"Liberal Arts" Colleges and the Myth of Uniqueness

By Delucchi, Michael | Journal of Higher Education, July-August 1997 | Go to article overview
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"Liberal Arts" Colleges and the Myth of Uniqueness

Delucchi, Michael, Journal of Higher Education


At least two problems face most liberal arts colleges in the 1990s. First, although the annual population of high-school graduates is expected to rise slowly in the United States through the remainder of the decade, regional differences indicate that a disproportionate number of liberal arts colleges are located in areas projected to lose high-school graduates in the years ahead (Breneman, 1994; Chronicle of Higher Education, 1995). Second, the curricular trend in higher education since about 1970 has been toward studies related to work (Knox, Lindsay, & Kolb, 1993). The shift from liberal arts to professional curricula arose primarily as a demand-driven response to changing student interests caused by shifts in the labor market for college graduates (Breneman, 1994).

Enrollment concerns in recent years have compelled many liberal arts colleges to abandon or sharply scale back their arts and sciences curriculum in order to accommodate student preoccupation with the immediate job market. In the words of economist David W. Breneman, "Many of these colleges shifted curricular focus during the 1970s and 1980s to meet student demands and to maintain enrollments, with the changes occurring quietly and largely unnoticed, campus by campus" (Breneman, 1994, p. 2). Under such changing conditions, the retention of a liberal arts claim in the academic mission statements of these colleges becomes inconsistent with their professional curriculum.

Three questions guide this study. How prevalent are liberal arts claims in higher education? To what extent are liberal arts claims made by colleges with curricula dominated by professional disciplines? Which institutional characteristics explain inconsistency between liberal arts claims and curricula?


Colleges and universities in the United States make many claims about what they do for students. The current proliferation of popular college guides suggests that these claims are powerful symbolic devices that administrators and consumers deem meaningful (Schmitz, 1993). For example, many institutions claim to provide students with a liberal arts education. The following, published in Peterson's Guide to Four-Year Colleges (Peterson's Guides, 1993), are typical of such academic mission statements:

[This university] affirms the enduring value of liberal learning - the 2,500-year tradition dedicated to developing the whole person and to forming habits of reflective thought that last a lifetime (p. 1110).

The liberal arts curriculum exposes students to the major branches of study and builds their skills of communication, critical thinking, reasoning, and research (p. 1382).

[At the college] students receive a liberal arts education that challenges them to excel in the humanities, the sciences, and the arts; cultivates social values; and inspires lifetime goals (p. 1822).

Surprisingly, so rich a source of data as the public claims made by institutions in college guides and course catalogs has rarely been tapped. Most assessments of the academic missions of colleges and universities focus on developing technically accurate indicators. For example, the Carnegie Classification of Higher Education was developed in 1970 and remains an important resource for academe. The 1994 "Carnegie Classifications" groups colleges and universities into 11 categories (for example, Baccalaureate Liberal Arts Colleges I, Baccalaureate Liberal Arts Colleges II, Doctoral Universities I, and others) designed to reflect their academic missions. Institutions are classified according to: the highest level of degree awarded; the number of degrees conferred by discipline; the selectivity of admissions; and, in some cases, the amount of federal research support received (Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, 1994).

Although these criteria add clarity to the classification process, the focus on "objective" indicators has left researchers knowing more about the descriptive statistics of higher education than about what is presumably more obvious, i.

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"Liberal Arts" Colleges and the Myth of Uniqueness


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