LEADing the way: Applying a 21st-century approach to the liberal arts

St. Mary’s College of Maryland—the National Public Honors College—has created the Learning Through Experiential and Applied Discovery (LEAD) initiative to prepare its graduates for whatever challenges the world of work has in store.

St. Mary’s College of Maryland is leading the way in answering the question: What is the value of a liberal arts education? 

As return on higher education investment has emerged as a critical data point for students and families, St. Mary’s College—the nation’s first public honors college—has created a value-added approach to better prepare its graduates to live, work and thrive in the 21st century. 

With its Learning Through Experiential and Applied Discovery (LEAD) program, St. Mary’s College has infused its rigorous and traditional liberal arts curriculum with an active and hands-on approach that gives all students career-ready and career-long skills and knowledge that employers demand. This innovative approach can serve as a national model for public institutions seeking to combine academic excellence and professional skill development with access and affordability.

A liberal arts education retains its currency in today’s world, said Tuajuanda C. Jordan, Ph.D., president of St. Mary’s College since 2014. But a liberal arts education that continually translates knowledge into practical skills and workplace competencies has never been more important to employers.

“We know that liberal arts colleges prepare students for work and careers,” Jordan said. “Through LEAD, we are preparing all of our students not only for their careers but also for their very first job.”

Tuajuanda C. Jordan, Ph.D., president of St. Mary’s College

Tuajuanda C. Jordan, Ph.D., president of St. Mary’s College

About St. Mary’s College

Founded nearly two centuries ago, St. Mary’s College sits astride the past and the future.

The college was established in 1840 in St. Mary’s City, the first European settlement in Maryland and the state’s first capital. By 1967, the institution had evolved into a four-year baccalaureate college. In 1992, the state legislature designated St. Mary’s College as Maryland’s public honors college.

Today, St. Mary’s College provides a rigorous and challenging honors curriculum to every student during their time on campus. The college enrolls more than 1,600 students on its 361-acre residential waterfront campus about 75 miles south of Washington, D.C. It offers 24 majors and 29 minors, one graduate degree (a Master of Arts in Teaching), six cross-disciplinary programs and seven pre-professional programs. Nearly 70% of students take a minor or a second major, and more than a quarter graduate with a STEM degree. 

Among Maryland’s public four-year institutions, St. Mary’s College ranks high in four-year graduation rate and low in average student debt. Nationally, it ranks as the nation’s fifth-best public liberal arts college according to U.S. News & World Report, which also lists the college as a best value school and a top performer on social mobility.

Yet like many postsecondary institutions, St. Mary’s College must continually prove its value proposition—that a liberal arts curriculum can be innovative and distinctive and give all students the competitive edge they need to succeed.

Enter LEAD.

LEADing the way 

Launched in 2020, LEAD provides an active, hands-on education that’s designed to give today’s students a career-ready edge. LEAD seamlessly blends an honors-level academic experience grounded in the liberal arts with professional skills development that prepares them for graduate or professional school and the world of work. 

From the moment students arrive at St. Mary’s College, they begin to develop a personalized Career and Leadership Development Plan that guides their academic journey. The Core Seminar required of all new students focuses on fundamental liberal arts skills—critical and creative thinking, information literacy, problem solving, collaboration, and written and oral expression—that students will rely on in college and throughout their lives. Students also will take credit-bearing courses incorporated into the curriculum that strengthen their professional skills and allow them to dive deep into career planning before and after they've declared their majors.

LEAD’s Core Knowledge and Methods component exposes St. Mary’s College students to a wide range of subjects and methodologies so they can develop multi-disciplinary expertise and grow as thinkers and communicators. The Inquiry track, a set of specially-designed courses that span several disciplines, allows students to unleash their curiosity on one of six topics: justice, climate, the Western world, public and environmental health, gender and power, and Latinx studies. 

“We live in a shared world where people can no longer think in silos. We need to think across disciplines, and we must instill this practice in our students,” Jordan said. “With LEAD, our students not only get their disciplinary knowledge but also the ability to connect the dots across disciplines.”

LEAD’s distinguishing feature is its Honors College Promise—a guarantee that every student will have the opportunity to engage in a research, internship or international experience.

Students can conduct research alongside or with the guidance of faculty members. The college offers two summer research programs—Research Experience for Undergraduates, which is funded by National Science Foundation grants, and St. Mary’s Undergraduate Research Fellowships. About 60% of students complete a St. Mary’s Project, a senior-year capstone project of original research, scholarship, or creative performance.

Internships allow students to gain hands-on professional experience and apply what they’ve learned. St. Mary’s College connects students with a variety of learning experiences—paid and unpaid, for credit and not for credit on campus and off—that meet students’ different needs. 

For students seeking international learning experiences, St. Mary’s College offers semester-long study abroad programs in countries all over the globe and short-term faculty-led study tours over the summer.

LEAD has produced strong positive outcomes for both students and the college. Since 2019, the year before LEAD was implemented, applications for first-year admission have doubled, first-year enrollment has grown by 38% and total undergraduate enrollment has risen by 7%. 

Jordan said LEAD has made faculty more creative and innovative because they’re sharing resources, creating connections throughout the curriculum and engaging more closely with students to help them realize those connections. 

LEAD’s emphasis on external internships and research experiences has strengthened the college’s community engagement and outreach efforts. Close collaboration with regional companies and organizations and alumni networks have augmented those relationships as well. 

“LEAD helps us deliver our core beliefs: that all students must be equipped with the power of collaboration, encouraged by their curiosity, trained in critical thinking, and challenged to seek out new perspectives,” Jordan said. “It is essential to our goal of graduating thinkers and doers that we back up classroom theory with real-world experiences.”

The power of the public liberal arts

In addition to leading St. Mary’s College, Jordan serves as president of the Council of Public Liberal Arts Colleges (COPLAC). This consortium of 30 colleges and universities in 28 states and one Canadian province promotes an accessible and affordable liberal arts education in student-centered, residential public institutions.

Consortium members will gather at St. Mary’s College on June 9-11 for the 2024 COPLAC Summer Summit. This convening—“Democratizing Opportunity: The Power of the Public Liberal Arts”—will allow representatives of member institutions to network, share best practices and seek areas for collaboration. The summit will address four primary topics—advocacy, generative AI, student access and opportunity, and building the public liberal arts college brand—that are top of mind among COPLAC members.

“Not only will this summit help us strengthen our partnerships, it will demonstrate to the higher education world the power and necessity of programs like LEAD in producing critical thinkers, agile leaders and in-demand employees,” Jordan said. “COPLAC members are laser-focused on access and affordability, and we look forward to sharing the work of this summer on making a 21st century liberal arts education available to all students regardless of their backgrounds.”

This content is paid for and provided by St. Mary's College of Maryland and developed by Inside Higher Ed's sponsored content team. The editorial department of Inside Higher Ed had no role in its production.