MacDowell: America’s Love-Hate Relationship with the Liberal Arts

by Michael A. MacDowell

There is good reason for America's love-hate relationship with the liberal arts in college. For many years, the intellectual elite and the pragmatists have squared off against one another – inside and outside of academe – about the value of the liberal arts. It now appears that those who believe a college education should provide practical and employable skills have popular opinion with them. The current employment rate and rising college debt are enhancing the argument for a practical college education. Finding a good first job is of great concern to those graduating from college. The thought of doing so without requisite employable skills is freighting for many.

Michael A. MacDowell, President, Misericordia University

For students who choose to major in one of the liberal arts, the career rewards are usually not allocated based on the major itself, but rather the intellectual rigor in applying the analytical framework of the discipline in practical areas such as business. These undergraduate degrees also provide an outstanding platform for critical thinking and the foundation for graduate work in a specific discipline or in a professional field, such as medicine or law.

Perhaps there is still too much being made of the trade-offs between a four-year liberal arts degree and a career-focused one. The benefits of a good liberal arts education can be effectively combined with practical career orientation and a well-designed curriculum. That is the case at Misericordia University.

Based on the tradition of graduating students who serve humankind, the University has educated high-skilled nurses since l944. Misericordia's tradition in the health sciences was expanded in 1973 with the introduction of one of the country's only medical imaging programs at a four-year college. Our commitment to the health sciences increased with the introduction of undergraduate-plus-masters (five-year) programs in occupational therapy, physical therapy, speech-language pathology, and physician assistant. All of these fields require a master's degree before a graduate can practice, and now a 6 ½-year clinical doctorate in physical therapy.

Driven significantly by an outstanding reputation of high board pass rates and graduate success in the health and medical sciences fields, Misericordia's enrollment has grown in the last 14 years from a little more than 1,000 students to more than 1,900 full-time students and 1,200 part-time students. This growth occurred despite wavering and declining enrollment trends at similar institutions. Last year, when many institutions experienced decreased enrollment, Misericordia's freshman class increased from 370 students to 510. Entering SAT and ACT scores also continue to increase, while the institution's discount rate has remained moderate relative to that of competing institutions. Retention rates have been among the best of any similarly sized institution. The result has been a significant increase in reserves, resulting in fiscal stability not shared by many others.

Does rapid growth in the health sciences mean that the liberal arts have been abandoned? No. All Misericordia students are required to complete a core curriculum which includes courses in philosophy, history, religion, science, mathematics, English, and other traditional subjects. The result is a well-rounded undergraduate experience.

The result of this mixture of liberal arts and professionally focused curriculum is a graduate who is not only employable, but flexible. Misericordia graduates often assume well-paying jobs as practitioners in the health sciences and many other fields. Because of their strong liberal arts background, they are rapidly elevated to management positions in hospitals, rehabilitation facilities, and related for-profit and non-profit businesses.

Of course, maintaining viable liberal arts departments for the health science majors and the 55 percent of Misericordia students enrolled in other majors is not an easy task. Good faculty in the liberal arts and sciences need to maintain and grow the number of students in their own departments as well.

One way Misericordia has accomplished this goal is to continue to expand its Division III and intercollegiate sports programs. The University made the strategic decision to bring football to campus in 2010 because, as NCAA data showed, many Division III football players choose to study subjects other than the health and medical sciences. The result has been an increase in majors such as English, history, communications, biology, and other liberal arts and sciences at Misericordia.

The decision to emphasize the health sciences at Misericordia was made 12 years ago. We believed it made good strategic sense to make a well-focused effort in the rapidly growing health and medical sciences fields. American demographics were on our side. Baby Boomers provide a plethora of patients for health and medical science professionals. The rapidly growing cost of medical care, along with the shortage of M.D.s and D.O.s, and the hesitancy of private insurance and Medicare to continue to fund physician services for routine procedures, created a growing niche for a small university to produce quality health care professionals.

The downside of the health and medical science focus is the expense of these programs. These nationally accredited programs are limited in enrollment by their accrediting associations. Salaries for faculty and other professionals are high. However, the programs attract excellent students who are willing to stay at Misericordia for an undergraduate and graduate degree, creating the enviable enrollment patterns.

Perhaps most satisfying is that health science and liberal arts faculty have worked cooperatively to create a solid liberal arts core as the foundation for all Misericordia students, including – of course – the health and medical science majors.

Can a good core curriculum of 50-plus hours provide all that is necessary to be considered liberally educated? The answer is probably no. If, on the other hand, the purpose of a liberal arts education is to provide students with a solid structure for what a well-educated person should know, and instill in them a spirit of inquiry and the willingness to be a lifelong learner, then the basic liberal arts education has been achieved. The result is graduates who are able to reflect, reason well and critically, and have the passion to continue to learn. After all, isn't that what a good college education should be about?

Michael A. MacDowell is president of Misericordia University in Dallas, Pa., where he occasionally teaches economics.

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