Numerous studies indicate that the skills produced by a quality liberal arts education correspond precisely to what employers seek beyond technical training. The ability to articulate, write, apply quantitative methods, use technology and work in a collaborative setting will continue to shape the parameters of the skill set needed in the 21st century.
So, why do liberal arts graduates, especially humanities majors, suffer from inaccurate and inconsistent portrayals of their attractiveness to employers?
There are likely several reasons behind this inconsistency.
Liberal arts graduates, especially in the humanities, do not as easily transition into first jobs as students also trained, for example, in STEM disciplines, teaching, nursing or business. For many of these humanities students, the move to employment typically includes additional education at the graduate or professional level. Some of them are uncertain about career paths while others received limited guidance as their graduation day approaches.
And this inattentiveness is part of the problem with which higher education must deal. College and university career centers are weakest for humanities graduates not pursuing a defined course leading to a logical placement at graduation.
Although there are numerous exceptions, there is much blame to spread across the campus. Humanities faculty typically train to replace themselves, with little practical experience in work settings beyond the college campus that they can convey as alternative employment to their students. There is no “clinical” internship or externship opportunity comparable to the sciences or through professional degrees like nursing. Career centers often heavily rely upon alumni networks, career fairs or institutional relationships that are strongest in areas like business and engineering. Look only to the list of employers participating at career fairs to illustrate this point.
Is it any wonder, then, that anecdotal stories about liberal arts majors who graduate to flip hamburgers or drive taxicabs predominate in the mainstream media?
The experience of humanities majors seeking advice from career centers ― where the guidance is sketchy and the internships and externships are limited ― is an institutional problem at most colleges. While students need to grow and explore, they must also have better guidance and a deeper link between faculty advising, internships and career placement. Colleges and universities must create stronger networks that rival what they offer business and engineering majors.
It begins with the admissions office. Most enrollment officials develop a prospective class in “modules” of legacies, student-athletes, special categories and transfer students. Often, they use transfer students and “soft” enrollment targets like the humanities disciplines to complete the admissions class. For humanities students, enrollment officials can promise wonderful opportunities including off-campus experiences, individualized study with faculty and leadership training. For 18-year-old, traditional students, it’s an attractive path to adulthood.
It’s not the job of the admissions office ― whose officials work on the “input” side of the house ― to worry about “outputs.” Yet, this is precisely where we are failing our liberal arts graduates.
For the students, the role of the career center is especially important because their path is less well determined than students in more technical majors and disciplines. Career centers must work diligently to provide vastly expanded internships and externships for liberal arts majors. They must intensify career counseling, open new relationships with faculty advisors about how best to prepare students for employment after graduation and persuade senior administration officials to fund the enterprise.
When making this argument, it is important not to suggest that humanities majors are unemployable without internships. In fact, they possess a liberal arts training that well prepares them for their employment. And, internships and externships do exist among employers. It’s just that the path is not always clear; the networks are underdeveloped; the doors are not open as wide as for science, finance and engineering majors; and perceptions about them run counter to fact.
For colleges and universities that tout liberal arts as their core educational experience and the philosophical underpinning of what they offer, it is critical that they invest in their career offices to provide better opportunities for all students.
In the broader public debate over the value of a college degree, American higher education must now place more emphasis on outputs like graduation placement against which both the public and policymakers will evaluate and regulate them.
It’s not necessarily bad to treat applicants who become students who turn into graduates as a “cradle through career” opportunity to develop a lifelong relationship with them. It answers important questions about the value of a college degree, reinforces the value of a liberal arts tradition, and dispels the anecdotal evidence that liberal arts majors are unemployable.
Let’s rethink the role of the college career center for humanities graduates to start. It’s likely the best place to begin.
Dr. Brian C. Mitchell is president of Brian Mitchell Associates and a director of the Edvance Foundation. He is the retired president of Bucknell University and former president of Washington & Jefferson College.