Case Study: It's Time to ReThink the LIberal arts

As a professional who has dedicated their career to helping liberal arts students find meaningful work, I have a natural bias when assessing the value of a liberal arts education.My “pitch”, which I tweak to suit the prospective audience, is beyond honed and practiced – it’s a core conviction.In my eighteen years in the profession, I have played a role in helping thousands of students find meaningful work and have watched proudly as former students start companies and nonprofit organizations, get elected to public office, land movie roles, save huge swaths of rain forest, improve the developing world, negotiate eight-figure deals, secure gigs that pay ten times my salary, and do incredible things for their families, communities, and our planet.I have developed lifelong friendships with former students and colleagues and have a richer, fuller personal life as a byproduct of my association with great liberal arts institutions.Again, I’m biased…That said, as I watch our profession grapple with a mass exodus of talent, “quiet quitting” in the ranks of our remaining people, and significant challenges in supporting the mental health, DEIA (diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility), financial, and career needs of our students, I’d be crazy not to ask, “Is everything OK?”*Spoiler alert: it’s not.

Market Conditions

While one could argue that the world is in dire need of our knowledge and skills, the market stands in direct opposition.The cost of entering the profession is absurd relative to the market return on investment; and, in far too many places, critical factors affecting the quality of the student experience are left to chance rather than intentional design.However, despite these historic challenges and the life-changing disruption that was (and still is) Covid-19, many schools are operating much like they have historically – albeit with Zoom and other video conferencing technology.My pitch may never recover…Is it possible that the private liberal arts college experience of 2023 is the American automotive industry of the early 2000s?Are we too bloated and self-aggrandizing to recognize looming threats and adapt to the post-Covid world?In a world where information and knowledge are now commodities, how do liberal arts colleges maintain affordability, generate positive career outcomes, and honor their “transformative” brand promises while sustaining surplus operating budgets?For colleges not in the financial position of the likes of Williams, Amherst, and Colgate, I would argue it is time to throw out the old playbook and revisit our first principles.Or better yet, rethink those while we’re at it.While straightforward solutions may be hard to find, getting started is not.Below I present a starter kit for institutional disruption.

Student Centered Design

As someone who’s spent their life straddling the higher education and business worlds, I struggle to understand the preference for committee structures over user-centric, feedback-driven processes, systems, and design.Simply put: students’ needs should drive the bus more than they do.I recently conducted a discovery project for a small Midwest university which had been facing a decline in enrollment.While interviewing small groups of students, I learned that many had few or no points of meaningful connection with their faculties and staff, had little understanding of important educational milestones, and had vague, unrealistic expectations for their post-graduate outcomes.Out of the nineteen students I conversed with, most expressed their appreciation for the opportunity to engage in dialogue with someone from “administration” (note: I’m not a full-time employee).Though Senior administrators were aware of the issues, the typical cultural institutional response was to form a faculty and staff committee without student representation, data-driven feedback loops, or accountability.This time around, though, leaders convened a small group of student leaders and junior staff to create an “empathy map” of the first-year experience, from the point of deposit to the spring closure of the residence halls.It became clear that communication channels were overly abundant, inconsistent, and disconnected.To address this, we:- Streamlined student-facing communications- Incorporated surveys to act as timely feedback loops,- Created customized data dashboards which were accessible to everyone in student-facing roles.While there is still much work to be done, initial results suggest that these interventions will significantly improve retention.The intervention also started a subgroup of students, faculty, and staff tasked with design/feedback centric solutions, which is currently working to make Career Education more central to their curriculum.Student-centric design thinking and the steps therein – empathy, defining the problem, ideation, prototyping, and testing – are not leveraged enough.Smart design doesn’t just help us see processes, systems, and challenges from the viewpoints of the user, it helps us identify novel solutions, iterate quickly, and see feedback as a driver of change.


