Marlboro College

About Remarks to the Gallup Education Conference

By Ellen McCulloch-Lovell, President, Marlboro College
Omaha, Nebraska, July 18, 2013


I am glad to be here in such good, thought-provoking company. We have a lot to learn from each other. Thank you, Branden, for inviting me.

I think I’m here because for many months I’ve been declaring, proposing, and insisting that we who care about our students’ lives and our institutions of learning must redefine their worth. If not, the terms of what is valued and what “performance” means will be defined for us.

Last February I attended the annual meeting of the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities (NAICU) in Washington D.C., where I listened to a panel of young Congressional staff voice the challenge many of their bosses, Members of Congress, are posing. They asked: what is the return on investment for the $150 billion dollars in federal grants, loans and tax credits to higher education? They suggested that this “investment” must have a pay-off measurable by the number of degrees completed, jobs attained, and salaries earned.

Not once in this session did I hear about the return in terms of our democracy – our larger, common good. I never heard the words “civic engagement” or “citizenship.” By the time I got to Scott Jaschik’s office at Inside Higher Ed the next day, I was perturbed. I’ll tell you why, but first I have to acknowledge the problem. President Obama and Congress are concerned about who will be qualified for  the jobs of the near future, about our nation’s economic competitiveness when more and more jobs will require at least some college, about attendance and completion rates, and about the ever-rising cost and the accumulated debt. The public, as reported in the media, questions the cost, the prospects for a job to pay off student loans, and whether graduates are employed, under-employed or moving back home with Mom and Dad.

I speak and interact with parents and high school students at all Marlboro College admissions days. When the recession hit in 2008, I started to hear this anxious question: what do you do with a liberal arts degree?

More urgently these days, even as schools and colleges struggle to contain costs, we must answer the question: is a college degree worth it? Worth the cost, debt, time and uncertainty over whether the graduate will be able to support herself and a family as well as find a sense of achievement, engagement, and well-being in life.

Searching for that answer, I’m attracted to the depth of Gallup’s research and the very reason for this conference. Our formulation of value should not be “either-or,” but “both/and.” Not either education for liberation or education for vocation. Not innovation or employment. Not a life of security or a life of engaged learning. We must aspire to both and more. Not preparation for a changing world only for privileged students but also for first generation and low income students. So as I tell you my argument with today’s proposed measures of value, I’m addressing higher aspirations for everyone, including that  one-third of Marlboro Students receiving Pell grants.

Now, if you haven’t perceived it yet, I’ll reveal my partisanship. I’m a life-long Democrat who served as Senator Leahy of Vermont’s Chief of Staff for 10 years and as Deputy Assistant to President Clinton and advisor to Hillary Clinton. But I have an argument with President Obama and his Department of Education. Right after the presidents’ State of the Union address this year, the White House released a “Scorecard” purported to measure the performance and value higher education. How? By reporting, by individual institution, net price, 6-year graduation rate, median amount borrowed, loan default rate, and type of job and salary earned after graduation.

The public may deserve to know these data but they alone do not define the value of the college experience.

And now we have the “Student Right to Know Before You Go Act of 2013,” sponsored by Democratic Senators Ron Wyden of Oregon and Mark Warner of Virginia and Republican Senator Marco Rubio from Florida, which would require colleges and universities to disclose the earnings of alumni and their employment to prospective students. What if the recent graduate is in the Peace Corps or Americorp or Teach for America? What if she is courageously and excitedly creating her own choreography or making a movie or inventing new green technology while supporting herself at a lower paying job?

At the NAICU conference, Scott Jaschik had challenged those higher education leaders; he said we’ve already lost the argument about value. As I fulminated in Scott’s office about the civic and other missions of college, he invited me to propose different measure of value, something I’m calling the Civic Scale.

But first, let’s look at the Scorecard and the Senators’ proposal. See the trend? It’s all about money.

We need to redefine “Return on Investment!” What about the Return on the Individual? Return on Intellectual Investigation? Return for the broader community – to keep the acronym and the alliteration: Return on Informed Interaction?

That’s why I want to make a case for that misunderstood term – the liberal arts. We don’t mean “liberal,” politically. And we don’t mean only the arts, but also the disciplines of the sciences, social sciences, and the humanities. We mean that we teach from the world’s store house of knowledge, thinking about what it means to be human; how to ask better questions; how we create ideas, action and art that never existed before.

