Liberal arts colleges defending selves on social media

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The insult posted on Twitter wasn't subtle.

"Funny thoughts," it began. "I have a degree in liberal arts. Do you want fries with that?"

It would be one thing if this were a random guy dissing a well-rounded education to his 12 Twitter followers. But the trash talk this time about those graduates' job prospects was on the site of an online nurse training provider with more than 4,000 followers. It was too visible to ignore, and this time, the defenders of the liberal arts weren't about to let it go.

As part of a larger campaign to promote the value of liberal arts instruction, a group representing small- and medium-size private liberal arts campuses has begun fighting back in real time against what it views as misinformation or outright slams found in social media, where students and parents increasingly get their information about colleges.

"Ummm, who do you think hires nurses?" came the retort from "Libby and Art," a fictitious college student and counselor who collectively are the public face of @SmartColleges, a new Twitter feed created by The Council of Independent Colleges. "Liberal arts graduates are more likely to be the ones to hire the health professionals you train."

The Twitter feed debuted Dec. 11. Eventually, those involved in the campaign expect to monitor Facebook, Instagram and other platforms for mentions of liberal arts, repeating posts that have positive things to say and challenging those that do not.

Leaders of liberal arts colleges long have pointed to data showing their graduates perform well in tests of learning outcomes, are more engaged in their communities and possess flexible thinking that employers want. Nevertheless, their side has lost ground in the debate as the public increasingly views job preparation and education for life as two separate things.

Joblessness in the still-recovering economy has not helped matters, nor has public skepticism overall about what a college degree costs.

The Washington, D.C.-based council is hoping to help reverse that with its campaign, dubbed "Securing America's Future: The Power of Liberal Arts Education."

The council is using research, opinion pieces, speeches and other tools along with social media to drive home the importance of an education grounded across the humanities, arts and sciences, from languages and history, to anthropology and math.

"If you can't write well, if you can't understand problems from multiple angles because you don't understand multiple disciplines, then you're not going to be a good engineer," said S. Georgia Nugent, former president of Kenyon College, who is leading the campaign. "You're probably not going to progress to manager and you're not likely to be an innovator."

Ms. Nugent, herself a classics scholar, said she is troubled by the change in thinking about the reason for a college degree. "In public discourse, we seem to have lost all sight of higher education having anything to do with anything other than making the most possible money," she said. "It's very disturbing to think of education's only purpose being wealth generation for the individual or society."

It's not as if students from liberal arts campuses don't go on to careers in research and science because they do, often in disproportionate numbers, campaign organizers say. As undergraduates, those students presumably got a well-rounded education and then concentrated on their career.

Robert Noyce, co-inventor of the microchip that ushered in the information age, attended a liberal arts campus, notching degrees in physics and math from Grinnell College in Iowa in 1949. Before he was known as the "Father of Transplantation," UPMC surgeon Thomas Starzl was a student at Westminster College in Fulton, Mo., where he received a biology degree in 1947.

There are others, said Ms. Nugent, including former secretary of the Treasury Henry Paulson, who received an English degree from Dartmouth College. She noted that the CEO of Procter & Gamble was a French and history major at Hamilton College.

As a group advocating for independent colleges, the council is trying to challenge assumptions that private colleges are beyond financial reach. Ms. Nugent said people look at the sticker price of those schools without understanding that many students actually pay far less after financial aid. A third leave college with no debt, she said, and those with loans more typically owe what a small car costs -- in the neighborhood of $20,000 -- rather than the $100,000 and up sometimes portrayed in media.

Annual tuition and fees on private campuses nationwide averaged $30,094, about three times that of public campuses, according to the College Board's annual price survey released this fall. A separate study by the National Association of College and University Business Officers found the freshmen tuition discount rate on private campuses stands at 45 percent.

The joblessness rate for recent college graduates in liberal arts is about in the middle relative to other career paths, said Anthony Carnevale, director of Georgetown University's Center on Education and the Workforce. He said recent graduates from English, Spanish and design have lower unemployment rates than those from majors like anthropology, education and social studies.

What may be more important, he said, are earnings. Bachelors' degree holders from liberal arts and humanities have median earnings of $47,000, lower than the median earnings of above $70,000 and $60,0000 for graduates of engineering and business programs respectively, but more than the median of about $40,000 in earnings for psychology and education graduates, Mr. Carnevale said.

It might seem odd that those skilled at reason and at taking the long view of things would be so preoccupied with beating back a blogger.

But experts in social media campaigns and in protecting brands aren't surprised. Better to go find the insult than to wait for that insult to find you.

"It's actually very smart," said George Potts, vice president for social media with Brunner, a Pittsburgh advertising agency. "One-to-one peer communication is much more influential than traditional communication. I'm more influenced by my circle of friends and contacts in social media. If they [criticize] the quality of liberal arts education, that's going to be more influential to me than just somebody taking out a paid advertisement on radio or in print."

But such campaigns can be labor intensive. With so many people out there tweeting and blogging, it makes sense to zero in on individuals and messages that carry the most influence and target responses to them, he said.

And in an arena that can be volatile, it's best to be mindful of your message.

"What I always tell my clients is think of social media like a cocktail party," Mr. Potts said. "Be careful what you say. Always be polite."

The staff answering tweets under the name "Libby and Art" so far have kept a measured tone, even when a woman from Indianapolis tweeted that her uncle told her: "This piece of artwork is like getting a liberal arts degree, it's pointless and screams 'I can't get a job.' "

Their reply: "Sounds like he needs to read this column on the five big myths surrounding liberal arts education." Attached was a link to the op-ed piece written by Ms. Nugent.

Another "Libby and Art" tweet alluded to data showing college graduates, even in a bad economy, earn substantially more than those without a degree.

To a tweet stating "College debt = scary," Libby and Art replied: "Taking on some debt to earn a college degree = wise financial decision."

There was nothing to challenge in a tweet by a Wheaton College student, so "Libby and Art" simply retweeted her words: "When your bio teacher emails you back congratulating you on your final grade. These are the perks of a small liberal arts college."

To prepare for the campaign, several social media monitoring tools were used to track the frequency and nature of tweets involving the words "liberal" and "arts" as they appeared with nearly 140 other keywords such as "job," "debt," "degree" and "success," according to Sawmill Marketing Public Relations, a Baltimore firm hired to work with the council on its campaign.

The firm found on average 175 mentions a day, tilted generally to the negative largely due to the dominance of cost/affordability messages.

Campaign planners say they hope to shift the discussion into positive territory as "Libby and Art" continue to tweet. And if words alone aren't enough, perhaps some idyllic photos will help, like the snapshot "Libby and Art" retweeted Friday of Susquehanna University's historic Seibert Hall after a winter storm:

"Lots of beautiful #LiberalArts campus #snowday pics this morning.'"


Bill Schackner: bschackner@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1977 and on Twitter: @BschacknerPG.

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