It's not just math and science programs that launch college graduates into six-figure careers, a new study finds.
Updated: Sept. 10, 2014
Good news, poets and philosophers. At nearly two dozen liberal arts colleges, graduates typically go on to earn at least $100,000 a year by the time they reach their thirties, according to a new report from the salary website PayScale.com.
At Harvey Mudd College, the top school on the list, alums earn $134,000 on average a decade out of school. To be fair, many Mudd students get degrees in math and science, but other schools in the top 10, including Carleton, Haverford and Williams, focus on the humanities.
Of course, many graduates of even the top-earning schools—especially those who choose public service jobs such as teaching—make much less. And at many of the colleges, alumni typically earn six-figure salaries only after getting a graduate degree.
But overall this new data backs up other research that has identified a long, slow—yet real—payoff to the pursuit of a liberal arts degree.
In a study published in January, the American Association of Colleges and Universities found that by their fifties, college grads who had majored in liberal arts were earning, on average, about $2,000 more per year than those who had majored in pre-professional subjects.
“It is not all gloom and doom” for liberal arts graduates, says Patrick Kelly, a co-author of the AAC&U study and a senior associate at the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems.
How To Improve Your Earnings Potential
Kelly and his co-author, Debra Humphreys, AAC&U’s vice president for policy and public engagement, point out that as a liberal arts student you need to do three things to improve your chances of working your way up to six figures:
1. Budget time and money for graduate study. “If you expect to have reasonably high earnings, statistically speaking, you need to go to graduate school,” Kelly says. While their research didn’t identify which graduate degrees paid off the most, Kelly notes that many high-earning liberal arts majors work in the legal profession, in finance, or in business.
2. Work and intern during college. “You have to demonstrate workforce readiness to employers through means other than your schoolwork,” says Humphreys. That could include job experience, on-the-job training, or a technical certificate.
3. Spend a few years working and exploring before picking a grad program. “Don’t go to graduate school right away,” says Humphreys. “You might borrow $200,000 to go to law school and discover you hate being a lawyer.” Know what you want to do, and make sure that there are jobs in that field, before you spend time and money on more coursework.
The Liberal Arts Leaders
This new earnings report is based on surveys filled out on PayScale.com by some 1.4 million Americans over the past two years. It reflects the self-reported earnings of college graduates with at least 10 years of work experience.
The 21 liberal arts colleges below that offer the best shot at a six-figure income tend to have tough admissions standards. The easiest one to get into is Whitman College in Washington State, which accepts half of applicants. The most selective is Pomona College in California, which accepts just over one in ten.
Other elite liberal colleges that didn’t make the list because too few grads filled out PayScale surveys over the past two years, including Amherst, Bowdoin, and Earlham, likely have high-earning alums as well. In Money’s rankings of the best liberal arts colleges, based on earnings data collected by PayScale in the past three years, those colleges produce high earners. What’s more, in our rankings, we only considered the early- and mid-career earnings of those with bachelors’ degrees, not students who had gone on to graduate school.
|College||State||Avg. earnings with a B.A. only and 10 years of work experience||Avg. earnings with a graduate degree and 10 years of work experience||Acceptance rate||Money Value Rank|
|Harvey Mudd College||Calif.||$134,000||$138,000||19%||8|
|Washington and Lee University||Va.||$124,000||$134,000||19%||40|
|Virginia Military Institute||Va.||$115,000||$116,000||46%||19|
|College of the Holy Cross||Mass.||$100,000||$104,000||34%||102|
|Franklin & Marshall College||Penn.||$98,000||$110,000||39%||249|
There has never been a more emotionally challenging time to be a college student in the United States, especially for freshmen.
College is supposed to be the best four years of a child’s life, a time with few responsibilities and maybe mom and dad footing the bill. All your kid has to do is learn and maybe hit a party or two, right?
Not exactly. Every year at the college orientation programs I run in New England, I watch parents idealize an experience that is actually filled with huge anxiety and change for teenagers on the brink of adulthood. If you want to parent effectively through the transition, take some time to understand what your child’s life is really like at school.
