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The power of liberal arts

During the recent snow and cold in Elkins, Lisa and I escaped to the sunshine of Florida.  While the weather was a plus, we traveled there for a national conference of 350 college presidents from small, private liberal arts colleges and universities across the country.  As a new president, it was beneficial to meet others facing opportunities and challenges similar to what we are experiencing at Davis & Elkins.

Our country has a long and rich tradition of vibrant liberal arts institutions, and yet the landscape in the 21st century is becoming ever more competitive and challenging.  At the heart of the competitive challenge are three things: (1) a shrinking base of “traditional aged” college students; (2) the entry of online and for-profit colleges; and (3) questioning of the value proposition of the liberal arts, and college degrees in general.

West Virginia’s demographics for upcoming high school graduates in the next few years are even more stark than the national statistics.  There will simply be fewer eighteen-year-old students to recruit.  For educational institutions this means sharpening marketing messages, becoming more adept at providing niche opportunities to attract new students, and pursuing non-traditional students.  Leveraging financial aid to make a collegiate experience affordable is an obvious necessity as well.

Likewise, the modern higher education marketplace, that includes online and for-profit options which didn’t exist in the recent past, further challenges the recruitment of a shrinking admissions pool. What does a college such as Davis & Elkins offer in comparison to massive profit driven entities that also provide education? I would argue quality and experience.  Quality results from top-notch faculty invested in the individual lives of students.  Equally as important are the co-curricular experiences that complement the academic experience, including such things as collegiate athletics, student organizations, and residing in living-learning communities on campus.  In short, the whole collegiate experience that transforms a young man or woman into a young adult with a sense of vocation and applicable job skills.

As a proud apologist for the value of a liberal arts education, I heard some facts at the recent conference that should resonate for any student or parent of a student that is questioning the liberal arts.  From a financial perspective, college graduates will make on average about a million dollars more over a lifetime than non-college graduates. This makes the investment in a degree seem quite prudent!  Perhaps more importantly, Fortune 500 CEO’s are increasingly showing preference to graduates from liberal arts institutions.  Why?  In our rapidly changing global marketplace, the majority of jobs ten and twenty years in the future do not yet exist.  Hence, it is almost impossible to “train” a student for many of the jobs they will eventually receive.  What skills will they need that colleges must provide now?  They need the ability to communicate effectively, write articulately, think critically and reason logically.  These are the hallmarks of liberal arts, and specifically of a Davis & Elkins College education.

The future is uncertain and challenging, particularly for higher education.   For D&E, with 113 years of experience, an openness to innovation, an agility to change, and a recognition of our human capital as our greatest asset, we stride into the future boldly with hope and optimism to live out our mission and transform lives.  The journey continues. …

Chris A. Wood is president at Davis & Elkins College.