If a complete stranger had stumbled onto campus the weekend before last they might have thought that Augustana was the busiest college on the planet. That Saturday (January 17th), the Admissions Office hosted one of our largest annual open-house events for prospective students and families. While this event always draws large numbers, this year the number of visitors to campus (prospective students and their parents combined) may well have exceeded the actual number of Augustana students living on campus.
With the college recruiting season hurtling into the most critical few months of the year, every little bit of information that we can learn about prospective students and their parents and their decision-making process matters. To that end, we’ve been gathering data on the things that are most important to our prospective students and their parents as they evaluate, and ultimately select, a college. One way that researchers try to get at this kind of information is to ask folks to pick five words or phrases from a longer list of words or phrases that they think best describe an idyllic college experience. As you might expect from this year’s prospective students, “affordable” topped the list with 57% of the respondents choosing it. Other words near the top of the list included “friendly” (41%), “safe” (39%), “respected,” (38%), and “career-oriented” (33%).
Much further down the list, 15th to be exact, sits the phrase “liberal arts” (just 12% of respondents thought this was a top-five word for them). Since rank ordering the words selected ends up clustering “liberal arts” with a seemingly contradictory group of terms (e.g., “small,” “large,” “rigorous,” and “flexible,”), it’s clear that we probably shouldn’t go all Chicken Little just yet. Look on the bright side: only 6% of the respondents selected “party school.”
The question this finding raises for me, however, isn’t really about the exact ranking of the term “liberal arts.” My concern is that there seems to be a substantive gap between the degree to which we (faculty, staff, administrators, board members) use the phrase “liberal arts” to describe who we are and the level of importance that prospective students responding to this survey gave it. To make matters worse, this data doesn’t come from some general survey of potential college-going students; these responses came from students in our own inquiry pool (i.e., students who have either contacted us directly or students who fit a profile of those who might be interested in us).
Now please don’t conclude that I’m suggesting the elimination of the term or the philosophy behind it. On the contrary, I happen to think that if we are going to remain a viable college then we will have to explicitly embody a liberal arts philosophy that focuses on integrating and synthesizing preexisting knowledge. Almost exactly a year ago, I went on a three-post rant about it here, here, and here.
Rather, I suspect that the term “liberal arts” means very little of substance to prospective students. Maybe it is, like many other words that get used over and over again in marketing materials, a case where the phrase means one thing to an internal audience and something else to an external audience. When we use the term, even though we might not all agree exactly, I think we could describe relatively precisely the dispositions of a liberally educated individual. This finding increases my worry that when an external audience, most notably prospective students, sees this term, they have a much less precise sense of its meaning. In that context, “liberal arts” might mean little more than “small” or “rigorous.” It also could end up being interpreted to mean “lots of classes in fields I’m not interested in” or, even worse, “a club that maybe we’ll let you into.”
I certainly don’t have a brilliant answer to this challenge. But I think it is worth noting that just because we have a term that we believe describes us well doesn’t mean that this term will compel others who are new to the concept of college to buy what we are selling. There’s nothing wrong with believing in what we do; even drinking our own Kool-Aid. We just better be able to spell out what we do and why it works in a way that makes sense to regular folks who seem to care a lot more about affordability.
Make it a good day,