Not Without a Fight: A Major Funder and a Savvy College Team Up for the Liberal Arts

The other day, I opened up the New York Times and was surprised to see a huge, full-page ad for Greenville, South Carolina's Furman University, touting its new "strategic vision," called Furman Advantage.

Launched with $47 million from the Duke Endowment, the Furman Advantage combines a liberal arts education with "immersive experiences outside the classroom, creating a personalized pathway," replete with measurable academic and professional goals, that "prepares students for lives of purpose, successful careers, and community benefit." 

It's one of the biggest gifts we've seen yet from funders who believe in the liberal arts and are keen to help colleges bolster such education—and also to better market the liberal arts to students, parents, and donors alike. As we've reported, the takeover of higher ed by STEM-crazed administrators and donors is not happening without a fight. The humanities crowd is fighting back, often tapping some deep-pocketed supporters, even as they face some powerful skeptics. 

The college education experience is a product. And like any product, its inherent value can be relative. Nowhere is this reality more acute than in the liberal arts education space, where, as Marco Rubio (accurately) reminded us, "You can decide whether it's worth borrowing $40,000 to be a Greek philosophy major, because the market for Greek philosophers is tight."

So who, ultimately, is the most important player in this complex financial equation? Why, the parents, of course. In many cases, the parents will be the ones investing in an expensive four-year liberal arts degree for their child. Or they'll be the ones guiding their kid through the student loan process. Either way, they want to be sure the product they're buying—a liberal arts education for Billy or Jane—is a good deal. (For the record, the total annual cost for attending Furman can top off at roughly $64,000 a year.)

To the extent Furman's ad was geared towards this audience, it hit all the right notes.

Which brings us to my next question. What, exactly, does this pathway look like? According to Furman, these pathways will "integrate co-curricular experiences with classroom work and helps students chart a course from their interests and skills to life after college. Building on successful pilot programs, the university will offer students new tools for assessing their strengths and connecting the dots." Furman also notes that while universities have traditionally offered engaged learning opportunities like internships and study abroad, few have "guaranteed them for all students and integrated them fully with the learning experience."

As for the Duke Endowment, their grand total donation of $47 million is the sum of two separate gifts: $22 million, announced in November 2015, which fully funded the James B. Duke Scholarships, and $25 million from early October. (In the past, we've touched on the Duke Endowment’s support for higher education, vulnerable children, public health, and grants to United Methodist organizations in North Carolina.)

Add it all up, and there's a lot of savvy here. First and foremost, the mechanics of the gift itself. Furman wisely realizes that in today's day and age, cutting loose English majors in a cutthroat post-graduate world without some sort of career planning infrastructure is not cool. Students and parents need to know there's some sort of return-on-investment-light at the end of the liberal arts tunnel.

This line of thinking also applies to grantmakers' thinking as well. They, too, want maximal bang for their buck, and Duke clearly felt Furman's strategy was worth of a $47 million investment.

Secondly, that well-crafted Times ad was an effective marketing tool. Clearly directed toward middle-aged readers, it read like a PowerPoint presentation—and yes, there were bullet points—spelling out how their hard-earned money will be effectively used to send Billy on a well-paying career path rooted in the liberal arts.

Moving forward, I anticipate other universities will find a lot to like about Furman's academic and marketing strategies. And funders will, too.