Derived from the Greek and Latin, “liberal” comes from the word for “free.” From Medieval times until recent history, universities taught prescribed courses thought to constitute the “knowledge worthy of a free man” – and until not long ago, such an education was for men.

But our sense of “liberal” is “liberation” – that we might be “liberated by an education… in the service of human freedom.” So says William Cronon in his 1998 article in The American Scholar. What makes a liberally educated person? It’s not a transfusion of facts or content, but rather a set of skills and qualities. To paraphrase Cronon, they are:

“To listen and to hear:” knowing “how to pay attention… to follow an argument.”

“To read and to understand.”

“To write clearly and persuasively.”

“To solve a variety of… problems.”

“To respect rigor… as a way of seeking truth; to love learning…”

“To practice humility, tolerance, and self-criticism… opening yourself to different perspectives.”

“To understand how things get done in the world.”

“To nurture and empower the people around you… recognizing that ‘no one acts alone’.”

“To ‘only connect’ – Cronon uses E.M. Forster’s phrase as the ability to see the connections that allow one to make sense of the world and act creatively within it.”

These are the strengths for the 21st Century. They sounded familiar to my Marlboro College audience this year at Commencement because I described the qualities of a Marlboro education. I’ve lavished some time on these strengths to make Conon’s final point: “Education for human freedom is also education for human community.” In other words, for the “social good,” the culture of connection.

I know this sounds good, but does it solve the problem of ROI? I can stand here and tell you that these are the very skills and qualities that will allow students to get jobs, keep learning, keep adapting as the economy and society change. But let’s hear employers make the case.

This June, the American Association of Colleges and Universities released a survey that asked employers what skills employees need to be successful in their careers. It found:

These are the very skills and qualities that a liberating arts education teaches – best taught when the individual takes ownership for his own education, understanding the intellectual and creative skills needed, designing one’s own course of study, as we do at Marlboro College, including practices in real-world settings. As Tony Wagoner says – “students become the architects of their own learning.”

We can change the debate about value. Why don’t we create a Scorecard to becoming an educated citizen? We can work together to create a new “Civic Scale” which does these things:

1. Understands what attributes or behaviors contribute to furthering democracy – what levels of participation, freedom and responsibility occur at school, in the classroom, and are demonstrated by teachers.

2. Analyzes our course offerings, independent studies and engaged learning opportunities to determine to what extent we teach democratic behavior.

3. Surveys alumni at various stages of their lives to ask if they are demonstrating key civic attributes.

Educators and social scientists can show what we already know about the relationship between civic engagement and student success – and bore in on what we don’t know.

Some questions to ask alumni are:

Do you vote? How often?

Do you volunteer with a community organization?

Have you run for office?

Do you give to your favorite causes?

Attend civic meetings or organize to make change?

Do you participate in your children’s schools?

Do you attend cultural or other events that strengthen your community’s life?

Do you work for a nonprofit or an organization focused on education, the arts, or social justice?

At Marlboro College, students, faculty, and staff convene monthly in a Town Meeting to discuss and decide on the standards by which we govern our community life together at our small liberal arts college. Students learn to present their arguments cogently and persuasively; they also learn to challenge a point with which they disagree, with evidence and reasoning. These are valuable skills for practicing democracy.

As reported by the Vermont Community Foundation, research shows that college graduates “are more likely to have children who perform well in school, vote, volunteer, serve on civic boards and support the arts. They are also more likely to engage in entrepreneurial endeavors – creating jobs for others. “

And to get back to the money measure, college grads earn nearly double what high school graduates do over a lifetime ($2.1 million compared to $1.2 million).

Students should think about and invest in their whole lives, not only as employees but as members of the human family and as citizens. They will benefit greatly by committing themselves to the college years of curiosity, inquiry and discovery. And we must help them afford it. The return will be to master research methods and new knowledge, to think beyond disciplinary boundaries and develop capacities for creativity and clear expression.

What do you do with a liberal arts education? You adapt to economic change, yes. You also live a richer life, with creativity and commitment. You “do” a job; you also “become” a person engaged with the world: the kind of “educated citizenry” we so desperately need in our democracy. 

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