In 1990, economist David Breneman published an article, “Are we losing our liberal arts colleges?” and spoke to the decline in the number of liberal arts colleges. Yet in 2012, the U.S. Department of Education data showed that enrollment in private nonprofit colleges and universities increased 1.9%, while total post-secondary enrollment in the U.S. declined for the first time in 15 years.
Since then, trade and consumer publications from The New York Times to The Chronicle of Higher Education to The Huffington Post have all conjectured on the topic of “why liberal arts?” from a variety of perspectives.
In a contracting pool of graduating high school seniors, fierce competition for the best of that crop, and an increasing number of cross-apps by prospects, what’s an enrollment marketer to do?
- Embrace the Liberal Arts. Contrary to the public outcry that’s created a dangerous “show me the money” attitude, liberal arts education occupies a lustrous place in history dating back to Socrates. As a higher ed marketer, embrace and revel in the enlightened tradition of liberal arts. Don’t backpedal. Don’t apologize. Don’t downplay. Instead, wear your liberal arts mantle proudly. Script the storyline for everyone, if necessary.
- Re-define the Liberal Arts. Abandon the vagaries of “learning for learning’s sake” and take a firm stand on the absolute necessity of the liberal arts in a democratic and rapidly changing society. Twenty-first century dialogues on topics such as DNA, equality, healthcare, privacy and poverty (among a multitude of others) demand the rigor — and ethical guidance — of a society steeped in liberal arts education. Find those roots in your college or university. They’ll be deep and the soil will be rich.
- Translate the Liberal Arts. At its very core, a liberal arts education is designed to train minds in critical analysis and scientific methodology. To be able to discern fact from fiction. To uncover the illogic in logical arguments. In an era where information often passes for truth, we can all benefit from a few more well-trained minds. As an enrollment marketer, be sure to amplify every mention with appropriately clarifying nuances such as “liberal arts education that prepares you for any career path …” Or “liberal arts education trains your mind to …” Translate into many “languages.”
- Visualize the Liberal Arts. A picture (or TwitPic, Selfie, YouTube or Vine video, Instagram photo, Facebook album, etc.) is worth a thousand words. Enough said.
- Carry the Liberal Arts Torch. Finally, be the torchbearer of the liberal arts educational experience at your institution. Talk to deans and faculty. Make friends with the internship coordinator. Find out what attracts employers to your graduates. Get copies of faculty and/or student research papers each term. Attend student Capstone presentations. Shine a light on those stories. Then, let that flame light the way to students who yearn for a journey of self-discovery, filled with potential and the carefree abandon that, in life — and in the liberal arts — anything is possible.