The vaunted business publication Forbes Magazine publishes a list of the “Least Valuable College Majors’’ every year—and every year it looks like a page out of the catalog of a liberal arts university.
Fine arts, video, photography, music and religious studies—Forbes’ current list is filled with the courses and topics that comprise the very bedrock of a Christian liberal arts degree. Many read lists like this and see a liberal arts degree as a laundry list of excessive courses and rising tuition costs. Wouldn’t it be better to learn specific skills for a specific profession, rather than a broad curriculum? they ask.
For others, a liberal arts education is a more well-rounded approach that creates learners for life. With so many viewpoints on the value of a liberal arts education in our changing world, is a liberal arts education at a Christian university like Trevecca still worth it?
In a word, yes.
BUILDING FOR LIFE
One of the most popular arguments levied against liberal arts universities is that students would be better served—and better prepared for our technology-driven, globally-connected economy—with an education more focused on their chosen career paths. Instead of the hallmarks of liberal arts education, which focus on a broad-based understanding of the humanities, natural and social sciences and analytical skills, students should focus solely on their majors from day one.
Why spend time in gen ed classes when students can be well on their way to becoming an expert in their chosen field?
It’s an argument Dr. Dan Boone, Trevecca president, is familiar with. And his response, the one he shares with prospective students and their parents, to churches around the region and to local business leaders remains the same: a Christian liberal arts education is needed in today’s world.
Business leaders get it, he says. Leaders across Nashville tell him Trevecca doesn’t need to teach program X or course Y, but that it needs to continue to pump out intelligent, broad- thinking graduates.
“I think the complexity of the world today needs graduates who are able to think in multiple categories and then synthesize what they’re thinking for the particular career eld they might be in,” he says.
“[They say], ‘We need you to give us people who can read, write, think conceptually, who stand on their own two feet ... who can solve problems ... who can think outside the narrow, compartmental thinking. If you give us that person, we can do everything else,’” Boone says. “They’re describing the liberal arts graduate.”
Boone says that managers in today’s world will need to have business skills and the ability to think critically about social justice and cultural diversity issues all while being servant leaders. Many times, those boxes don’t all get checked at a state school.
Parents get it, especially when Boone has a chance to explain his point of view. College is about more than developing a quali ed employee, he says; it’s about building a person. Academic rigor and industry are paramount, but Boone is also deeply concerned with what kind of people Trevecca students will become.
“We’re actually building the person that your son or daughter is going to be the rest of their lives,” he says to parents. “Our sense is that we’re forming a person for a city and community and a company and a family and a neighborhood. We’re forming the kind of people that will build the world in a way that brings honor to God.”
Students get it—maybe even more so a er they’ve graduated, Boone says. After they’ve sweated through math and English courses and speech classes that have nothing to do with their majors, graduates begin to see how those classes have helped them down the road.
Dr. Morris Stocks is a Trevecca graduate and former Trevecca professor who recently served as the interim provost at the University of Mississippi, a public liberal arts school, before returning to a full-time faculty position in January.
“I believe strongly in a liberal arts education in that it teaches us to think and analyze and write and speak and critically look at issues and understand a path in trying to plan the future,” Stocks says.
Of course it is Trevecca’s Christian environment that separates it from other liberal arts institutions. Trevecca teaches that a graduate’s faith is not a compartmentalized part of his or her life, but rather is his or her whole life, Boone says.
“It stains how they read history,” he says. “It stains how they understand the news, how they deal with diverse peoples and it stains their whole ethic about dealing with the neighbor.”
Ask higher education leaders from any school, public or private, and one of the biggest problems for students is price. Christian liberal arts institutions are usually more expensive than state schools, and programs like Tennessee Promise, which gives two free years of community college to high school graduates, complicate things.
Angela Boatman is an assistant professor of public policy and higher education at Vanderbilt University. She said schools like Trevecca (and Vanderbilt for that matter) won’t be able to compete with cost with Tennessee Promise.
“But they can still compete on the unique educational experience o ered on their campuses, such as the learning environment, access to a well- rounded liberal arts education, the facilities, on- campus residential experience, etc.”
Boone agrees and said Trevecca doesn’t even try to compete with free. He asks parents if they want cheap or deep.
“You’ve got all those cheap options out there that you can want, but you don’t have too many good, deep options that are at the price point of Trevecca,” he said.
Trevecca has baked-in advantages. The small classes allow for professor-student relationships to ourish, which can help lead to jobs post- graduation, and the faith formation is key to a healthy life.
Those advantages aren’t just marketing ploys. Gallup and Purdue University released the Gallup-Purdue Index 2015 report, which is based on a web survey of more than 30,000 graduates from across the U.S. who hold a bachelor’s degree or higher. The report seeks to answer one question: is college worth it?
The key findings? The elements of the college experience that had the biggest impact— that made college worth it—included close mentoring relationships, meaningful internships, opportunities for leadership in clubs and organizations as well as occasions for in-depth, long-term projects and research. All are hallmarks of the Trevecca experience.
Rising student debt weighs heavily on Boone and Trevecca administrators. Boone acknowledges that student loans are often unavoidable, but cautions that students should be conscientious about how much they borrow. He wants to find ways to reduce the need for loans and better educate students and their families about financial aid options.
This mindset is why the University has started programs like iWork, Boone says, which allows students to use their earnings from on- and off-campus jobs to offset the cost of their education. While the average Trevecca graduate leaves the University with about $20,000 in debt, Boone is hopeful the “sweat equity” of iWork and other programs and efforts will help to reduce the need for student loans.
When it comes time to create their “Least Valuable College Majors” list each year, Forbes Magazine turns to a very specific set of data: initial unemployment rates and initial earnings of graduates who study those subjects.
But life is more than the sum of money you make, especially when considered from the Christian point of view. These lists fail to take into account callings rather than careers or obedience to God. That’s why Dr. Bob Brower, Trevecca graduate and president of Point Loma Nazarene University, says lists like Forbes’ don’t deter him.
“Life is about more than only just the paycheck,” Brower says. “Income is important and the paycheck is important, but it’s not the sole major (focus) ... whenever groups and agencies attempt to measure the worth and value of higher education only on a paycheck I think that’s a challenge.
“Our calls are different,” he continues. “Our life’s work is different and working with students to find more than just a job, but a vocation of life is important for what Christian higher education does.”