Launching a kid into college is about more than having the money to pay for it. Parents invest so much of their time and identities in the process that it can feel like a part time job. For many parents, the college your child ends up attending becomes a parenting grade. It’s far from easy to hear that your child is depressed, unhappy or failing, especially when many have sacrificed so much to get their kids across the finish line. Ask almost any adult, and most will say college sure beats working.
But that attitude ignores the fact that there has never been a more emotionally challenging time to be a college student in the United States, especially for freshmen. Nearly half of all college students reported feeling hopeless at least once over the past year, according to the 2013 National College Health Assessment. In 2010, a study by the University of California at Los Angeles found the highest-ever recorded levels of stress among first year students, especially women.
I run skills-building programs focused on healthy risk taking, failure resilience, and self-care for undergraduates around the country. Like any life change, college is filled with anxiety, insecurity, social misfires and the occasional crying in one’s bed at night (I wouldn’t personally know anything about that).
In a much talked about new book, Excellent Sheep, former Yale professor William Deresiewicz calls foul on a system that turns its most elite students into robotic, failure-avoidant machines, hell-bent on success but disconnected from a genuine desire to learn or contribute. “Look beneath the façade of seamless well-adjustment,” he writes, “and what you often find are toxic levels of fear, anxiety, and depression, of emptiness and aimlessness and isolation.” He calls for a wholesale change in how we educate young adults: more service learning and character building, less resume stuffing and wealth obsession.
If your child is the first in your family to go to college – there are about 4.5 million of them starting at universities each year — they are less likely to be academically prepared, understand the financial obligations involved or even graduate. If your child comes from the bottom quarter of income distribution, college is a place where she’s in the extreme minority: In a survey of the top 100 schools, Deresiewicz reports, only 3 percent of undergraduates came from families in the bottom quarter of the income distribution, while 75 percent were from the top quarter.
Besides, the right school still might not make a child happy and, according to new research, students aren’t even learning very much anyway. Last week, authors Richard Arum and Josipa Roska released an update of their shocking book, Academically Adrift, in which they revealed many students had “limited or no learning at school.” In a new follow-up study, the researchers found the now graduated students unable to settle on careers because of a lack of critical thinking skills.
We hate seeing our kids in pain. But trying to fast forward through a child’s struggle can have the opposite effect. “Pain and struggle build muscle,” says Julie Mencher, a psychotherapist in Northampton, MA who consults with colleges on mental health issues. “They are part of the college process. You wouldn’t want them to sail through. They won’t be prepared for life.”
Remember when they were learning to walk? They would face plant, then look right at you. If you freaked, their faces crumpled. If you said, “Oopsie, you fell! You’re okay,” and helped them up, they toddled right on. All these years later, little has changed. The right mix of empathy and optimism will teach your children how to respond to their new experiences away from home. “You have to model the ability to cope with feelings,” Mencher says. “Your reaction will influence theirs.”
Taking full advantage of all that college offers can be tough for teens facing a major life transition under pressure to perform. Perhaps we should all lower our expectations and let kids find their way. You can give them the opportunity to thrive, but when it comes to finding happiness or success, kids are really on their own. The good news is that an adolescent’s emotional roller coaster comes with one plum benefit: feelings pass and shift quickly. Last night’s despondent text can turn into tomorrow morning’s happy hello. Kids also reserve their foulest feelings for parents and most college students don’t want to get pegged a downer by their new friends. That leaves you as the receptacle for their anger and frustration.
If your kid seems happy, godspeed. But just because she rocked college last year doesn’t mean she won’t minor in heartbreak or identity crisis next semester. Be prepared. Look your kids’ struggles in the eye, and don’t blink. They’ll thank you for it – and text you more often.
By Reed Jordan at the Urban Institute
By Nora Bensahel in Defense One
By Madeleine Albright in Foreign Policy
By Jaison R. Abel and Richard Deitz at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York
By Phil Schneider in the Aspen Journal of Ideas
The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.
A new study finds a widespread "failure to launch" among millennials fresh out of school. How to make those four years count.
Two years after graduating from college, a significant portion of the class of 2009 was economically and professionally “adrift,” according to a new book by two well-respected educational researchers. And while these young adults had the bad luck to graduate during the Great Recession, how they spent their college years was a large part of the problem too.
