How to Sell a Liberal-Arts Education

Here is a brief excerpt from an interview of DePauw University’s president, Brian Casey, by Douglas Belkin for The Wall Street Journal. ‘We’ve put boots on the ground in regions that are growing,’ says Mr. Casey. He is convinced that liberal-arts graduates have qualities that employers want. To read the complete article, check out others, and obtain subscription information, please click here.

Photo: Duncan Wolfe

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The established order of American higher education is being shaken by debt, demography, and technology.

The unbundling of the four-year degree has led to a rash of college closings and mergers as students seek cheaper, faster and straighter pathways into the labor force. Among the most vulnerable schools are high-tuition, liberal-arts colleges in parts of the country with a shrinking number of high-school seniors.

We asked Brian W. Casey, the 19th president of DePauw University in Indiana, how he is leading his 177-year-old institution through these choppy waters. Here are edited excerpts:

A Tough Sell

Belkin: What do you tell parents concerned that their children may spend a lot of money to attend your school and graduate with a lot of debt and no job?

You always point out that in survey after survey of managers and employers, when they are asked to identify the characteristics of the people they want to hire, without fail they almost perfectly describe liberal-arts graduates. They want people who are creative, who can deal with complexity, who can think for themselves, work with other folks, which is exactly what these schools aim to do and do with remarkable success. The other thing you do is you spend a lot of time and effort to build structures to help students get their first job.

Belkin: Describe the environment you’re facing.

Casey: Trying to explain or even justify a liberal-arts education against all of the headwinds about getting your first job and return on investment and student debt is extremely tough. In many circles, liberal arts is thought of as being anathema to career pursuits, so you have to get over that, and you try to do it two ways. You say we will give your child the skills that will benefit them for life, as well as a deep array of services to help them get their first job, such as internships, recruiters and career centers. You have to hit the service side, as well as the pedagogy and the intellectual side.

Belkin: A liberal-arts degree wasn’t always such a hard sell. What changed?

Casey: I think it’s all related to the cost of education. Once the cost and list price rose to a certain point that it became alarming to many families, they naturally move to a ROI context.

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Here is a direct link to the complete article.

Based in Chicago, Scott Belkin covers higher education for The Wall Street Journal. Email:

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