Quite appropriately, prospective college students and their families are looking for colleges and universities—and specific majors—that will help the student prepare for a successful future career. It is easy to see the path from an accounting or nursing major to a C.P.A. or R.N., but less so the path for English or sociology majors leading to a particular career. Or even why a strong liberal arts core curriculum would be an important part of a professional degree program.
The Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) has long promoted the value of a Liberal Education. Specifically, they are “…focused on advancing and strengthening liberal education for all college students, regardless of their intended careers…AAC&U sees liberal education as a philosophy of education that empowers individuals with broad knowledge and transferable skills, and a strong sense of value, ethics, and civic engagement.” The importance of these skills to employers was made in its 2008 report, College Learning for the New Global Century.
But is the message reaching prospective students and their families?
A recent HBR blog post by David DeLong states that higher education leaders are doing it wrong. “Stop the handwringing 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.”
DeLong goes on to say “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.”
So, how to do that? One way is to use stories and examples that will gain the attention of the families that are making the important decisions about their own or their children’s futures.
For example, a recent op-ed by Thomas Friedman in the New York Times summarized an interview between Adam Bryant of the Times and Laszlo Bock, senior vice president of people operations for Google.
In the interview, Bock reviews the five hiring attributes that Google uses across the company. The attributes sound similar to the outcomes of a liberal arts education: critical thinking and reasoning, transferable skills and leadership ability.
The first attribute is general cognitive ability, specifically learning ability. “It’s the ability to process in the fly. It’s the ability to pull together disparate bits of information.”
The second attribute is leadership. Not traditional leadership, but emergent leadership, for example, “when faced with a problem and you’re a member of a team, do you, at the appropriate time, step in and lead. And just as critically, step back and stop leading…what’s critical to be an effective leader in this environment is you have to be willing to relinquish power.”
Next are humility and ownership. “It’s feeling the sense of responsibility, the sense of ownership, to step in,” he said, “to try to solve any problem—and the humility to step back and embrace the better ideas of others.” The end goal according to Bock is to work together to problem solve.
And it’s also intellectual humility, or the ability to, for example, learn from failure.
The final attribute is expertise in the specific job, the best example being the technical skills needed for about 50 percent of the jobs at Google.
Bock is not advocating for a traditional liberal arts education. In many ways, he is advocating for a competency-based education, where the required competencies can be learned in college or through other life experiences. Google, because of the wealth of talent it attracts, can look beyond traditional metrics, such as G.P.A., when it is hiring employees.
But Friedman makes the important point that, “For most young people, going to college and doing well is still the best way to master the tools needed for many careers.”
And here is the opportunity and challenge for liberal arts colleges. A liberal arts education can make the difference. Students can gain discipline-specific expertise in a supportive, teaching-centered environment where the “soft skills—leadership, humility, collaboration, adaptability and loving to learn and re-learn”—can be developed, supported and nurtured. The onus is on us to continue to make the case.
Dr. Walter Breau is Vice President of Academic Affairs at Elms College, a Catholic liberal arts institution in Chicopee, Mass.