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College and Beyond II: The 21st Century Measuring the Impact of Liberal Arts Education

James Shulman, vice president and chief operating officer, American Council of Learned Societies; former senior fellow, The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation

In the 1990s, The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation both supported and conducted research on a range of policy issues related to higher education.  Social scientists such as Michael S. McPherson, Morton O. Schapiro, Gordon Winston, and Catharine Bond Hill (all then at Williams College), Ron Ehrenberg (Cornell University), David W. Breneman and Sarah Turner (The University of Virginia), and Charles T. Clotfelter (Duke University) turned their research lenses to issues such as graduate education, financial aid, and the cost of higher education.  Along with the Foundation’s then-president William G. Bowen they enriched both the societal discussion of higher education and the work of colleges and universities as they faced policy choices.  Several of Bowen’s research efforts at the Foundation focused on college admissions practices and their consequences for students and society.  A central effort was the College and Beyond study conducted in the mid-1990s, in which the Foundation collaborated with 32 selective colleges and universities to gather data about more than 100,000 students who entered these institutions in 1951, 1976, and 1989.  The data concerning student’s profiles at the time of admission and their college grades and activities were linked to a follow-up survey concerning their subsequent education, occupations, life satisfaction, civic involvement, and retrospective views of college.  

The resulting research (including Bowen’s The Shape of the River: Long-term Consequences of Considering Race in College and University Admissions of 1998, written with Derek Bok) has enriched policy discussions across the sector.  It was influential in the Supreme Court’s 2003 decision in Grutter v. Bollinger, which upheld the right of the University of Michigan Law School to take race into account in its admissions procedures.  The 1990s Mellon research agenda thus sought to encourage accomplished researchers to engage with complex questions concerning the impact of higher education and to move such discussions beyond arguments based only on emotions and articles of faith.

In 2018, under the auspices of The Mellon Research Forum on the Value of a Liberal Arts Education, the Foundation has supported the launch of a significant new research initiative in collaboration with the Inter-university Consortium for Political and Social Research (ICPSR) at the University of Michigan.  College and Beyond II: The 21st Century will gather data to support research concerning the impacts on, and outcomes of, students who pursue a liberal arts education at a wide range of colleges and universities.  The effort will be informed by a series of research reviews commissioned by the Foundation in 2017 on what we know about outcomes of a liberal arts education in a range of rubrics, from health and democratic participation to cognitive skill development and economic returns.  These essays by experts in the field indicate significant gaps in our understanding of such outcomes, as well as ways in which thoughtfully designed social science and humanities research could begin to remedy them.

As the cost of a college education has increased, institutions have become increasingly reliant on the defense of higher education as an investment in human capital – an investment that can best be understood and evaluated on the basis of financial returns.  As early as the 1960s the economist Gary Becker emphasized that while firms will invest in specific skills of their employees, individuals will and should invest in their own general human capital.  And yet, measuring the returns to those investments and the time when those returns accrue is complicated.  Outside of the economic returns that are well understood in their relation to the financial investment in college, other benefits of a liberal arts “treatment” process – a wide range of economic, social, personal growth, health, and well-being outcomes that play out over the course of a lifetime – resist easy measurement.  

Colleges that champion the liberal arts have mostly been left to articulate in narrative terms the qualities of mind these programs seek to foster in their students:  abilities to think critically, to argue from evidence, to be able to see a question from more than one perspective, and to communicate well in a variety of forms.  Liberal arts programs assert that they prepare students for citizenship as well as for a career, for a lifelong ability to acquire new knowledge and skills, and for living well and collaborating effectively in a diverse and global society.  But whether or how a liberal arts education is successful in achieving many of these aims has proven to be much harder to understand and measure than the earnings of a recent graduate’s first job.  And so, the impact of a liberal arts education has often been ignored in the quantitative assessment of higher education.  The benefits of these programs – assumed by some to be positive and by others to be less positive – have been considered an article of faith. 

For many institutions, including a large percentage of colleges that fall far out of the traditionally elite liberal arts strata but provide forms of liberal arts education along with pre-professional training, an understanding of when and how a liberal arts education contributes to a student’s career and wellbeing will be central to the understanding and, where appropriate, defense and improvement of their programs.  Measuring the subtleties of which attributes and capacities “pay off” at which point in a lifespan or career in various fields – including nonpecuniary quality of life benefits – is an elusive but not impossible goal of empirical study. 

Under the leadership of Professor Paul Courant of the University of Michigan, Professor Margaret C. Levenstein, Director of ICPSR, and Dr. Susan Jekielek, Director of ICPSR’s Education Archives, the Consortium has begun to assemble a scientific advisory committee for the project and to design policies around the governance of, and access to, the data that will be collected.  The data collection effort will encompass partnerships with a range of colleges and universities, surveys of current students and recent graduates, and linkages to various data collected by individuals’ digital footprints as they progress through K-12, college, and into the rest of their lives.    

ICPSR is uniquely situated to produce the information proposed and to make it available to the research community.  With more than 50 years of service to the social sciences, ICPSR is the largest archive of digital, social, and behavioral science data in the world.  The Consortium curates, preserves, and disseminates original social science data for research, instruction, and policy evaluation.  An international leader in data curation and management, ICPSR adds value to data, making them easier to use.  Data are documented with robust metadata to ensure that they will be understandable and usable for the long term.  The organization takes a standards-based approach to digital preservation to protect data resources for future generations and has a long track record of successfully stewarding its digital assets.

Both in the US and globally, quantitative rating and assessment of the performance and capabilities of higher education institutions and college students have been growing. This trend has provoked concerns that available measures are overly narrow and reductive, and they risk neglecting or downplaying aspects of education that in fact change students’ lives in significant ways. This may be notably true of liberal arts education, which we believe has real impacts on students’ later lives that are not well captured by existing measures. In this light, the Mellon Foundation is funding a range of new studies by scholars in the humanities and social sciences to learn more about the effects of a liberal arts education through various qualitative and quantitative methods. It is our expectation that these new projects will come to draw on the data to be gathered in the College and Beyond II database as it develops. These new and thoughtfully collected data should be able to enrich the discussion of what is working (and what is not) for whom in liberal arts education.  The higher education community—and society at large—will have good reason to attend to the resulting discussions and debates.