (advocates for the liberal arts) like it or not, we cannot ignore conventional wisdom, which suggests that “liberal arts” is often viewed as nothing more than a proxy for “small, expensive and private.” Within the general college-bound public, the understanding of the liberal arts is fuzzy (small, expensive, etc.) at best and distorted (focused exclusively on fine arts) at worst. Despite our best intentions, noblest desires, and most sincere efforts, the higher education community at large has been unable to adequately educate the public about what the liberal arts is and what liberal arts colleges do.
The problem of limited understanding of the liberal arts is compounded by virtually every college across the nation possessing their own heartfelt definition of liberal arts. Furthermore, at any liberal arts college across the nation it would be a struggle to gather ten people in a room and come up with a consensus definition of the liberal arts—let alone a definition that would resonate with and attract students. As depressing and discouraging as this may be, it is largely a condition that is out of our power to successfully and positively influence. So, holding out hope that we alone can define the liberal arts is probably not a wise strategy.
However, giving up is not a wise strategy either.
Liberal arts+ helps, but only at the “corporate level”
It is my opinion that liberal arts colleges that have professional programs enjoy some advantage, not to mention distinction, in the marketplace. The combination of liberal arts programs with professional programs seems to be a fairly powerful combination and strengthens both programs at the same time. But, with some intentionality any program can distinguish itself.
Several years ago, I attended a conference during which admissions people were offered two minutes to describe their institution in front of an international audience of 150 conference attendees. At the time, I was working for a small college in Pennsylvania of about 1,500 students. I began my presentation describing my employer as “a small, liberal arts college in Pennsylvania.” I then thought to myself, I just described 60 of our competitors! It was critical for me to find some way to distinguish the college for which I worked from the other 60 smallish, liberal artsish colleges in Pennsylvania.
Because ours is an academic enterprise, first and foremost, I looked for features of the academic program that distinguished the college from others. First, liberal arts colleges offering professional-oriented programs, regardless of the combination of programs, enjoy some immediate distinction from other liberal arts colleges, at least in the crowded world of marketing to college-bound students. One can think of this as “the liberal arts+” advantage.
While I recognize that this may have been libelous for liberal arts purists for whom the liberal arts and its breadth means everything, it has been interesting for me over the years to watch “pure” liberal arts colleges develop cooperative programs (engineering, medicine, business, allied health) and professional tracks (pre-law, pre-med, articulation agreements for CPA and MBA, etc.) to compete with colleges that are more professionally-oriented. These “pure” liberal arts colleges have done so in order to compete for the very best students, who often seek a “strong major” above anything else in choosing a college. This liberal arts+ advantage is often cited by admissions officers who are charged with the task of distinguishing a college from many other places with very similar characteristics. It would not be uncommon to hear someone at say, that “We offer majors in all of the traditional liberal arts, science and humanities with some distinctive program offerings for a liberal arts college in areas like business, occupational therapy, communications, education and social work.” These + majors offer a distinguishing characteristic for the college that is meaningful to a new audience, which may often begin with the following “I know you are a liberal arts college, but what makes your college stand apart from the rest?”
If we chose to compete at the institutional/corporate level by deemphasizing our academic programmatic distinctions, we will choose to compete based exclusively on the college’s reputation. In most cases colleges outside the top 50 national liberal arts college or top universities will lose most battles to colleges perceived to be a “tier above.”
Competing at the “corporate level” is tough. Places with greater resources and name recognition, will with much greater frequency “win” the student who is undecided or who wants to study English, history, anthropology, Spanish, Classics, philosophy or political science. Unless a traditional program is markedly different (i.e. foreign language study at Middlebury, music at Oberlin), it is unlikely that a college will compete on anything other than prestige and reputation.
Colleges are more likely to successfully compete for and win those students who want an environment similar to that which is offered by the institution with a greater reputation, but wish to study communications, accounting, music therapy, education, business, social work, communication sciences and disorders or occupational therapy. In these cases, it is possible to compete for students at the departmental level rather than at the corporate level and the distinctions of the program can and will transcend the prestige factor.
Majors in the humanities need a hook
It is my opinion that traditional programs in humanities need to do more to develop distinguishing features and shape those features into meaningful benefits to students in order to compete at the department level. They need to develop a “hook.” Some will say, “you mean a gimmick.” Nope, I mean a hook; just like the hook needed to capture the attention of a peer review committee for a journal or a publisher considering a book proposal.
Majors in the humanities need a hook!!!
I contend that most majors in the humanities have a built-in hook, but it is not always emphasized in a way that resonates and equips the major to stand out sufficiently to attract students.
The proposition for studying English, history, music, art, languages, religion, etc. needs to be strengthened by the hook or several hooks in order to successfully articulate why the program is better and different here than at a place that might win the typical reputation battle described above. This will become increasingly important as demographic shifts occur and colleges further professionalize their curriculum based on market conditions.
We need to identify why studying in the humanities here (at Augustana College, which is where I work currently) is different or better than studying elsewhere.
Some suggestions for majors in the humanities
I offer the following suggestions for the consideration of those in the humanities:
- Develop a common and distinctive element within all of the humanities programs (i.e. require a semester abroad as a major requirement in order to fulfill a degree in the humanities)
- Develop a team-taught core course(s) for all humanities majors that provides a basic cross-disciplinary overview and introduction to the humanities and humanistic approaches
- Promote and emphasize cross-disciplinary collaboration within the humanities
- Offer significantly greater curriculum flexibility (have fewer required courses within specific majors). Many students who are interested in the humanities resist too much structure of required majors and may want to explore several areas of the humanities.
- Create a general humanities major that enables a student to design their own program within the humanities in consultation with faculty mentors. Some students attracted to the humanities may be motivated by greater flexibility in shaping an interdisciplinary major within prescribed parameters.
- Create partnerships with professional programs to make it easy, attractive and meaningful for students to earn a major or minor in a humanistic discipline. (Make your case to your colleagues for why a major or minor in your discipline will inform the professional program a student is studying)
None of these things may be particularly innovative. But, the suggestions are grounded in the idea that we need to be able to offer some meaningful symbol that we can point to that represents to the market that the way we deliver instruction in the program better or in a more distinctive than any another place. Another way to approach this is to ask the question, what does a student get from studying history at my college verses what the same student may get at college?
The bottom-line is that we need to find a way to compete at the departmental-level in areas that are common from campus to campus. If we don’t compete at the departmental-level and offer something distinctive to our students we are subject to the marketplace’s perception of reputation.