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Reflections on a Liberal Arts Education: Part I, Essentials of a Liberal Arts Education?

A thoughtful note from a friend and fellow alumnus spurred me to some New Year’s reflections on the liberal arts and how we endeavor to educate the young men* who come to Saint John’s University.

While I have argued elsewhere that institutional communities made up of many diverse individuals can rarely be said to have a single “opinion” on political or social matters, I certainly believe that institutions, like colleges and universities, do have missions.  Faculty, staff and students all have a variety of choices in the matter of where they will work or study, and presumably the mission of the educational institution they choose is one of the most significant factors in that important decision.

One of the foundational elements of Saint John’s University’s mission is to provide a liberal arts education, and in this we are in exceptional company.  Most of our finest academic peers in Minnesota—Carleton, Macalester, St. Olaf, Gustavus Adolphus and Concordia-Moorhead—are liberal arts colleges, and most of the finest institutions in the United States—the Ivies, University of Chicago, Stanford—provide their undergraduates with a liberal arts education.  It is also true that many more comprehensive universities, especially the flagship public institutions, also provide a liberal arts education for many of their students.

While there is general agreement that a liberal arts education focuses on the arts and sciences, rather than on professional or vocational training, educators and students have wide-ranging beliefs about the specific purpose of such an education.

In a recent Chronicle of Higher Education essay, Hunter Rawlings III, former president of the University of Iowa and Cornell University, offered some stimulating reflections on what is important in a liberal education.  He, not surprisingly for a classicist, eloquently uses poetry, art and literature to propose “five essentials of a liberal education.”


1. Liberation: to liberate our students’ minds from the constraints of their often unexamined upbringing and natural provincialism and to produce their own “complex meanings.”
2. Irreverence: to encourage students to be serious about learning but not to impose “a stultifying reverence” on knowledge and education.
3. Pleasure: to have students have joy and excitement while they learn, in school and throughout life.
4. Provocation: to challenge students, to stretch them, to make them uncomfortable.
5. Courage: to give students the courage to try new and hard ideas and endeavors.

Rawlings acknowledges that his list is likely not exhaustive, writing, “Liberation, irreverence, pleasure, provocation, courage — those are, in my view, five essentials of liberal education. Many more could be proposed, of course.”

It is certainly hard to disagree with Rawlings’ list.  A student that graduates having meaningfully experienced these attributes of a liberal arts education will be well prepared for a lifetime of ongoing education and learning, with all the joys and successes that come with it.

Yet it seems to me there is something essential and even foundational missing from this list—something that distinguishes a liberal arts education at places like Saint John’s from those at Cornell or big public universities like the University of Iowa.  There is no clear reference to the spiritual lives of students.  Rawlings does not mention a search for truth, the development of values and morals, or the exploration of ultimate questions about meaning.  He does quote a physicist who suggests a liberal education should consider, “What is justice?  What is a good life?”  But Rawlings seems to consciously skirt those ultimate questions of meaning, existence and the timeless truths that invariably touch on students’ spiritual lives.

This absence would be unthinkable at a Catholic and Benedictine institution—and likely also at any institution that continues to be grounded in its faith based origins.  (Ironically, of course, the earliest United States universities were founded, in part, to educate clergy.)

None of Rawlings essentials would be missing from a liberal education at Saint John’s but a quick look at our mission, vision and values clearly reminds students that there is another essential that is at least as important at those noted above:

Mission of Saint John’s University
Grounded in Catholic and Benedictine values and tradition, Saint John’s University provides young men a distinctive residential liberal arts education, preparing them to reach their full potential and instilling in them the values and aspiration to lead lives of significance and principled achievement.

Vision for the College of Arts and Sciences
Saint John’s University seeks to be one of the nation’s great Catholic liberal arts colleges by providing the best holistic learning experience for men in the country.

We will inspire undergraduate men to new heights of intellectual, spiritual, physical and social development that is informed by ethical reflection and grounded in our Catholic and Benedictine tradition.

Dedicated to the pursuit of understanding, wisdom, and the common good, Saint John’s University is committed to the following values:

Community built upon relationships of hospitality, respect, cooperation, and challenge.
Openness to learning, inquiry, beauty, truth, and difference.
Respect for persons, tradition, creativity, experience, faith, reason, and religious practice.
Depth in understanding, relationships, faith, and spirituality.
Sacredness of God, being, truth, place, nature, and knowledge.
Passion for excellence, truth, learning, beauty, love, and personal growth.

