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Higher Education: Don’t Ignore Your Liberal Arts Majors

In an Interfolio blog article on November 5, Mike Lovell makes the case that careers offices should pay more attention to their liberal arts majors. He cites a recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education by Katharine Brooks. I applaud Ms. Brooks’ idea of partnering with faculty. I also like the idea of offering students a course through which they identify their transferable skills, whether through a credit or a not-for-credit program. But I’d like to go much further. In the 21st century, when an economic return on tuition investment is so important to both students and parents, it is incumbent upon everyone in a college or university—from the President on down—to be talking about education and graduate success in the same breath, and to do so from the first year on. Because if talking about a student’s future is confined to the upper-class classroom and the occasional visit to the careers office, we will still end up with graduates who can’t make the connection between college and career.

What liberal arts students need is universal support to explore different career fields; stories about alumni and how they found paths to work they love; a great deal of experiential education; and, strategies to make their education relevant to the hiring managers who are considering their applications for employment. Students can’t just jump from a college career course to a job. There is much work that needs to go on in between those two milestones, and it will take the collaboration of university administration as well as alumni, faculty and the careers office to make that happen.

The Association of American Colleges and Universities is engaged in a very interesting initiative called LEAP (Liberal Education and America’s Promise), which “champions the value of a liberal education for economic creativity and democratic vitality”. Its Liberal Education Outcomes Report, produced in 2005, does a great job of identifying the intellectual and practical skills obtained through a good liberal arts education. Intuitively, it makes sense that a liberal education would promote quantitative and information literacy, but a student telling the employer that she has these skills is likely to be met with blank stares. We need a different language to help students communicate the value of their education to an employer, and we need to be honest: most employers of entry level graduates don’t really care about a student’s education (as long as he has the educational qualification they seek); they care about whether he can do the job the employer needs to have done, and to do so with very little training. With a pre-professional degree, it is clear what a graduate can do; a liberal arts grad has to work much harder to demonstrate that she has the knowledge and skills to do the job. Almost always, she will need to supplement her education with related work experience.

In Smart Moves for Liberal Arts Grads, a book I coauthored in 2006, we illustrated through the stories of 23 liberal arts grads that the education they received was often extremely useful—but only when they were well on in their career. And, of the top Fortune 100 CEOs, for whom undergraduate degree is known, 35% have degrees in the liberal arts. Clearly a liberal education has value in higher level positions. But what about the 2010 grad whose career aspiration does not coincide with the title of his degree? No amount of fancy language or learning outcomes are going to help him find employment in this market. In fact his liberal arts education may seem totally irrelevant. We need to make our new graduates feel comfortable with the fact that their liberal arts skills and knowledge will not be wasted. Almost certainly, liberal arts grads will find themselves utilizing their liberal arts knowledge and skill sets for decades into the future. But for now, higher education–not just the careers office– must help liberal arts majors simply find a job.