Thursday, March 4, 2010

What is the Value of a Liberal Arts Education?

Is a liberal arts education a luxury? With more than half of all undergraduates now choosing more “practical” majors such as business, nursing and engineering, it appears that many young people and their families are questioning the value of a liberal arts education. The question on parents’ and students’ minds today, especially given the escalating cost of a college education and the state of the economy, is will my son or daughter (or I) be employable?

This week the Chronicle of Higher Education is running a series of articles which examine what it titles ‘The New Liberal Arts.” The special report explores the question of value, and also cites the changes in college curriculum in responses to the shifting demand. Many traditional liberal arts institutions have added pre-professional programs. At the same time, several colleges with a more career-oriented focus are incorporating a liberal arts approach, placing greater emphasis on critical thinking and intellectual exploration. The idea is to help students develop important analytical and problem solving skills in addition to preparing them for a profession.

Returning to the question about the value of a liberal arts education, I wanted to share an article from the Chronicle series written by Sanford J. Ungar, the president of Goucher College and former host of National Public Radio’s “All Things Considered.” His article, “7 Major Misconceptions About the Liberal Arts,” seeks to dispel the myths that a liberal arts degree isn’t worth the cost, especially when compared to pre-professional training. Ungar’s article can be accessed through the link Mr. Ungar makes several compelling arguments, key among them is the notion that students must be prepared for change, especially given the evolving demands of society today. One thing is almost certain: many careers which will be available to the Millennial Generation in their lifetimes do not presently exist. The challenges we face today have created an even greater need for college students to graduate with a broad based education that prepares them to think critically and outside the box.

But how does that factor in the perceptions and expectations of those who make the hiring decisions? Don’t employers want to hire young people who have specialized in a particular field of study, especially in a buyer’s market where unemployment is running at 10%? According to Mr. Ungar, a 2009 survey for the Association of American Colleges and Universities found that 75% of employers nationwide encourage students to seek a liberal arts education. 89% want to see greater emphasis on communications, both orally and written. Analytical reasoning, critical thinking, creativity and the ability to innovate were also cited as important skills required by prospective employers.

One piece of advice I give to those in the midst of a job search, especially anyone who has been employed in a downsized industry: think in terms of your skill set, not your last job description. In our fast paced and changing society industries and jobs will come and go. The value of a liberal arts education will last a lifetime.

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