Documenting Civic Value
These days, colleges urgently need to answer the question: Is a college degree worth the cost? Just after President Obama’s State of the Union address, the White House released a “scorecard” on college performance measured by cost, graduation rates, borrowing, loan default rates and employment statistics. For example, the loan default rate for Marlboro College students is 2.7 percent, well below the national average of 13.4 percent. The public deserves to know these figures, but the criteria do not go far enough in defining the value of a college degree.
Colleges and universities claim to produce the inquiring, analytical, vocal and engaged citizens required for a vital democratic system. But do we present the civic value of our missions forcefully enough to enter into and even change the public discourse? In a recent article for Inside Higher Ed, I proposed that colleges create a new “civic scale” that does two things: 1) analyzes our courses, independent studies and community activities to determine to what extent we teach democratic behaviors; and 2) surveys our alumni at various stages of their lives to determine if they are demonstrating key civic attributes.
At Marlboro College, students, faculty and staff convene monthly in a Town Meeting to discuss and decide the standards by which we conduct our community life together. Students learn to present their arguments cogently and persuasively; they also learn to challenge a point with evidence and reasoning. These are valuable skills for practicing democracy.
We repeatedly hear back from alumni who volunteer with community organizations, work for nonprofits focused on education, social justice or the arts, or are otherwise engaged in civic life. But it will be up to us to methodically document these civic accomplishments and the college programs that encourage them. I have challenged my colleagues at other liberal arts colleges to join Marlboro College in creating a “Civic Scale” that highlights this crucial aspect of our mission.
At a time when we must reanimate our democracy, a Civic Scale such as I’ve proposed would demonstrate the profound value of educating our future citizens. We want our students to thrive in their lives; that means finding jobs and supporting families. It must also, however, include finding meaning in life through service to others and to the country. It should not be enough for colleges and universities to prepare students to take a job, or even “to create a job” as one alumna describes it. We must allow that student to challenge and change the world.
Conversations about Marlboro and the Liberal Arts
Apropos to her comments here, Ellen has been on the road engaging in conversations with trustees, alumni, parents, friends and foundation officers about the current relevance of the liberal arts model. In a series of events in New York, Philadelphia, Palo Alto, and still to come in Boston and Vermont, she has asked participants about Marlboro’s place in the public debate on higher education. How do liberal arts colleges like Marlboro demonstrate their value amid the heated public dialogue on cost, accessibility, loan debt and career success?
Participants have offered valuable feedback, attesting that Marlboro can offer a way to redefine “return on investment” and “life skills.” According to participants, it’s not about the job you get right after graduation—only by looking at a lifetime of work and fulfillment can you approach the true meaning of “the liberating arts.” Many suggested that the keys to career success include the ability to analyze critically, focus on a project from conception to execution and be creative in your approach to problem solving. In particular, the experience of Plan shows students how to take on other challenges, and community governance empowers them to learn social intelligence. “The liberal arts give one a process to meet the world,” said one participant.