Calling for the disruption of liberal arts colleges—in order to save liberal education

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Feb 6, 2020

A report published last month by the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce suggests a strong showing for liberal arts colleges in terms of ROI—if you go to the right school, and if you’re willing to wait a few decades for it to pay off.

However, small liberal arts colleges are feeling the brunt of demographic changes and America’s declining faith in the higher education system overall, as evidenced by recent closures and mergers. That the situation is boiling over despite correlations between degree attainment and higher lifetime earnings shouldn’t just be chalked up to learners being short-sighted. Financial risk is indeed growing, and increased earnings 40 years post-graduation don’t pay next week’s student loan bills. 

The problem doesn’t reside in a liberal education itself—it’s the packaging that is found wanting. Institutions that don’t experiment with new business models, rethinking whom they teach, how they teach, and how they charge for it risk limping into oblivion and dragging a valuable learning experience along with them. It’s time to unshackle liberal education from the broken liberal arts college business model, and Disruption Theory shows how to approach this opportunity.

Learners, learners everywhere

According to Disruption Theory, higher education innovators looking to save liberal education should seek out populations that currently can’t access it. Catering to such nonconsumers helps surface business models that radically increase access to an affordable liberal education.

Knowing whom to target requires understanding just what the benefits of a liberal education are. In The 100-Year Life, authors Lynda Gratton and Andrew Scott refer to the importance of “transformational assets” in successfully navigating the twists and turns of a turbulent, frequently changing economy over a longer life span. These assets help craft identity and visualize future articulations of who we might be and what we might do. 

As the economy barrels ahead, millions of adults will face multiple life transitions, and a liberal education could be a powerful tool for developing the transformational assets that render those transitions launchpads instead of stumbling blocks. However, liberal arts colleges currently enroll, almost exclusively, recent high school graduates.

In disregarding adult learners, these institutions leave on the table huge pools of individuals who would benefit from re-engaging with a liberal education throughout their lives, and who may be more prepared to do so than ever before in their lives. However, they will remain nonconsumers of transformational asset development unless innovative institutions rise to the occasion. 

Innovators should take a closer look at career changers (a demographic with which coding bootcamps have thrived), incarcerated populations, and even retirees entering the latter stages of life as potential learners. Employers are experimenting with off-ramp training opportunities for those leaving their companies—what about infusing these transitions with a liberal education as well? These demographics are all nonconsumers of a learning experience that could power them through major life transitions.

Learning above all—even prestige

In addition to reaching out to new pools of learners, Disruption Theory suggests that liberal education innovators should compete on different metrics of performance than established incumbents. In other words, it’s time to prioritize learning over prestige.

In-person lectures by tenured professors are the norm at most liberal arts colleges. This approach may not be working—studies show that learners recall just 10 to 20% of lecture content three days later. The esteemed sage on the stage isn’t helping learners learn enough.

One pedagogical model that flips the script is competency-based education (CBE), which inherently focuses on learning outcomes rather than teaching inputs. CBE models require that learners demonstrate mastery before progressing to new topics, meaning they can take as little or as much time as they need. Note that CBE deemphasizes instructor pedigree and seat-time. Some of the country’s fastest-growing and most successful institutions, like Western Governors University, are proving CBE’s efficacy. 

Granted, CBE models are often tied more directly to the workforce. To what extent can they enable a liberal education?

Minerva Schools may have the missing link. In Building the Intentional University, the school’s founders lay out their scaffolded approach to identifying and helping learners master the cognitive skills a liberal education purports to provide. Leveraging active learning techniques and an innovative online platform, Minerva exemplifies both learning-centered pedagogical practices and a mastery-based approach to a liberal education.

A liberal education, if you can afford it

Focusing on nonconsumers and harnessing technology to rethink pedagogical practice are hallmarks of disruptive strategies in higher education. However, unless innovators wrap these approaches in a new business model, they are unlikely to increase access and lower costs. 

A key element of any business model is its revenue formula. The benefits of a liberal education don’t appear right away, at least financially, meaning innovators must find a way to sustainably provide learning experiences without saddling learners with worrisome levels of financial risk. 

There are several avenues to explore in the financial innovation space. Subscription models like those offered by StraighterLine and Coursera are helping learners take one-off courses or smaller bundles of courses. Outcomes-based financing models have the potential to ensure that liberal education providers stay aligned with learner needs. Innovators would need to experiment with the terms of models like ISAs given the less immediate ROI that typically accompanies liberal education-associated skills. 

Finally, given that a liberal education arguably provides a form of insurance against failed life transitions, insurance models could become a new area of experimentation. This could entail schools paying an insurance premium to guarantee graduates’ salaries, like what EIC offers, or learners accessing unemployment insurance to pay for a liberal education touch-up.

The golden age of higher education is ahead of us, not behind. There is more to learn, and there are more learners to do that learning. We need innovative liberal education providers to think beyond incremental improvements to their current practices to help shepherd those learners through a world that increasingly demands adaptability, as well as to enrich their lives. 

In the coming disruption of traditional higher education, liberal education does not have to be the victim. But in order to truly usher in that golden age, its business model does.

As a research fellow on the Christensen Institute's higher education team, Richard helps investigate novel business models in postsecondary education, professional development, and lifelong learning.