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Volume 4, Number 3
March 2004

What does "liberal arts" mean, after all? Is it a set of values, a collection of disciplines, a kind of college, a type of preparation for adult life? One source of public confusion about the term is the many things it can mean for different people and the rarity of anyone defining the expression in a clear and useful way before using it. We offer with this issue a digest of recent research that  defines a liberal arts education in a new way, according to an emphasis that can be measured, campus by campus, and an experience that can also be measured, student by student. Behind this report is extensive research done cooperatively by our staff and Ernest Pascarella and his students at the University of Iowa. 

--Frederik Ohles, Editor


A Liberal Arts Education Changes Lives:
Why Everyone Can and Should Have This Experience

by Gregory C. Wolniak, Tricia A. Seifert, and Charles F. Blaich

Our Question
How does a liberal arts education benefit students? And is attending a particular type of college or university the only way to gain a liberal arts education and to reap its benefits?

For years many people have been making sizeable claims on the merits and benefits of a liberal arts education, but those claims have seldom been the sort that anyone could test or prove. We believe that it is time to test those claims.

In line with that belief, a research team from the University of Iowa and the Center of Inquiry in the Liberal Arts at Wabash College has studied the effects of liberal arts education from the perspective of what students experience in college. Our key question has been, to what extent does engaging in the experiences that are characteristic of a liberal arts education affect what students take from college?

In conducting this study, we have also tested the idea that the benefits of a liberal arts education can be realized by any student at any institution.

Our Study

We followed 900 students through their first three years at 16 colleges and universities.  The institutions were diverse. They included liberal arts colleges, public and private research universities, and comprehensive regional institutions. The group of students was very similar to the national population of traditional-aged four-year college undergraduates by sex, race, ethnicity, and age. Admissions standards at the 16 institutions varied greatly. Some of them were among the most selective in the country, while others had open admission policies.

Doing a study of this kind had three advantages. First, it allowed us to isolate the unique effects of liberal arts education without having those effects confounded by other influences, such as where students grew up, what kinds of high schools they attended, how much money their families have, whether their parents went to college, and what academic abilities they bring to college.

Second, this study measured how the students changed both academically and in their psychological and social behaviors. The academic proficiencies we examined included reading comprehension, mathematics, science reasoning, writing skills, and critical thinking. The psychosocial areas of our inquiry included openness to diversity, learning for self-understanding, a sense of responsibility for one's own academic success, preference for deep and difficult intellectual work, positive attitudes towards literacy, and plans for graduate education.

Third, for each year of the study, we gathered extensive information on students’ experiences in and out of the classroom. These experiences included information about how well their professors taught, how much effort and involvement the students had in their own learning, and the extent and significance of their interactions with professors and other students in and out of the classroom.
In our first pass at the data set, we zeroed in on the effects of attending a liberal arts college versus other types of institutions, as far as the cognitive and psychosocial outcomes.  We found inconsistency in our results.  Students at liberal arts colleges were not necessarily leaving college with better outcomes than students at other types of institutions. Some of the outcomes were positive for the liberal arts college students, but in other cases there was no difference. This result defied a common claim about liberal arts colleges and it provoked us to recast the study in a new way.

In our new approach to the data, we considered what is uniquely "liberal arts" about students' educational experiences in college. We ignored whether an institution called itself a liberal arts college or something else. We looked instead at whether the institution, whatever its name, provided its students with a liberal arts education.

For us a liberal arts education occurs when students:

  • go to college full time, 
  • experience effective teaching,
  • have high levels of interaction with faculty and peers in non-classroom and classroom settings,
  • are encouraged to high levels of academic expectation and effort,
  • learn in a setting that focuses on the integration of ideas, and
  • take courses that emphasize study of the liberal arts rather than vocational/technical areas.

We developed a Liberal Arts Experiences scale based on the following information:

  • Student reports of the quality of non-classroom interactions with faculty
  • Faculty interest in teaching and student development
  • Perceived instructional skill/clarity
  • Perceived instructional organization and preparation 
  • Scholarly/intellectual emphasis 
  • Academic effort/involvement
  • Number of essay exams in courses
  • Supportive relationships
  • Quality of interactions with students
  • Credit hours taken
  • Extracurricular involvement
  • Integration of ideas
  • Course challenge/effort 
  • Coursework ratio of liberal arts courses to vocational/technical courses

We also created a Liberal Arts Emphasis scale that scored individual institutions on the weight they put on the liberal arts experience of their students.  It considered the average score of their students on the Liberal Arts Experiences scale plus these factors:

  • Number of courses required of all students 
  • Percent of enrolled students living on campus
  • Percent of student body who are undergraduates. 

Our Results

We found that students with strong liberal arts experiences had statistically significant positive outcomes in many areas:

  • Reading comprehension 
  • Critical thinking 
  • Science reasoning 
  • Writing skills 
  • Openness to diversity/challenge
  • Learning for self-understanding
  • Sense of responsibility for one's own academic success
  • Preference for deep and difficult intellectual work
  • Positive attitude toward literacy
  • Plans to obtain a graduate degree

We found that institutions with a strong liberal arts emphasis had statistically significant positive effects on student learning outcomes in five areas:

  • Reading comprehension
  • Critical thinking 
  • Science reasoning
  • Writing skills
  • Openness to diversity/challenge

We wondered, though, whether the liberal arts experiences of individual students and a school's liberal arts emphasis benefited certain students more than others.  Here is where we got our most surprising result. A review of the data showed that the effects of liberal arts education did differ in important ways for different kinds of students. The major finding was that liberal arts experiences and a liberal arts emphasis were most important for students of color and students with below average pre-college academic ability.

For example, at the end of their second year of college, the significant effect of Liberal Arts Experiences on science reasoning was larger for students of color and students with below average pre-college academic ability than for white students or students with above average pre-college academic ability. Similarly, an institution’s liberal arts emphasis counted for more in the development of writing skills for students who entered college with below average academic ability than it did for those with above average academic ability. 

Our Conclusions

Liberal arts education has often been assailed by critics because of its high cost and its history of educating upper-class gentlemen as part of their preparation to take positions of civic and economic leadership. However, our study suggests that the liberal arts experience of a student and the liberal arts emphasis of an institution are particularly beneficial for students from underrepresented groups and for those who have less developed academic ability. The beneficial outcomes of a liberal arts education that we uncovered through this research do not depend upon institutional selectivity or institutional type.

Put another way, an institution’s liberal arts emphasis and its student’s liberal arts experiences seem to count more, in terms of what graduates take away from an undergraduate education, than simply attending a liberal arts college.

These are important findings for colleges and universities of all sizes and types, for two reasons. First, they suggest that having a liberal arts experience has a significant positive effect on student learning outcomes. Second, and perhaps more important, these results suggest that the liberal arts experience is not found solely in small, residential colleges.

It is possible for students to reap the rewards of a liberal arts education at any institution a) that values and supports its academic community in ways that lead it to develop opportunities for students to interact with faculty and with each other in supportive relationships, b) that encourages professors to work continually at honing their instructional clarity, preparation, and organization, and c) that emphasizes its scholarly nature by engaging students in the integration of ideas across the boundaries between disciplines.

These results may be particularly beneficial for comprehensive universities and colleges that easily feel caught between the public’s demand for tangible returns on educational investment on the one hand, and the liberal arts ideals that people at those institutions prize on the other hand.