Measuring the Future

By Sophie Lewis

Recently, administrators at New College, a public institution in Florida, found themselves in a predicament when the state decided to cut $1 million in funding because the school’s liberal arts education does not appear to fulfill the state’s criteria for student success.

Inside Higher Ed reported that college president Donal O’Shea was forced to admit, “[the state’s requirements] give a challenge to the sort of basic model that underlies the liberal arts.” The “basic model” of President O’Shea’s definition seems to imply that the value of a liberal arts education cannot be sketched in entirely quantifiable and measurable terms. 

Across academia, the debate over whether or how to measure liberal arts education according to practical results is fraught with controversy; supporters of quantifying impact tend to promote studies that demonstrate the positive outcomes of arts and humanities education, while opponents decry this attitude because they claim it reduces liberal arts disciplines to shallow markers of success. Even while higher education officials have lauded newly-proposed initiatives to integrate liberal arts learning objectives with more functional goals, such as career development and technical skill-building, many administrators fear that higher education will lose its ideal core by abandoning the “basic model” of the liberal arts. 

Similar to the way colleges are attempting to measure educational success by looking at students’ post-graduate plans and job offers, philanthropic institutions across America are striving to calculate the impact of their grants on cultural life in America. 

One private foundation that is on the forefront of this push for “outcome-oriented philanthropy,” as it is called, is The Rockefeller Foundation, one of the largest and most prestigious private foundations in the United States. Over the summer, The Rockefeller Foundation issued a report on the impact of its New York City Cultural Innovation Fund. In this report, the Rockefeller Foundation attempted to set a precedent in modern philanthropy by evaluating the proposed and actual impact each of its grants had on the cultural life of New York City. 

While the foundation was able to point to several measurable outcomes of grants over the course of the Cultural Innovation Fund’s six-year history, it was clear from the report that there are many aspects of cultural life that are still incredibly difficult to measure. Some factors, such as the impact of a specific event or activity on the “larger cultural sector” of New York City, were too broad to exhaustively capture. 

Like New College’s struggle to demonstrate how a liberal arts curriculum translated directly to job offers or post-graduate success in the “real world,” other elements in a cultural project’s success that were difficult for Rockefeller to consider included the theoretical and philosophical backgrounds of an institution and the ambiguity implicit in terms like “impact” and “innovation.” 

It was clear from the report that the Rockefeller Foundation’s innovative funding and measuring strategy had resulted in a large amount of new data with exciting possibilities for future work. However, it was also evident that the foundation could not conclusively pin down all of the aspects of a successful cultural initiative, just as New College was unable to conclusively measure all the aspects of a liberal arts education that led to post-graduate success.

Ultimately, the debate surrounding funding liberal arts colleges and cultural institutions taps into a larger question, that of the value of subjective evidence in assessing future outcomes. 

In a 2010 article in The Chronicle of Higher Education that still resonates today, Stephen J. Mexal points out the (often-unintended) instrumental value of humanities and arts education for the world around us. It is clear, through a myriad of examples, that arts and humanities education teaches vital skills that are necessary for social evolution and human innovation. The problem, according to Mexal, is that we rarely see the advantage of new research in the humanities and arts in the same way that we value the teaching of liberal arts disciplines. 

This attitude is indefensible, however, because without new research and innovation, these skills quickly become worn-out and outdated, devoid of any relevance or the spark of fresh ideas. Mexal writes, “We can’t know the ultimate value of research in advance. But we perform that research anyway, because we have decided that, on balance, it is good to learn new things, whether or not they eventually lead to new technologies or other useful things.” 

Just like the wealth of unknown outcomes in a research project, the value of a college’s academic success and the impact of a cultural project lie in the unlimited possibilities they will inspire in the future.

Sophie Lewis is senior at Barnard College majoring in Music and English. Barnard College of Columbia University is home to the Delta of New York chapter of Phi Beta Kappa.