Two-thirds of the roughly 1,000 members of the class of 2009 in the study were in the job market in 2011 (about 30% were in graduate school), and almost 40% of that group were unemployed, underemployed, or earning less than $20,000 a year, reports the newly released Aspiring Adults Adrift, by Richard Arum, a New York University sociologist, and Josipa Roksa, associate director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Advanced Study of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education.
Many “are not making the transition to adulthood,” Arum says, noting that two years after graduation, 75% of the group were receiving some sort of financial assistance from their parents, with about a quarter living at home. Many weren’t engaged as citizens—more than two-thirds, for instance, said they didn’t bother reading about current affairs.
Parents, colleges, and the students themselves share the blame for this “failure to launch,” Arum says, but, he adds, “We think it is very important not to disparage a generation. These students have been taught and internalized misconceptions about what it takes to be successful.”
One example, says Arum: “They have learned through their interactions with educational institutions that it is possible to succeed with minimal effort.” In their study, students who studied alone less than an hour a day still managed to earn an above-average GPA of 3.2.
Another problem, says Roksa, is that many colleges have shifted their emphasis from tough classes to social life and amenities because that is what attracts more students and tuition dollars.
Colleges applicants respond more positively to improved dorms and gyms than descriptions of demanding classes. Plus, add Roksa, schools are increasingly hiring non-tenured professors and keeping them based at least in part on student enrollment and reviews. Research shows that students tend to give better reviews to classes taught by easy graders.
What Goes Wrong at College
The college experience has left these millennials ill-equipped to find good jobs for three reasons, the researchers say.
- Not enough learning. In their groundbreaking 2010 book Academically Adrift, Arum and Roksa reported that 45% of their study group exhibited no gain in critical thinking in the first two years of college, generally because they took undemanding classes and spent little time studying alone. In this follow-up study, the authors found that the students who failed to develop higher-level thinking skills were twice as likely to have lost a job between 2010 and 2011 than were those who scored well on such tests as seniors.
- Majors that are not valued by employers. As other studies have concluded, engineers had high employment and earnings rates. Business majors were more likely to land jobs as well. But those who majored in social sciences, humanities, social work, or communications had comparatively high unemployment rates, ranging from 7% to 9%.
- Undemanding colleges. Students who applied themselves and chose an in-demand major were more likely to prosper no matter what college they attended, say Arum and Roksa. But when all other characteristics were held constant, college choice explained about 24% of the variation in student learning gains. Generally, students who attended more selective colleges did better—perhaps because classes were more demanding. Graduates of less-selective colleges were almost twice as likely to work in low-skill jobs.
How to Do Better
Students are unlikely to make spontaneous changes. Many of the undergraduates studied expressed the belief that social skills would win them good jobs. And many who spent their undergrad years socializing and coasting through easy classes were satisfied with their college experience.
Arum and Roksa note that parents may not realize how much leverage they have to push colleges and students for more academic rigor and a focus on skills valued by the job market. Here’s how to make that effort.
1. Talk turkey. Arum, who has two kids in college, says that parents need to show their children the relationship between discipline, learning, and success later in life from an early age. And keep the message going. “I don’t want to advocate increased helicopter parenting, but we need to orient our children so that they understand that college is a time when one needs to invest in rigorous academic coursework,” he says. “The social aspects of college should complement the academic core.”
2. Demand evidence: When a high school senior is shopping for colleges, remember that a “tour is a marketing exercise by the college,” Roksa says. Ignore the hype and press admissions officers and other officials for evidence of their school’s academic rigor. Ask what percentage of classes require at least 40 pages of reading a week and at least 20 pages of writing a semester, and how much time the average student spends studying alone, all of which this research showed led to greater learning.
Among the evidence she suggests you ask for: student scores on tests of critical thinking such as the Collegiate Learning Assessment, or responses to questions about class assignments on the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE). Many schools collect such data but don’t like to release it to parents or the public.
3. Emphasize career planning: More than 40% of the group found full-time jobs through their college’s career services office, or from an internship, volunteer work, or another previous job. Arum and Roksa discovered that the jobs students got through their college career office tended to be better than those secured through personal connections. So parents should push schools to improve their career services, as well as urge their kids to take full advantage of internships, practice interviews, and other services. To find out which colleges launch students into the best-paying jobs, check out Money’s best college rankings, including this list of the 25 schools that add the most value.
