Measuring the Liberal Arts

By Steve Charles

“Proponents of liberal arts education make claims based on the sort of information we wouldn’t accept in a paper by a Wabash freshman. If we’re going make claims about the effectiveness of liberal arts education, we need to find out if the data supports such statements.”

Anne Bost, research fellow, the Center of Inquiry in the Liberal Arts at Wabash College


Educational researcher Ernie Pascarella arrived at the Center of Inquiry in the Liberal Arts at Wabash last summer convinced that liberal arts colleges were no more inherently effective at teaching students than any other form of higher education. That conviction was based on more than 30 years experience, during which he’d conducted groundbreaking studies, surveyed reams of data, and co-authored How College Affects Students, among the most respected books on higher educational teaching and learning.

“I’ve seen very little evidence of differences between types of institutions when it comes to educational practices,” the University of Iowa-based researcher told those gathered for the Center’s inquiry on “Analyzing the Impact of the Liberal Arts.”

But the Center’s Director of Inquiries Charlie Blaich had looked at the same data from Pascarella’s National Survey of Student Learning (NSSL) and noticed that many of the teaching and learning practices that Pascarella’s research identified as most effective were also most likely to occur in liberal arts colleges. With funding from the Center, Blaich invited the researcher to review the same data from the 5-year longitudinal study of 21 different colleges and research universities, this time focusing on the occurrence of “good practices” in three different types of institutions: liberal arts colleges, regional colleges and universities, and national research universities.

Eight months later, the veteran researcher returned with a change of heart.

“I’ve never seen differences in institutional effects this big or this consistent,” Pascarella told the second meeting of the inquiry group.

“In terms of academic good practices, student-faculty contact, high expectations, student-to-student contact, and academic effort, liberal arts colleges appear to be doing something more advantageous for students than are research universities or regional colleges.

“And it’s not a function of liberal arts schools being selective,” Pascarella insisted. “Selectivity has very little to do with good practices—you can’t judge the education you’ll receive by how hard it is to get into the school.

“And it’s not just a function of liberal arts colleges having more students living on campus, or having more full-time students.

“Liberal arts colleges are doing something else that leads us to these results,” Pascarella says. “What that is, we don’t know. That’s the next step.”

Pascarella wants to find out if the good practices attributed to liberal arts colleges in the NSSL lead to higher proficiency in reading comprehension, math skills, critical thinking, and scientific reasoning. His team is studying results this spring and summer, with hopes of reporting its findings in late summer.

“The outcome of this next step will be critical,” Wabash Dean Mauri Ditzler ’75 says. Pascarella agrees.

“We may find out that liberal arts schools do things well, but the outcomes aren’t as clear,” Pascarella says. “They might be doing the right things, but we could be measuring the wrong outcomes. Or maybe good practices such as these only help with critical thinking and psycho-social outcomes, but have very little to do with math and science reasoning. We don’t know—but we will soon!”

Blaich, a social scientist by training and an associate professor of psychology at Wabash, is eager to see the results, though he knows the risks of such a study.

“We may find that some of our assumptions about pedagogy and what works, what doesn’t, have been wrong, or at least overstated,” says Blaich. “And we may be surprised to find other practices that work even better than we thought. The results may upset some people, but that’s a risk we have to take.

“We‘ve relied for too long on anecdotal evidence alone,” Blaich says, emphasizing that the Center will conduct both qualitative and quantitive studies. “Stories are important, but so are the numbers. We’ll be examing both.

“How can we expect prospective students, parents, and the public to trust us if we’re not willing to put our methods under the same intellectual scrutiny we claim to develop in our students?”

Keep in touch with the latest developments at the Center at: www.liberalarts.wabash.edu