Heart of the Matter

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Rightly or wrongly, colleges are being judged by their ability to place students in jobs immediately after graduation. Inside Higher Ed Editor Scott Jaschik opened today’s Rethinking Success conference with this insight and launched an engaging discussion among college and university presidents, whom Jaschik referred to as “eloquent and able defenders of the liberal arts.” The following collects a few of their thoughts:

University of Virginia President Teresa Sullivan

Teresa SullivanThe governor of Virginia is making a major push for students to study STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) disciplines. It is important to remember that science and mathematics are part of the liberal arts curriculum, which is the bedrock of undergraduate education.

Recent focus groups of parents demonstrate a broad misperception of the liberal arts. One of most prevailing and hazardous misperceptions is that liberal arts graduates are unemployable. Job attainment related to specific degrees is misleading. Only 27 percent of the courses a student will take are directly linked to his or her choice of major.

Additionally, not all liberal arts graduates are created the same. We must consider the quality of the education they received – an argument almost always overlooked in the conversation.

Apple, Google and Facebook were all created at the nexus of multiple liberal arts fields.

Davidson College President Carol E. Quillen

Carol E. QuillenAt Davidson we have a very clear primary purpose and it is still relevant. We ask ourselves, “What does it mean to prepare students for lives of leadership and service, now, in this world?”

We hear the buzzwords – globalization and technology. These two trends have significant effects. The barriers to communication are lower than ever before. The barriers between individuals and information are very low. We can’t continue to define ourselves by the information people used to pay us to dispense.

Liberal education is defined by its aim not by the disciplines it encompasses. We must think about doing things differently in higher education.

We need to expose students to the power of computation. We must help them develop quantitative instincts – valuable in every field. Success in the workplace will invariably depend on the ability to make sense of massive amounts of data.

We need to help students understand an entrepreneurial approach to problem solving;  not because they are going into business but because this approach to thinking is necessary in every field.

We need to help students develop clarity of expression. The lower barriers to communication and access to information make this increasingly important.

We are taking more responsibility for moving students from academia to impact the world and these skills will all be critical for tomorrow’s leaders.

Pomona College President David Oxtoby

David OxtobyAround the rest of the world, particularly in Singapore, Hong Kong, and China, governments are investing heavily in the liberal arts model of education to increase creativity, innovation and entrepreneurship.

Ironically, the U.S. is cutting back on this investment to focus on technical skills, job training and the more direct outcome of placing graduates in their first job. The rest of the world is thinking long term and preparing students for jobs that don’t yet exist.

One key point we must recognize is that there are many pathways to a single career goal. Career offices are often asked by students and parents for a silver bullet solution – the answer to the question,  “What do I do to get the job I want?”

English and philosophy majors can take you to Wall Street. Students don’t need to restrict themselves to one narrow path.

Hamden-Sydney College President Christopher Howard

Christopher HowardAt Hamden-Sydney we are so old school that we are new school. We teach rhetoric and grammar at the collegiate level – skills students may not come in with but need before leaving.

When thinking about what our key stakeholders want, I am reminded of the following: Parents want scholarships. Alumni want football; Faculty want parking; Students want sex.

Students in the Millennial Generation grow up faster but stay young longer than any prior generation. They are striving to answer complex question like, “Who am I?” “What is this world around me and where do I fit in?”

Employers report that they want to hire students with critical thinking and communication skills. They lie. They want to hire students prepared to fill an immediate need with relevant technical skills. This level of specificity will get you in the door but there is a reason corporations have terms like “General Manager,” and the military has “General Officers.” That which makes us most human guarantees our long-term employment – innovation and a creative spark.

— Guest post by Brett Eaton,
Wake Forest Communication and External Relations,
from the “Rethinking Success” conference

Category: Higher Education, Rethinking Success