Justice Sotomayor has been named the 2015 recipient of the Katharine Hepburn Medal awarded by Bryn Mawr College
Bryn Mawr College will present Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor with the 2015 Katharine Hepburn Medal in 2015, the school announced Tuesday. The award is presented annually to women who “change their worlds,” according to a release on Bryn Mawr’s website.
Winners are selected based on their commitment to both civic engagement and the arts, which were passions of the medal’s namesake. The late Hepburn is recognized as an early feminist who acted in dozens of films and received four Oscars for her work.
“As the first Hispanic and third female Supreme Court justice, Justice Sotomayor is truly a trailblazer,” said Bryn Mawr President Kim Cassidy in a release. “Her twenty-year commitment to the federal judiciary reveals her unwavering commitment both to public service and the importance of the legal system in our society and exemplifies the attributes deserving of the Hepburn Medal.”
The award will be presented during a ceremony in April.
A grant or scholarship can be the decisive factor in where you go school. But holding on to it for four years isn't always easy
College campuses are springing to life again as students gear up to start a new academic year. For many freshmen, the school they’ll be getting to know in the next few months will be the one that not only agreed to let them in but also offered to help pay the tuition bill. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 59% of the 23 million undergraduate students in the United States receive some form of grant or scholarship.
But the pride of winning a scholarship obscures for many students a tough reality: Getting that scholarship renewed for your whole college career isn’t a sure thing. Every year, tens of thousands of rising sophomores, juniors, and seniors lose scholarships they had counted on.
A MONEY analysis of financial aid reports for the 2012-2013 academic year found that colleges, on average, award merit-based scholarships to 25% of their freshmen. However, only 20% of sophomores, juniors, and seniors get similar grants. At some schools, the scholarship dropoff is much more significant.
So how do you make sure you keep your scholarship for all four years of college? It might seem like the rules are obvious: don’t break the law, get kicked out of school, or do something else stupid. Those are definitely good guidelines. But there’s a little more to keeping college aid than simply steering clear of a contemporary Animal House remake. For example:
Most schools set grade point average (GPA) minimums to keep the financial aid flowing—even for “need-based” grants awarded based on family income.
Colleges typically require students to maintain at least a 2.0 GPA, the equivalent of a C average, to qualify for almost any kind of financial aid. Even students receiving Pell grants, which are federally funded need-based aid, will lose their assistance if they don’t meet standards of “satisfactory academic progress.” At most schools, that means earning a GPA of 2.0 on at least 12 credits per semester, though many schools will give freshmen a bit of a break.
Good grades are even more important to recipients of merit scholarships, which are awarded based on a student’s grades or talents. Most merit scholarships set higher GPA bars for renewal. The merit-based HOPE scholarship programs in Georgia and Tennessee, for example, are only renewed for students who maintain GPAs of 3.0.
And some schools have big merit scholarships that are only renewed if students maintain a GPA of 3.5, such as Baylor’s $38,500-per-year Regent’s Gold Scholarship.
But you were a good student in high school, so keeping up your grades will be no sweat, right? Newsflash: Most college classes are harder than high school classes, so students’ grades tend to take a significant dip when they make the transition to higher education. A study of the transcripts of more than 122,000 students by the National Association for College Admission Counseling, for example, found that the average student’s grade point average declined by .47, or half a letter grade, from high school to college.
That means even students with a 3.4 high school GPA—a high B+—face a real risk of losing merit aid that requires a 3.0 for renewal. No wonder that about half of Georgia HOPE recipients, and more than 40 percent of Tennessee HOPE recipients, lose funding before their senior year.
To make sure bad grades don’t cost you your scholarship, students and parents should be crystal clear about the GPA renewal requirements for any grant or scholarship. If you’re worried, ask professors for interim grade reports; if you’re in danger of slipping below the required minimum, you can get help from campus tutoring services (often free of charge), or in some cases take the class pass-fail without adversely affecting your GPA.
