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Executive Summary: Defining Liberal Arts Education - page 10 / 14





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Operational Definition - 10

Operational definition

In August 2002, we invited an elite group of educational researchers to discuss the current state of knowledge on the effectiveness of liberal arts education. The participants included Peter Ewell, John Gardner, Patricia King, George Kuh, Cecilia Lopez, Marcia Magolda, Ernest Pascarella, and Pat Terenzini. We started the meeting by asking our participants to respond to Alexander Astin’s conclusions on the effectiveness of liberal arts colleges. Astin published the results of his massive study of higher education in 1993.18 This study was based on a longitudinal sample of more than 24,000 students from 217 institutions. Astin analyzed the impact of hundreds of variables, including environmental, institutional, affective and cognitive variables. His conclusions on the effectiveness of residential liberal arts colleges are clear:

In many ways, the British “college” supplied the prototype model for undergraduate education in the United States. The colonial colleges and the many hundreds of private colleges that were founded in the next 250 years were in several respects predicated on that model: A primary commitment to educating the undergraduate, a residential setting that not only removes the student from the home but also permits and encourages close student-student and faculty-student contact, smallness, and a sense of history and tradition that generates a strong sense of community. This sense of community is manifested in many ways, including alumni loyalty, the strong student interest in team sports, and the friendly rivalries that evolve between neighboring colleges.

This study has shown, once again, that this traditional model of undergraduate education leads to favorable educational results across a broad spectrum of cognitive and affective outcomes and in most areas of student satisfaction. (p. 413)

Astin followed up this work in the mid-90s by studying liberal arts colleges that emphasized both teaching and research.19 Finally, in 2000 he summarized his findings on residential liberal arts colleges, stating: 20

The question of educational efficacy is probably more important to the private liberal arts college than to any other type of institution. Indeed, the fact that so many of these institutions have been able to survive and even prosper during several decades of massive expansion of low-cost public higher education can only be attributed to the fact that many parents and students believe they offer special educational benefits not likely to be found in either the more prestigious private universities or in the various types of public institutions with whom they often compete for students. How justified are these beliefs?

The short answer to this question is that residential liberal arts colleges in general, and highly selective liberal arts colleges in particular, produce a pattern of consistently positive student outcomes not found in any other type of American higher-education institution. (p. 77)

Despite Astin’s conclusions, our participants argued that our understanding about the effects of liberal arts colleges and liberal arts education remains sketchy. Ernest Pascarella gave a short

18 19 Astin, A. (1993). What matters in college? San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. Astin, A. W. and M. J. Chang (1995). Colleges that emphasize research and teaching. Change (September/October): 45-49. 20Astin, A. W. (2000). How the liberal arts college affects students. Distinctly American. The residential liberal arts college. S. Koblik and S. R. Graubard (Ed.). Brunswick: Transaction Publishers. (pp.77-100).

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