When I was growing up, my parents would tell me, “Good things come in small packages.” For years, I thought they gave my sister and me this counsel because we were lower middle class and didn’t have all the big things others did. Now, I see this through a new lens as my husband, Richard, and I have made our first big philanthropic investment in higher education: supporting one of our nation’s small liberal arts colleges.
At a time when student loans and the cost of a college education make daily headlines, the quality of the education in which we are investing is critical. It is no longer enough to leave college with a diploma in hand. Today’s world is made better with the kind of education students get at a small liberal arts college.
Research by the late Alexander W. Astin, the Allan M. Cartter Professor of Higher Education Emeritus at the University of California, Los Angeles, and the author of 23 books on higher education, reinforces this fact.
“Residential liberal arts colleges in general, and highly selective liberal arts colleges in particular, produce a pattern of consistently positive student outcomes not found in any other type of American higher-education institution,” Astin wrote.
Liberal arts colleges provide an intimate learning environment, where class sizes are small and students benefit from meaningful engagement with their professors and a social environment that encourages both close social bonds and peer-to-peer learning opportunities.
Don’t get me wrong: some students benefit from a larger campus environment. The University of Southern California certainly did right by both me and my husband. And I went on to earn a master’s from USC, as well. But as colleges continue to close or merge—more than 60 in the last five years—we are joining a growing chorus of voices saying that small, well-run liberal arts colleges must be supported. We simply cannot lose these incubators of new ideas and fertile minds to a consolidation of large institutions.
So, we are putting our money where our mouth is. In May, we announced a $25 million gift to McPherson College in Kansas for its Building Community Campaign—a donation that came after a decade of getting to know the college and developing an understanding and appreciation for the kind of education it delivers, as well as experiencing firsthand the creativity, caring and vision of the college’s outstanding president and provost.
Our relationship with McPherson College began in 2012, when I donated tool sets to the college’s automotive restoration program in honor of Richard’s birthday. Since then, we have become regular supporters of the college. Earlier this year, Richard donated his prized 1972 Ferrari 365 GTB/4 Daytona, marking the first Ferrari in the automotive restoration program’s 45-year history.
Our $25 million gift to McPherson is our first major gift in higher education. We are hopeful that our gift will help shine a light on the value of a small college education and how meaningful philanthropy can help solidify a small college’s future. The research certainly shows that small classes make big differences.
Richard J. Light, the Carl H. Pforzheimer Jr. Professor of Teaching and Learning at Harvard University, led a research effort involving in-depth interviews with more than 1,600 undergraduates for his book Making the Most of College: Students Speak Their Minds (Harvard University Press, 2001). One of his principal findings was that students who chose more small classes of 15 or fewer students were noticeably more engaged in the college experience.
The reality is that many universities are structured to have large-enrollment lower-division courses pay for small-enrollment upper-division and graduate classes. Small liberal arts colleges, however, have the enormous advantage of being able to engage their students not only in small learning environments but also in social settings that foster growth, encouragement and support. They create nurturing ecosystems that foster creativity and innovation.
The golden age of higher education is ahead of us, not behind us. We cannot miss the opportunity to invest in smaller liberal arts institutions that are preparing future leaders to navigate a world that increasingly demands adaptability, cooperation and innovation.
Supporting these colleges is an example of where philanthropy has to step up to help solve the problems our society is facing today.