Give the Employers What The Want: Liberal Arts Majors


Truly Devastating Graph from the Atlantic Monthly–click to see the article


Drop in state funding for higher ed from Atlantic Monthly. Click to view.

It’s no secret that higher education has been under attack in recent years. Costs have skyrocketed (see the graph to the left) while state support has dropped dramatically (see the graph to the right). As the cost of higher ed increases (with the corresponding debt students incur), more and more critics are encouraging students to seek skills-based degrees. The thinking, as you might imagine, is that after 4 years (or 5 or 6) and $20,000 (or $40,000 +) a college graduate should be job-ready.

There is no evidence that the leading proponents of skills-based, employment ready education are parents who recovered nicely from the empty nest syndrome and spent 4 years practicing their interior design skills on the extra room. Notice they didn’t leave a bed in there? Some politicians and business leaders also care.

Higher education, experts tell us repeatedly, is hip deep in a national crisis. It is, they proclaim in shrill voices, an edupocalypse!

More importantly for the parents of a son about to head off to college, forecasts for costs, tuition, and student debt are pretty darn depressing. Like many people, I worked my way through college at a time when such things where possible. The state paid around 75%-80% of my education and I ponied up the money for the rest. I lived in various houses and trailer parks (at least one with flying cock roaches), drove beat up and broke down cars, and lived pretty low on the hog. Such things where doable because we had a national, collective desire to support and fund higher education. At the end of my Ph.D. I had a relatively small, yet manageable debt.

Doing this today is increasingly difficult. As tuition soars and students arrive hoping to maintain a middle class life on a college student’s salary, we push more students and families into debt.

As times change, higher education faces some tough choices. Students also face tough decisions as they consider how much bang for their buck they can get from a college degree. Or if a college degree is even worth the cost.

But let’s not hold business leaders harmless from this conversation about difficult choices.

The simple reality is that if business stopped requiring college degrees for entry level jobs that didn’t require a college education, and they willingly promoted workers based on the quality of their work not their educational pedigree, all high school students wouldn’t feel compelled to go to college just for the sake of going to college.

The latest survey of employers (read it here) tells us that job creators say they aren’t really all that concerned about the choice of major. Instead “a demonstrated capacity to think critically, communicate clearly, and solve complex problems is more important than [a candidate’s] undergraduate major.” They aren’t as concerned with specific majors, partly, because they will train new employees. (Obviously, there are specialized fields that require some training prior to employment.)

As a college professor, let me say I agree whole-heartedly with employers. These are exactly the traits I want to instill in my students. And, please note the restrained sarcasm in my voice, these are the tenets of a liberal arts education and we would be happy to provide such workers to you. We are not your version of the minor-leagues where kids can spend four years with us and then step in to your most advanced jobs. No matter what we do, you will train your new employees. The best thing I can do is make sure the graduates can think, learn, and solve problems.

But we can’t help students achieve these skills on the cheap and we can’t teach communication skills and critical thinking in massive, scale-able, competency-based, “efficient” online classes. And we sure as heck can’t do it if you don’t actually start hiring college graduates whose primary fields value those skills. As importantly, we can’t win an argument that these degrees are valuable when Florida governor Rick Scott claims “We don’t need a lot more anthropologists in the state. I want to spend our dollars giving people science, technology, engineering, math degrees. So when they get out of school, they can get a job” while business leaders stand behind him (both literally and figuratively with a checkbook) nodding in agreement.

These anthropologists, sociologists, history majors spend 4 years reading, evaluating, communicating, analyzing, and learning about diverse cultures. Sure, it might take our job creators a little time to train them in their particular business, but these are students trained to learn. They are the jacks of all trades of the educational world.

Oh, and by the way, they learn how to write and communicate throughout their degree.

They learn such things by working closely with the professors and classmates in the slow, laborious educational world where competence isn’t the equivalent of critical thinking.

And if the business world says they value those things, then they need to start acting like it.




About John Wegner
John Wegner is a Professor of English where he also serves as the Dean of the Freshman College. He and Lana, his wife, have been married over 25 years. They are the parents of two great sons who (so far) haven't ever needed bail money.

2 Responses to Give the Employers What The Want: Liberal Arts Majors

  1. John Wegner says:

    Thanks for the comment. It is a strange and topsy-turvy world these days. I have a neighbor who stopped putting his masters degree on his resume in an effort at getting an interview. I like the “art of negotiation” phrase.

  2. lsurrett2 says:

    As a former “history” major, I would agree that just managing to sludge through college was a challenge in itself. You learn to take deadlines seriously, you learn to plan when things begin to go wrong at your first attempt, and you learn the art of negotiation when procrastination has infected your brain.

    However, I would also put forth the idea that while it may be true that businesses pay less attention to your bachelor’s focus, earning a post-grad degree can cause a little more difficulty in landing a job in an outside field. I’d even postulate the higher the degree, the more difficulty.

    Such as it is in our economy at the moment.

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