A new resource for undergraduate education: Data on the content and consequences of a liberal arts education

Students sit at a college library, making notes, using laptops and mobile phones while studying together.

Exactly how does a college education transform a life?

College and Beyond II: Outcomes of a Liberal Arts Education, a new study supported by a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, will develop measures of liberal arts experiences and their association with students’ life trajectories.

The 2.5-year, $3-million study, hosted by the Inter-university Consortium for Political and Social Research (ICPSR) at the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research, will explore which aspects of the college experience are critical to a student’s transformation.

“We’re interested in data that will help us to understand, evaluate, and improve undergraduate programs as a function of the degree to which those programs exemplify what might be called ‘liberal arts-ness’” said Principal Investigator Paul Courant, a professor and former Provost at U-M. “We are piloting the development of a data structure and access to it. ICPSR is the world leader in creating multi-use and user-secure data systems for the social sciences and is the ideal home for this project,” Courant said.

Integral to the project is a committee of advisors that includes experts with a wide range of relevant knowledge and experience. The advisors are drawn from universities including Harvard University, Georgetown University, Columbia University, New York University, and University of Wisconsin-Madison, to name a few. One of those advisors, Hamline University President Fayneese Miller, said it’s imperative for liberal arts institutions to provide evidence to support claims of graduates’ success.

“For many years, we in higher education have been championing the importance of a liberal arts education and have held our graduates up as fine examples of what such as an education offers,” Miller said. “While our rhetoric, laced with plenty of anecdotal evidence espousing the success of our graduates, has served us well for many years, it is now necessary for us to move to the next level — providing the empirical evidence that supports the importance of who we are as higher education institutions and why what we offer is important to the very fabric of our nation, our world.”

The resulting data from College and Beyond II will be preserved at ICPSR, where it will be available for reuse — by scholars and administrators seeking to understand the effectiveness of innovations in undergraduate education and the liberal arts — in the years to come. “We won’t have all the answers when we’re done, but we’ll be at a better place so that questions are plausibly answerable, said Susan Jekielek, a co-investigator of the study and the director of ICPSR’s Education Data Archive projects. Jekielek said she’s looking forward to “digging into ‘big data’ to understand the student experience.”

The data will eventually inform a series of research reports published under the auspices of the Mellon Research Forum on the Value of Liberal Arts Education.

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Contact: Dory Knight-Ingram



Sep 26, 2019

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