Besides buckling down at the library, students should also be realistic about their class schedules and their likelihood of success in a tough major. According to a study from the Southern Economic Journal, “students whose major course of study is in engineering, computing, or the natural sciences are 21 percent to 51 percent more likely to lose their (grade-based) HOPE Scholarships than students in other disciplines.” Of course, those majors also tend to lead to much more lucrative careers. So it may be worth risking a few scholarships for a lifetime of good jobs and big paychecks.
Keeping your financial aid generally means also keeping your nose clean of any legal or academic violations. Getting incarcerated is obviously a no-no. It’s especially essential that Pell grant recipients avoid any kind of drug-related trouble. Those who’ve been busted for buying or selling drugs can be banned from the Pell program for years, depending on the number of offenses.
You’ll also want to give your college’s student handbook a close read. Breaking school rules can result in anything from expulsion to a temporary suspension. And it can also be extremely expensive.
Harvard is a cautionary tale for would be rule-breakers. The New York Times reports that students at the college found guilty of “misusing sources” (also known as plagiarism) will likely be forced to withdraw from the college for “at least” two semesters and lose credit for that term’s coursework. (Readmission is also not guaranteed.) According to Harvard’s website, a student leaving school while a semester is in progress can still be charged over $25,000 in fees depending on their withdrawal date.
In Harvard’s case, that money will generally come out of a student’s financial aid. But, like many schools, the Cambridge-based college is loath to offer more than eight semesters of support, and those who withdraw during the school year have essentially wasted one of those terms. A Harvard spokesman says penalized students who withdraw must not only apply to be re-accepted, they must also receive approval for additional aid. If their request is denied, these students would lose funding during their final semester.
Athletic scholarships are probably the least dependable form of financial aid. In addition to meeting GPA requirements (which are generally similar to those of Pell recipients) and following university rules, the vast majority of Division I athletic scholarships must be renewed annually. That means students who get injured, stop playing well, or simply don’t fit a new coach’s vision can have their funding dropped after the year is over.
In 2009, players on the University of Kentucky’s basketball team found this out the hard way. The school brought in John Calipari as head coach, and he quickly forced out six players who he felt did not fit his system.
“It hurt because I abided by the rules. I did everything I was supposed to. … Kept up a good GPA, went to class every day, didn’t fail any tests, ” Matt Pilgrim, one of the players asked to depart, told ESPN’s Outside the Lines. “I feel like just for following my part of the contract, they should follow theirs.”
As the Post-Gazette reports, some colleges are better than others at awarding longer-term aid packages. Fresno State offers exclusively four-year deals, and the University of Maryland recently announced it would also guarantee athletes the ability to finish their degrees.
A host of new apps are making roommate selection less random than ever. Here's what too much control means you might just miss out on
I met my best friends in the world on Craigslist. I also lived with a bulimic, a woman who taped “Bush/Cheney 2000″ posters all over our dorm room, and one who communicated only through passive aggressive Post-It notes on the house refrigerator.
There was the roommate whose bedroom didn’t have a door — only a curtain — and whose boyfriend I saw naked more times than my own. Then there were the two best friends who happily welcomed me in, sweet as pie, only for me to discover I’d signed a yearlong lease to become the buffer in their roommate feud. Roommate A had taken all of the kitchen supplies — pots, pans, silverware, dishes — and locked them, with a padlock, inside her bedroom. (Maybe that’s why I still don’t cook.)
For decades, the random college roommate has been a right of passage. Every year around this time, hoards of students show up to dorm rooms across the country, racing — with parents in tow — to claim the side of the room with the window. But in the age of social media, the randomness of that experience has been all but erased. As Rolling Stone reported last month, today’s college students are using apps to find harmonious bunk matches. RoomSync, a Facebook app reportedly used at more than 60 campuses, crunches data based on questionnaire responses to suggest a roster of choices. The unthinkable has finally happened: college students are suddenly able to avoid the awkwardness of getting thrown together with the last person they’d ever choose as a companion.
And yet, as Stephanie Wu, the author of a new collection of essays called The Roommates puts it, “There’s something to be said about being squeezed into very small quarters for a long period of time.” There are lessons learned — about love, rivalry and friendship. You learn to negotiate. You learn to move your own boundaries. And for every horror story, there is a tale of best friends and overcoming odds.
