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University of Iowa News Release

Feb. 16, 2006

Pascarella-Led Study Finds Not All Liberal Arts Educations Equal

Many people extol the virtues of a good, solid liberal arts education, but what specific, measurable benefits do such an education actually impart upon students?

Ernest Pascarella, Ph.D., the Mary Louise Petersen Chair in Higher Education at the University of Iowa College of Education, and colleagues seek to answer that and related questions in a new, refereed monograph titled "Liberal Arts Colleges and Liberal Arts Education: New Evidence on Impacts."

Among the monograph's findings: Alumni who attended a liberal arts college were more satisfied than counterparts at public regional universities with their undergraduate education experience. They also reported that their experience had a significantly stronger impact on their learning and intellectual development, development of leadership and self-efficacy skills, personal and spiritual development and development of responsible citizenship.

Liberal arts graduates also had higher levels of graduate degree attainment, were more likely to be employed in a nonprofit organization, were more involved in religious activities, donated a larger percentage of income to charity, took more continuing education courses and reported lower levels of alcohol consumption.

At the same time, liberal arts college alumni were less likely to be employed full time, had lower annual salaries, were less likely to vote in national elections and were less likely to campaign for a political candidate.

Pascarella said the variations stem in part from inconsistencies among colleges of liberal arts in how they view and carry out their missions. Not all, for instance, demonstrate the same level of commitment to effective teaching practices, set high expectations for students, ensure frequent and fruitful student-faculty contacts, offer integrated intellectual experiences or present sufficient opportunities for involvement in extracurricular activities -- historically hallmarks of a true liberal arts education.

"Basically, on balance, liberal arts colleges came out looking good," Pascarella said. "It's just that they don't necessarily have all the overwhelming effects on students' lives that people say they do."

Conversely, some other kinds of institutions like public, regional schools, can offer as good an education or better if they adhere to good liberal arts practices.

The 146-page monograph is an ASHE Higher Education Report (Vo. 31, No. 3) published as part of the Jossey-Bass Higher and Adult Education Series by Wiley Subscription Services.

Pascarella's coauthors are Gregory C. Wolniak, a postdoctoral research scholar in the UI College of Education's Department of Educational Policy and Leadership Studies; Tricia Seifert, a doctoral students in the UI's Student Affairs Administration and Research Program; Ty M. Cruce, a research associate with the Indiana University Center for Postsecondary Research; and Charles F. Blaich, director of inquiries at Wabash College's Center of Inquiry in the Liberal Arts.

The monograph is the result of two studies, one based on data collected in the 1990s with a U.S. Department of Education grant, and the other involving data collected in 2000-01 with funding by the Mellon Spencer Foundation. The study involved longitudinal datasets on 6,500 students and alumni at more than 40 institutions.

"The book is a secondary analysis of these two data sets, looking at effects of liberal arts college education on good practices in higher education, intellectual and personal development in college, long-term effects on labor market, job success, continuing education, and personal lives," Pascarella said.

"We found that liberal arts colleges do foster good practice," he added. "But the single biggest finding was that an institution's liberal arts emphasis -- rather than the institution type -- was what counted the most."

The book says the evidence was consistent that, compared with research universities and regional institutions, liberal arts colleges uniquely foster a range of empirically vetted good practices in undergraduate education.

"On some good practices, such as extracurricular involvement and other

measures of influential interaction with student peers, the positive influence of liberal arts colleges was attributable to their residential full-time student body," the analysis found.

The net impacts of attendance at a liberal arts college on measures of intellectual and personal development were mixed, however. Of 11 measures of intellectual and personal growth considered in the analysis, liberal arts colleges had no significant influence on two measures (plans to obtain a graduate degree and internal locus of attribution for academic success), negative effects on two measures (mathematics and science reasoning), and mixed effects on two measures (positive attitude toward literacy and preference for higher-order cognitive tasks).

Still, attending a liberal arts college does tend to pay dividends in the long run both personally and professionally, the research found. Alumni who attended a liberal arts college were more satisfied than counterparts at public regional universities with their undergraduate education experience. They also reported that their experience had a significantly stronger impact on their learning and intellectual development, development of leadership and self-efficacy skills, personal and spiritual development and development of responsible citizenship.

The report says that for all the good attending a liberal arts education can do for a student, liberal arts colleges charge and spend substantially more than other kinds of institutions.

"Degree-granting public universities annually spend approximately $25,000 per student," the report says. "Prestigious, highly ranked liberal arts colleges annually spend more than $40,000 per student, with the very top-ranked liberal arts colleges annually spending more than $50,000 per student."

The authors suggest that high tuition and a large endowment don't necessarily guarantee a better education. In fact, they argue, some of the factors that most foster students' learning - such as non-classroom interactions between professors and students, good instructional skills and clarity among faculty, and an environment the encourages academic challenge and effort - are dependent more on institutional commitment than dollars.

"That these practices are especially effective for women, students of color and at-risk students shows the continued promise of liberal arts colleges for future generations of college students," the authors write.

More information about the monograph is available online at http://www.josseybass.com/WileyCDA/WileyTitle/productCd-0787981230.html

STORY SOURCE: University of Iowa News Services, 300 Plaza Centre One, Suite 371, Iowa City, Iowa 52242-2500.

MEDIA CONTACT: Stephen Pradarelli, 319-384-0007, stephen-pradarelli@uiowa.edu.