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Liberal arts education has two problems. First, no one agrees on what it means — some even think it’s about political indoctrination. Second, the public is skeptical of the value of a liberal arts education.

Never mind that the liberal arts delivers what employers seek — as well as what graduates later say helped them build satisfying lives.

My touchstone for a satisfying career and life is shaped by the Gallup-Purdue polling that found graduates who, years after college, expressed high satisfaction with their careers and life. They attributed some of that satisfaction to their college experience — specifically:

  • A mentor who nurtured their hopes and dreams.
  • Professors who cared about them as a person.
  • A sustained project that connected classroom learning to work in the world.

If we take such insights seriously, we’ll question our focus on expanding access to subject-matter content. Our collective goal instead can be to create more — and more affordable — educational opportunities across the postsecondary sector that offer access to the elements above.

Related: With enrollment sliding, liberal arts colleges struggle to make a case for themselves

As a part of this broader collective goal, we can identify key components of the liberal arts experience and make them more widely available at lower cost.

Start with a definition. In addition to field-specific knowledge in, for example, computer science or history, sound liberal arts education delivers the development of transferable skills, such as “critical thinking.” It aims to cultivate attributes — empathy is one — associated with leadership and civic responsibility.

It’s the total liberal arts package — deep subject-matter knowledge plus other, sometimes hard-to-define skills and attributes — that makes these graduates so marketable.

As currently offered, it’s labor-intensive, expensive, very dependent on philanthropy and designed for young adults doing it full-time.

We’ve effectively offered this package at selective four-year residential institutions through a rich combination of coursework, research, mentoring, internships, community engagement, student-led organizations, athletics and international experiences.

And, despite widespread public skepticism, demand remains high at these institutions, as measured by the ever-growing number of applications and the oft-falling acceptance rates. Individual outcomes, however measured, are generally good. So there is little incentive for the most successful institutions to question the business model, or to examine concretely how liberal arts delivers or which experiences cultivate specific skills or attributes.

Related: Liberal arts face uncertain future at nation’s universities

This “business as usual” is no longer defensible, not because we’ll all go broke but because, given our context, strengths and new tools, we can do so much more. And it’s precisely the most successful, sought-after, financially stable institutions — those with the least incentive to ask questions — that have the greatest obligation. How does liberal arts education actually work?

What about it, really, is most valuable after graduation? How can we scale some parts of it to serve more people at lower cost?

One example: Among the distinctive components of “critical thinking” that repeat employers of graduates from Davidson College, where I am president, routinely mention is creative problem-solving. When pressed for specifics, they say things like: “your grads never give up”  and “they come up with approaches I’d never think of.”

In short, these students know how to navigate the unfamiliar. They’re not intimidated by unprecedented situations. When known approaches fail, they invent new ones.

Students on our campuses may develop this through any number of experiences: defining their own research project, playing a new position, working with a community partner, studying internationally and/or trying out for a musical for the first time. Yet surely there are other ways. How can we affordably give more people the chance to quickly develop this skill?

Institutions like mine have claimed correctly for a long time that we educate students for life, no matter what they’re going to do, and for far more than just a specific job or narrowly focused career. They may not get everything on Day One, but they have what is needed for every day thereafter. Our branding problem, then, may be the result not of ineffectiveness but of a perceived self-serving elitism.

Many people now want what we do. Let’s figure out how to offer it to them.

This story about liberal arts education was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up here for Hechinger’s newsletter.

Carol Quillen is president of Davidson College.

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Carol Quillen is president of Davidson College.

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