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Mellon Research Forum

Colleges and universities face growing pressure to prove their economic value to their students and society at large.  Institutions are called upon to ensure that their degree programs connect students to the labor market in immediate ways, steering graduates to jobs that pay a decent wage and contribute measurably to the economy.  While it is reasonable for students and their families to expect a college education to prepare them for satisfying careers, this expectation has come to be framed in narrow terms focused on a first, technically defined job rather than the long and lengthening arc of a human life.  In response, leaders in higher education, philanthropy, business, healthcare, and many sectors of human enterprise are calling renewed attention to the value of a broad liberal arts education that integrates knowledge from the humanities, sciences, and social sciences, and engages local as well as international perspectives.  Many have noted that the humanities help people develop abilities to cope with the disruptions of technology, climate change, and globalization.  As the work that provides for our sustenance, shelter, medicine, communications, and transportation is increasingly automated, many jobs will be rendered obsolete.  In rapidly changing societies where the future of work is uncertain, dispositions such as curiosity, historical perspective, critical thinking, and delight in different cultures may set students up for lives of flourishing in a variety of occupational and social registers. In a society hungry for data and evidence, however, just stating these ideas no longer suffices to make the case for a liberal arts education. 

The Foundation’s Mellon Research Forum, launched in 2017, has begun to support new qualitative and quantitative research into the outcomes of a liberal arts education in a range of categories, including impacts on economic wellbeing, cognitive and psychosocial development, physical and mental health, and civic and political participation. The Forum will identify and define such problems, break them down into plausible components, and, over a period of five to eight years, fund studies and publications that could yield data and analyses to clarify obstacles and solutions.  The Forum will invite ongoing discussion and debate of the findings.  Throughout, social scientists and humanists involved in the research will consider pragmatic implications of their work, and, in consultation with policy experts, develop recommendations for action by institutional leaders, policymakers, public and private funders, and other stakeholders.  While the Forum’s research on liberal arts outcomes will have a reflective and formative relationship to our grantmaking programs, the research projects will have appropriate investigative independence. 

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