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Sunday, September 27, 2015

Those college rankings crush liberal arts education

Photo: Daniel R. Porterfield, Ph.D.
"For college educators, September now has been shaped by the thunderclaps of rankings, each with its own data, fanfare and false hierarchies." according to Daniel R. Porterfield, president of Franklin & Marshall College. The English scholar previously worked as senior vice president for strategic development at his alma mater, Georgetown University.

For those who believe that liberal arts education forms young adults and fosters freedom — endeavors that are impossible to quantify and rank — it's tempting to curse the skies, Twain-like, about the rise of “Lies, damned lies, and statistics.”

But we're better off lamenting less and building a better case for the value of liberal arts education for the world we live in now. And this month we have an ideal invitation to do so with the release of the Obama administration's much-anticipated College Scorecard.

This new online instrument allows users to compare institutions based on price, debt, completion rate and average salary of graduates, regardless of major, 10 years after finishing their degrees.

For families exploring financial aid options, it provides helpful information. But as a tool for learning about the value of college, it has two limitations.

It oversimplifies and over-emphasizes salary data that might not be predictive of future earnings and, more problematic, it fails to bring into view many beneficial aspects of the college experience, especially the value of rigorous liberal arts learning.

For example, the scorecard doesn't quantify whether students can take a broad range of core courses (taught by permanent faculty) in subjects like history, math, science, literature, philosophy, anthropology, psychology, government, languages or religion.

Nor does it measure student opportunities to work individually with faculty, improve their writing skills, do independent research or solve intellectual problems with peers of diverse backgrounds...

If we don't teach our children and youth to value America's freedoms, history, literature, culture, political philosophy, pluralism and regional differences, we'll be eroding from within all that we've built at the precise moment that we're being attacked from outside.

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