I asked my senior year college roommates — still some of my best friends — to help me come up with a list of things we all learned from the old way of doing things. Here are our top 10:
1. How to Stage An Intervention
Going through a bottle of mustard in a single day just isn’t OK, OK? Even if you really love the taste.
2. Clothes Exist for a Reason
No, really. Can you tell your boyfriend to put some on?
3. Sharing Closets Only Works When Both of You Have Equally Great Wardrobes
Borrowing each other’s clothes is best left to Sweet Valley High.
4. Teamwork Is Necessary
Specifically, when you must remove a screaming mouse trapped inside the coils of your oven with your bare hands.
5. The Bathroom and Its Mysteries
There will always be hair in the tub and yet it will belong to no one. The layers of soap scum will eventually come to resemble the faces of roommates past. Your most important heart-to-hearts will end up taking place across the six inches between the toilet and the shower.
6. Patience Is a Virtue
You know the roommate who always swears she’ll be ready in “just 15 minutes”? Get ready to uncork some Yellow Tail and wait.
7. Binge-Watching Should be Offered for Credit
There’s nothing like a pleather a pleather couch, a box of Wheat Thins and animated feminist discourse over Carrie’s relationship with Mr. Big.
8. It’s Possible to Know More About Your Roommates’ Intimate Parts Than What’s Going on in the World
Periods, sex partners, STD results: the dorm room as OB-GYN office.
9. Your Friends Will Always Be There to Listen (Because they Have to Be)
An unwritten rule of room-sharing is that I get to crawl into your bed after an epically disastrous night and have you help me relive the gory details.
10. It Can Always Be Worse
Even when your patience is strained beyond what you thought possible, just be thankful you’re not living with that roommate down the hall. Need a reminder? Just take a flip through Wu’s “The Roommates.” From mental disorders to harassment to cleaning up sewage, there’s always a roommate story worse than your own.
Bennett is a contributing columnist at TIME.com covering the intersection of gender, sexuality, business and pop culture. A formerNewsweek senior writer and executive editor of Tumblr, she is a contributing editor for Sheryl Sandberg’s women’s foundation, Lean In. You can follow her @jess7bennett.
By the Editorial Board of the New York Times
By Angèle Christin at the Nieman Journalism Lab
By David M. Perry in the Chronicle of Higher Education
By Syed Tashfin Chowdhury in Al Jazeera English
By Daniel Sparks in The Motley Fool
The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.
Having the government dictate how people should behave in sexual encounters is a terrible idea
The campus crusade against rape has achieved a major victory in California with the passage of a so-called “Yes means yes” law. Unanimously approved by the state Senate yesterday after a 52-16 vote in the assembly on Monday, SB967 requires colleges and universities to evaluate disciplinary charges of sexual assault under an “affirmative consent” standard as a condition of qualifying for state funds. The bill’s supporters praise it as an important step in preventing sexual violence on campus. In fact, it is very unlikely to deter predators or protect victims. Instead, its effect will be to codify vague and capricious rules governing student conduct, to shift the burden of proof to (usually male) students accused of sexual offenses, and to create a disturbing precedent for government regulation of consensual sex.
No sane person would quarrel with the principle that sex without consent is rape and should be severely punished. But while sexual consent is widely defined as the absence of a “no” (except in cases of incapacitation), anti-rape activists and many feminists have long argued that this definition needs to shift toward an active “yes.” Or, as the California bill puts it:
“Affirmative consent” means affirmative, conscious, and voluntary agreement to engage in sexual activity. … Lack of protest or resistance does not mean consent, nor does silence mean consent.
