The question is how its value is recognized by students and communicated to employers.
There is a growing consensus among students, parents and employers that today’s young liberal arts graduates lack the skills needed to succeed in the post-Recession job market. Stories about this skills gap abound, such as the recent New York Times essay “Opening an Employment Door to the Young”.
This belief is growing stronger despite studies by higher education leaders arguing that a liberal arts degree is still a good investment today. Smart people may disagree on the value of a liberal arts degree, but no matter which side you are on, things must change. Schools can’t continue to deliver an expensive credential that is not seen as delivering a viable path to a career—no matter what the long-term value. Here are four things higher education leaders and students must do differently to make liberal arts education economically sustainable—for all.
1. Stop the hand wringing about the real value of a liberal arts education.
Higher education leaders are frustrated by what they see as unfair treatment in the media, and overreaction by parents to the declining value of the liberal arts degree. But any strategy to counter the public’s negative perceptions with long-term data and rational arguments is doomed to fail.
One college junior last week confessed to me she had changed her major from microbiology to English, even though she sees her new major as “dangerous” in terms of future employment. Parents, students and the press have all heard too many first hand stories about the challenges of today’s job market. Trying to convince them otherwise only sounds like whining. Stop it now! It’s not the value of liberal arts that needs to be debated. It’s how skills acquired with the degree are recognized by students and communicated to employers.
2. Use the entire school community to create an employable graduate.
With tuition discount rates climbing, as more colleges and universities struggle to attract good students, the current revenue model is unsustainable for all but the most elite and well-endowed colleges and universities. To prosper in the new competitive environment, institutions must engage the whole school system in supporting the personal and career development of their students.
I recently worked with a leading research university to align the efforts of its huge, decentralized staff to transform the career support infrastructure. This type of collaboration to improve support for liberal arts students means aligning the activities of administrators, faculty, academic and career advisors, as well as alumni, parents, fund raising staff, and students themselves. This is no easy task. But savvy higher education leaders recognize that increasing the employability of their grads requires major culture change that involves the whole system.
3. Attack the job search “skills gap” head on.
A major reason so many liberal arts students struggle after graduation is they have no clue about the real skills needed to pursue and land a job in today’s hyper-competitive job market. A lot of schools need to reinvent their traditional career services function so it provides leading edge tools and tutoring to prepare students for the “real world.”
Updated networking techniques, ready access to helpful alumni, education about technologies like applicant tracking systems, and intensive coaching for Skype and in-person interviews must become standard offerings to make liberal arts students more competitive.
4. Increase student engagement with personal and career development activities.
When it comes to improving the employment prospects of college students, the elephant in the room is the difficulty of convincing young adults to fully engage with the activities needed to effectively launch their career. In the research for my book Graduate to a Great Job, more than 50% of “successful” grads I studied didn’t know what they wanted to do when they graduated.
Even students who express angst about future employment seem unwilling to invest sufficient time to master the skills needed for success, such as extensive networking, in-depth industry research, resume writing and interviewing. My research indicates this is partly due to other demands of student life, as well as an emotional resistance to “growing up.” But another factor is not understanding how much they have to learn, and how little students—and their parents—know about what it takes to land a great job today.
Motivating students to engage early and often in the career development process may be the greatest challenge facing higher education leaders today. This will be particularly problematic for large public universities with more limited resources. Private schools, like Wake Forest and Reed College, with reputations for proactively addressing career development with their students, are committed to starting this conversation freshman year.
To increase the real and perceived value of the liberal arts degree, schools must stop debating this issue and start investing in infrastructure and culture changes that align the entire school behind efforts to prepare graduates for the future. This can be done without compromising the ideals that make a liberal arts education worth fighting for.