While the tenure process is certainly worthy of debate, it’s arguably less problematic than the lack of accountability of senior leaders at many institutions.For real change to sustain, leaders need to be evaluated by key performance indicators (KPIs) relative to their role – in much the same way their private sector counterparts are.Aligning a handful of metrics and creating internally accessible data dashboards can increase both buy-in and accountability for teams at all levels.Additionally, when it comes to making difficult decisions regarding faculty promotion and retention, course evaluations, demand statistics, student satisfaction, and other measurable factors should be used to align with student and institutional needs.This approach ensures that popular faculty with great course evaluations are retained and rewarded, while those who do not meet these standards are evaluated accordingly.While these ideas are far from groundbreaking, I’m shocked at how few places have any data-driven accountability structures in place.The inefficiencies of our operating model are not just threatening our livelihoods but burdening our students with levels of debt many will never escape.Action here is critical.


“If the only tool you have is a hammer, it is tempting to treat everything as if it were a nail.”
– Abraham Maslow
At some point in the staffing of colleges and universities, the degree of specialization of administrative roles began to take on a life of its own.While access to on-campus psychologists, nurses, career coaches, specialty advisors, chaplains, residential life specialists, DEIA specialists, librarians, full-time sports coaches, and all manner of deans can be beneficial for individual students, the sheer number of different agendas, programs, and services can be overwhelming for both students and leaders.This excess of options can also strain the budgets of smaller institutions, as leaders navigate internal competing priorities and egos – at the expense of student attention.One potential solution is to explore opportunities for replacing or repurposing highly specialized staff positions with more holistic and generalist roles that are better aligned with student needs.By streamlining staff and resources in this way, institutions can increase compensation for remaining staff members and provide more opportunities for upward mobility and professional development through improved incentive and promotion structures.Furthermore, individual campuses should explore high-impact practices at the intersection of learning, reflection, and service in work-study programs.When done well, these aren’t just incredible experiential learning experiences for students but cost-effective solutions to labor challenges that increase administrative bandwidth, enrich living-learning communities, and build career skills.


So, can a private liberal arts college experience be both person-centric and truly tech savvy/forward?Given the rapid advancements in technology such as no-code automation, artificial intelligence, and data-syncing/sharing options – oh, and online education! – there are many opportunities for educational institutions to better integrate technology within their operations to better serve students.We can and should leverage high-tech tools to improve operating efficiencies, better share data, map processes, and augment human connection.In fact, I’d argue hundreds of thousands of dollars in smart investment and deployment in these areas will save us millions in operational efficiencies.Simple “if/then” email sequences, scheduling systems, and training on simple tech tools like text expanders, automated email sequences, virtual calendar systems, and automation tools like Zapier can save thousands of hours of staff time.Moreover, easy-to-use video tools, smart email clients, and project management software makes for a more efficient, less email-centric workplace.To me, simply creating systems and processes that drive us towards direct student work and feedback loops and away from administrative potholes would be a giant stride in the right direction.Similarly, with all the advances in online education, we need to consider how we can leverage these tools for not only students but also our employee base.By utilizing these technologies in the right way, institutions can create a more productive and streamlined workplace and workforce, leading to a better experience for students and staff alike.


It is challenging for higher education institutions to deliver value propositions while balancing affordability, outcomes, and brand promises due to the commoditization of high-quality education and skill training.However, higher education institutions must adapt and change to meet the evolving requirements of students and the modern landscape of education.For institutions dealing with declining enrollment and scarce resources, adopting user-centric and community-driven design methods, as well as utilizing technology to improve efficiency and data-driven decision-making, can provide a path forward.The future of higher education depends on taking concrete measures towards institutional transformation, even though the solutions may not be simple.By prioritizing the needs and feedback of students, institutions can create meaningful and impactful experiences that will promote positive outcomes and uphold brand promises.It is important for institutions to continually assess and adapt their approach to stay relevant and competitive in the ever-changing world of education.—-----------------------------------As a father of two, it is my hope to play a tiny, tiny part in the overhaul and evolution of the Liberal Arts– so that my children, and indeed the next generation, inherit a broad-based education that delivers on it’s promise…Until then, I’ll stop refining my pitch…

About Mike O'Connor

As the #3 at Lawrence University, I was underwhelmed with nearly every Consulting firm we hired.
I found myself dealing with slow turn-around times, lack of novel insights, and generic/undifferentiated services.
Few places wanted to help with actual implementation.
As someone with an affinity for Tech and Design, and background in Higher Education (17 years) and Management Consulting - I knew I could offer something better.

Embark On A Journey Together?

Discover how we can tailor our expertise for your unique challenges. Schedule a complimentary 30-minute consultation.