March 2022 marks two years since the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a global pandemic. This declaration ushered in an unprecedented 24-month period of societal changes, one after another, which we are still experiencing.
During this time, we have experienced the challenge and reward of serving as the president, and as the chief academic officer of Ramapo College—the state’s premier liberal arts higher education institution.
Our timing was serendipitous. Just before the pandemic came to New Jersey, the college had completed and received the highest marks possible from its external reviewers, the Middle States Commission on Higher Education, reaffirming that we are delivering on our promise as a liberal arts college. On the heels of this affirmation and amid the pandemic, it soon became apparent to both of us that the mission of a liberal arts college is not just relevant, but it has an essential role to play in our collective ability to navigate during uncertain and challenging times.
The pandemic is certainly one of the most prominent world events of the past two years, simultaneously causing tragedy, trauma and disruption while also spurring innovation, change, and dynamic problem solving. Families have been devastated. Office culture will likely never be the same. Scientists, working at warp speed, developed vaccines (including, we can proudly say, four Ramapo graduates who helped develop Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine). Schools, institutions, and community organizations established entirely new ways of delivering on their missions.
Ramapo College is one of 228 liberal arts institutions in the United States, which together comprise 15.4% of all colleges and universities in the country. Collectively, we equip and empower our students with a variety of tools to solve the problems of tomorrow, and we represent a formidable return on investment in our democracy, locally, nationally and globally.At the same time, the pandemic also revealed divisions in this nation that have frayed our communities, when civil discourse and unification efforts would have been more constructive. As our world continues to change so dramatically, we cannot sit back idly. As a liberal arts school, the Ramapo College community leans in and we double down on our mission to build ethical leaders. Our programs and general education curricula teach our students. Within Ramapo College’s classrooms and residence halls, and at our various activities and events, we serve to repair divisions by modeling the value of civil discourse and mutual respect and by developing leaders and collaborators who will go on to build and lead diverse teams across a range of communities, industries, and in professions that do not even yet exist.
At Ramapo, we know that a liberal arts curriculum is what is needed in these turbulent times, because we regularly hear from employers that they need individuals who are ready to think critically, communicate effectively, serve on diverse teams, and write cogently.
In the years to come, how our society approaches matters of public health, conflict, injustice, learning, sustainability and work will push us to understand more fully and to solve problems in new ways. In fact, a 2018 survey of 1,000 employers and hiring managers rated “oral communication, critical thinking, ethical judgment, working effectively in teams, written communication, and the real-world application of skills and knowledge” as the best preparation for long-term career success. These are the very outcomes of a liberal arts education.
The playbook for the future is still unwritten, and a liberal arts graduate is well-prepared to be the person who writes it.
The NJASCU study is consistent with the findings of a 2020 study from Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce, showing that over the course of a career, a liberal arts education is remarkably practical, providing a median return on investment 40 years after enrollment that approaches $1 million. WhileAs for the argument that a liberal arts graduate will have trouble earning a living wage, the facts bear otherwise. For example, a Ramapo College education translates to an above average return on investment, according to a recent report by the New Jersey Association of State Colleges and Universities (NJASCU). There is a significant and demonstrable connection between Ramapo’s liberal arts education and the long-term positive earning potential for our graduates. This is because graduates are equipped with skills that not only benefit them in their immediate post-college placements, but position them for the career and industry changes we know our graduates will face and for which we have an obligation to prepare them. The same NJASCU report indicates that Ramapo graduates provide significant support to an array of job sectors and growth industries right here in New Jersey. This trend should only accelerate.
that study was conducted before the pandemic, the changing world around us supports the need for more critical thinkers, problem solvers, and team builders – precisely, liberal arts graduates.
At Ramapo, we believe an institution can position itself on the leading edge of change if it is brave enough to ask, “What’s next?” Well, a liberal arts graduate is prepared to not only be the person who poses that query but also to lead the team in an effort to come up with the answer. We are incredibly proud that the students, administration, faculty, and staff of our liberal arts college are modeling this behavior and leaning in to deliver on our essential mission. We are both humbled and excited by having this opportunity to develop the ethical, well-equipped leaders and problem solvers this world needs right now and in the future.
Cindy R. Jebb, Ph.D., is the president of Ramapo College of New Jersey. Susan Gaulden, Ph.D., is the interim provost/vice president of academic affairs at Ramapo College.