Photo: Alexus Jungles '19

Photo: Alexus Jungles ’19

This past summer, CSB/SJU hosted the Liberal Arts Illuminated Conference, which was attended by over 200 participants from across the country. The sessions, led by leaders in higher education, examined the challenges that face liberal arts institutions. I observed four challenges that were discussed across the sessions of the conference: identity, accessibility, accountability, and affordability.

The identity issue is defining what a liberal arts education is. The historic definition of the liberal arts was based on particular disciplines — the trivium (grammar, logic, rhetoric) and the quadrivium (arithmetic, geometry, music, astronomy). Of course the particular disciplines labeled as liberal arts have evolved over time to adapt to a changing and more complex world. But is a disciplinary definition an appropriate approach? How might the total experience of our students be described? What are the advantages of an education offered by “liberal arts” institutions? What are the high impact practices that define liberal arts colleges?

Accessibility for students to the educational opportunities of a liberal arts institution is a significant challenge. We need to be open to providing an inclusive and welcoming environment for all students, regardless of their race, ethnicity, socio-economic background, sexual orientation, or physical or emotional challenges. How does a college provide access to entrance? How does the institution provide access to educational opportunities once students are enrolled? How does the institution provide an inclusive atmosphere for all students and staff?

All of higher education is being challenged to be accountable for demonstrating that they are achieving the results they claim. Accountability is necessary not only to demonstrate achievement, but also to responsibly and continuously improve our education. What are the high impact practices for higher education? Do the students demonstrate that they are achieving the claimed outcomes? Are the stated outcomes appropriate and sufficient?

Affordability has received significant media coverage. A college education is a significant investment for families and students. What is the value of a liberal arts education? Why does college cost so much? Why have tuition increases outpaced inflation? How are colleges containing costs?

An outstanding resource to explain the complexities of the issues facing higher education is Breakpoint: The Changing Marketplace for Higher Education (Johns Hopkins University Press) by CSB/SJU vice president for planning and public affairs, Jon McGee.

Because we are not immune to these trends, CSB and SJU will confront these challenges. I will be addressing each of these issues in this blog in the coming weeks, explaining the national trends and discussing how CSB/SJU are addressing each.