The law’s defenders, such as feminist writer Amanda Hess, dismiss as hyperbole claims that it would turn people into unwitting rapists every time they have sex without obtaining an explicit “yes” (or, better yet, a notarized signature) from their partner. Hess points out that consent can include nonverbal cues such as body language. Indeed, the warning that “relying solely on nonverbal communication can lead to misunderstanding,” included in the initial draft of the bill, was dropped from later versions. Yet even after those revisions, one of the bill’s co-authors, Democratic Assemblywoman Bonnie Lowenthal, told the San Gabriel Valley Tribune that the affirmative consent standard means a person “must say ‘yes.’ ”
Nonverbal cues indicating consent are almost certainly present in most consensual sexual encounters. But as a legal standard, nonverbal affirmative consent leaves campus tribunals in the position of trying to answer murky and confusing questions — for instance, whether a passionate response to a kiss was just a kiss, or an expression of “voluntary agreement” to have sexual intercourse. Faced with such ambiguities, administrators are likely to err on the side of caution and treat only explicit verbal agreement as sufficient proof of consent. In fact, many affirmative-consent-based student codes of sexual conduct today either discourage reliance on nonverbal communication as leaving too much room for mistakes (among them California’s Occidental College and North Carolina’s Duke University) or explicitly require asking for and obtaining verbal consent (the University of Houston). At Pennsylvania’s Swarthmore College, nonverbal communication is allowed but a verbal request for consent absolutely requires a verbal response: If you ask, “Do you want this?”, you may not infer consent from the mere fact that your partner pulls you down on the bed and moves to take off your clothes.
Meanwhile, workshops and other activities promoting the idea that one must “ask first and ask often” and that sex without verbal agreement is rape have proliferated on college campuses.
The consent evangelists often admit that discussing consent is widely seen as awkward and likely to kill the mood — though they seem to assume that the problem can be resolved if you just keep repeating that such verbal exchanges can be “hot,” “cool,” and “creative.” It’s not that talk during a sexual encounter is inherently a turn-off — far from it. But there’s a big difference between sexy banter or endearments, and mandatory checks to confirm you aren’t assaulting your partner (especially when you’re told that such checks must be conducted “in an ongoing manner”). Most people prefer spontaneous give-and-take and even some mystery, however old-fashioned that may sound; sex therapists will also tell you that good sex requires “letting go” of self-consciousness. When ThinkProgress.com columnist Tara Culp-Ressler writes approvingly that under affirmative consent “both partners are required to pay more attention to whether they’re feeling enthusiastic about the sexual experience they’re having,” it sounds more like a prescription for overthinking.
Of course anyone who believes that verbal communication about consent is essential to healthy sexual relationships can preach that message to others. The problem is that advocates of affirmative consent don’t rely simply on persuasion but on guilt-tripping (one handout stresses that verbal communication is “worth the risk of embarrassment or awkwardness” since the alternative is the risk of sexual assault) and, more importantly, on the threat of sanctions.
Until now, these sanctions have been voluntarily adopted by colleges; SB-967 gives them the backing of a government mandate. In addition to creating a vaguely and subjectively defined offense of nonconsensual sex, the bill also explicitly places the burden of proof on the accused, who must demonstrate that he (or she) took “reasonable steps … to ascertain whether the complainant affirmatively consented.” When the San Gabriel Valley Tribune asked Lowenthal how an innocent person could prove consent under such a standard, her reply was, “Your guess is as good as mine.”
Meanwhile, Culp-Ressler reassures her readers that passionate trysts without explicit agreement “aren’t necessarily breaches of an affirmative consent standard,” since, “if both partners were enthusiastic about the sexual encounter, there will be no reason for anyone to report a rape later.” But it’s not always that simple. One of the partners could start feeling ambivalent about an encounter after the fact and reinterpret it as coerced — especially after repeatedly hearing the message that only a clear “yes” constitutes real consent. In essence, advocates of affirmative consent are admitting that they’re not sure what constitutes a violation; they are asking people to trust that the system won’t be abused. This is not how the rule of law works.
This is not a matter of criminal trials, and suspension or even expulsion from college is not the same as going to prison. Nonetheless, having the government codify a standard that may implicitly criminalize most human sexual interaction is a very bad idea.
Such rules are unlikely to protect anyone from sexual assault. The activists often cite a scenario in which a woman submits without saying no because she is paralyzed by fear. Yet the perpetrator in such a case is very likely to be a sexual predator, not a clueless guy making an innocent mistake — and there is nothing to stop him from lying and claiming that he obtained explicit consent. As for sex with an incapacitated victim, it is already not only a violation of college codes of conduct but a felony.
Many feminists say that affirmative consent is not about getting permission but about making sure sexual encounters are based on mutual desire and enthusiasm. No one could oppose such a goal. But having the government dictate how people should behave in sexual encounters is hardly the way to go about it.
Cathy Young is a contributing editor at Reason magazine.