This essential part of a Saint John’s liberal education is certainly not to suggest that the goal is to preach, proselytize or convert.  Students are not told what to think or believe, but encouraged to explore the spiritual side of their humanity, something that is a natural part of their growth into adulthood.  A student’s answers to the questions of what he believes or does not believe is often foundational to the person he becomes and the life he chooses to lead.

There is nothing wrong with the five essentials that Rawlings proposes, but at Saint John’s (among other institutions with ongoing commitments to religious traditions) to think about a liberal education without immediately considering the ultimate questions of meaning, purpose and spiritual concerns misses an important, maybe the important, purpose of the liberal arts.  Most of the finest liberal arts institutions were  founded around these questions, but a much small number of those institutions continue to make these questions central to the education of their students.  At Saint John’s University, we still do.

*With our single academic program, the women who are educated at the College of Saint Benedict have an experience very much like that of the men at Saint John’s, but, given my role, it is appropriate that I limit my claims to what happens in Collegeville.

By |January 5th, 2018|Categories: Higher Education|0 Comments

Tax Reform and Higher Education

Now that the Tax Cuts and Job Act of 2017 has been passed it is possible to examine the implications for higher education.  The tax reform bill is of particular interest to higher education because from its earliest drafts, Congress, and the House of Representatives, in particular, seemed to target higher education in ways that would raise costs for families and students.  This apparent objective flies in the face the increasing need for investments in human capital for young people (see here and here) and of vocal concerns about the increasing costs of a college education (see here here and here).

The initial version of the tax reform included the taxing of tuition benefits for employees, graduate students and employees dependents.  It eliminated the deduction for student loan interest, as well as tax-free financing for private college and university capital projects.  The bill also proposed a 2% tax on endowment returns that would have affected about 250 institutions (Saint John’s University would have fallen just outside the original threshold).  These provisions naturally spurred institutions, students and families to lobby Congress, arguing that the proposed changes would make it harder for students to afford what is increasingly becoming a required credential for the middle class and for institutions to hold down tuition costs.

In the end, the outcome was not as dire as first feared, as the Senate bill, which was largely the basis for the final bill, was not as punitive toward higher education .*  The taxing of tuition benefits was removed from the final bill.  The deductibility of student loan interest was retained and only with refinancing of capital projects does the interest become taxable.  The endowment tax remained but was dropped to 1.4% of investment returns and the endowment per student threshold was raised to $500,000, which dropped the number of institutions affected to approximately 32.

From the perspective of the academy and economic research that emphasizes the importance of investment in human capital for long-run economic growth, good sense mostly prevailed.

Yet three questions remain.

    1. Why would Congress punish private institutions?  The endowment tax will only apply to private institutions despite the fact that many public institutions also have billion dollar endowments.  One of the strengths of the American higher education system is the diversity of options available to students: 4500+ institutions of higher education, of which 2200+ are four year degree granting institutions.  Private institutions range widely in size, program offerings and the nature of the student experience.  They are also among some of the world’s finest schools and draw many thousands of the best international students in the world to the United States.  While private institutions do benefits from some government grant and loan programs, they do not directly seek government revenues in the way public institutions do.  Anything that would weaken this sector seems to be cutting off one’s educational nose to spite one’s growth-focused face.
    2. Why tax endowments?  While endowments certainly confer prestige and have a significant impact in some rankings, they serve a very important role in providing financial stability in uncertain times and allow institutions to make a long run reputational/quality promise to students and faculty.  Endowments also, in normal economic times when market returns are at long-run historic levels, allow for institutions to do some combination of: covering costs that rise usually rise faster than inflation (labor costs), moderating tuition increases and increasing programming, research activity or educational quality.  In short, endowments provide an important source of revenue that allows institutions, at least potentially, to control tuition while maintaining institutional quality.  Taxing them makes this less possible. In addition, the gifts that schools used to build their endowments were given with the understanding that the returns would be untaxed, as colleges and universities are non-profits.  This new provision obviously violates that understanding and potentially impacts future giving.  Furthermore, it opens the door for taxing any charitable institution’s endowment, from less well-off schools to foundations of any kind.  This change represents a fundamental change in the way charitable organizations are treated in tax law.
    3. Have Congressional and public attitudes toward higher education changed?  This last question strikes me as the most important one.  Some commentators have observed that the provision targeting higher education are primarily political.  The Minding the Campus blog argues :

      Public attitudes toward universities have distinctly soured in recent years. What the public perceives as outrageous student behavior, feckless university leadership, and excessive tuition fees has combined with a growing hostility by Republican lawmakers angered over the large political donations and public criticism that academics have made attempting to oust them from office. Lawmakers are growing tired of feeding the mouths that bite them. Revenues raised by taxing colleges can modestly help fund other tax reductions that lawmakers want to make, which are probably economically beneficial to the well over 90 percent of the population living outside the Ivory Towers of Academia.

This hypothesis does not address why the provisions in the new tax law focus on private institutions (recall incidents at Berkley and Evergreen State), but it is consistent with the current contentious political environment.

If this interpretation of the tax provisions is accurate, the question for higher education and the public is whether these views are temporary or represent a fundamental shift in attitudes. There is very strong evidence that a well-educated populace plays an important role in long-run economic growth (for example see here and here ). There is also evidence that the changing role of technology in the economy is requiring a more educated workforce. All of which suggests that higher education has and will continue to play a central role in the prosperity of individuals, their families and the country as a whole.

To let politics get in the way of educating young people, either on campuses or in legislative bodies, will leave us all poorer.

*One other provision in the final version of the tax law that is likely to impact colleges and universities is the doubling of the standard deduction, which will cause the number of itemizing taxpayer to drop from about 30% of taxpayers to 5%. Though this change was largely aimed at tax simplification rather than targeting higher education and other charities.

Politics of the moment versus investment in the future*

Each year the Gallup organization asks Americans about their confidence in various institutions.  It will not surprise readers that the confidence Americans have in our institutions ranges widely.  The data for 2017 reveals that the institutions in which Americans have “a great deal” or a “quite a lot” of confidence ranges from a low of 12% for Congress to a high of 72% for the military.  These numbers are up slightly from 2016.

The Gallup poll does not ask specifically about higher education but another recent poll by the Wall Street Journal suggests that colleges and universities are suffering from their own crises in confidence among the public.  The WSJ Poll from this summer revealed that only 49% of those polled believe that “A college degree is worth the cost,” while 47% disagree.  This slight 2% gap in support for higher education is a significant drop from the 13% gap between supporters and skeptics when the same question was asked four years ago.

This number is troubling enough to those of us in higher education, but it is even more concerning when the responses are broken down by respondent.  The drop in confidence about the value of a four-year degree can be attributed almost entirely to non-graduates.  College graduates, on the other hand, continue to believe that college is worth the investment by a more than two to one margin, a gap that has remained stable.

What is interesting to consider is why this drop has occurred.  There is no evidence that the economic return on a college education has lessened.  College graduates continue both to earn a significant wage premium over high school graduates in the labor market and experience considerably lower rates of unemployment regardless of the economic conditions.  Economists calculate that the value of a four-year degree over a lifetime ranges from $500,000-$1M.  Yet a significant portion of the population does not believe a degree is worth the investment, which suggests that they are likely to discourage their children and other young people from going to college.

Looking at the data more closely suggests that the current contentious political environment might well be influencing attitudes toward higher education.  Republicans, men and rural residents – generally more conservative respondents – are more skeptical about the value of a college degree, while Democrats, women and urban residents – a generally more liberal demographic – continue to have faith in higher education.  These data are consistent with the hypothesis that the political tensions on campus around issues of free speech and diversity may have caused more conservative citizens to become more skeptical about the value of college.

As an educator and economist, these trends are worrying, especially as they relate to young men. Too few men are pursuing degrees already, as only 43% of American undergraduates are male.  Both for individual young men and for our country as a whole, a greater percentage of men need to pursue higher education.  While young male high school graduates can find good jobs in the currently healthy economy, the longer run question is what skills young men will need for a lifetime in a changing and unpredictable economy.  Those future jobs will likely require some investment in post-secondary education.

There is no denying that our campuses have become more politicized, as our country has become more polarized.  There have been incidents that have revealed some institutions to be less supportive of the free exchange of ideas than in the past, and this has hurt those schools.  The University of Missouri, for example, has seen a drop in first year enrollment of 35% following political protests on its flagship campus.

Young people are certainly right to consider what their campus experiences will be when they are weighing the biggest investment decision they are likely to ever make.  These experiences are an important part of any college education.  But they should also remember that the vast majority of the 2200+ four year institutions in America have continued to focus on their educational mission.  Every day faculty and staff are helping students pursue their educational dreams.

College graduates by a 2 to 1 ratio continue to believe that their investment was worthwhile.  Young people should reflect on this as they consider their own academic and economic investment in the future.

*This is the text of my To A Higher Degree column that appeared in the St. Cloud Times on Sunday, October 22, 2017.  To A Higher Degree is published the fourth Sunday of the month and rotates among the presidents of the four largest Central Minnesota higher education institutions.

By |October 31st, 2017|Categories: Higher Education|0 Comments