Rethinking Success for a Liberal Arts Education
April 4th, 2012
Next week from April 11-13, Wake Forest will host “Rethinking Success: From the Liberal Arts to Careers in the 21st Century,” a national conference to examine issues related to the relevance and value of the liberal arts education to the new world of work. We are very excited about the conference with over 70 premier colleges and universities to be in attendance. Follow the conference news and insights on Twitter at #RethinkingSuccess.
To kick off the conversation, Jacquelyn S. Fetrow, Reynolds Professor of Computational Biophysics and dean of Wake Forest College, and I recently co-authored the following Op Ed, which was posted by Daniel de Vise in the Washington Post online.
Seniors graduating this May started their college careers shrouded by the dark cloud of economic insecurity. In September 2008, they were eager freshmen adjusting to campus life when the subprime mortgage crisis forced Lehman Brothers to file for bankruptcy. Four years later, many college students, recent graduates and their families remain paralyzed with fear and pessimism by the dismal prospects for turning a diploma into a paycheck. Although the economy may be recovering, the world of work has fundamentally changed.
Innovative technology, higher productivity, international outsourcing and our self-service economy have replaced thousands of entry-level jobs that were once ready-made for college graduates, and are now gone forever. In addition, the competition for jobs is fierce as employers raise their sights in recruiting new talent.
The March 2012 Duke University/CFO Magazine Global Business Outlook Survey of chief financial officers projects increased hiring which will bring the national unemployment rate below 8 percent by the end of the year. However, nearly half of the employers actively trying to fill vacant positions are struggling to find qualified applicants. Extremely selective recruiters have their choice of attractive candidates ranging from ambitious college grads to experienced Gen-X professionals to humbled baby boomers desperately needing work. The old “get a good college education and you’ll be successful” adage isn’t nearly enough today – and it may not be enough for job-seeking college grads in the 21st Century.
Politicians have fueled the fear and pessimism by questioning the value of college – and especially the liberal education – both in terms of cost and content, trumpeting the need for a technically skilled workforce as a solution to our floundering economy. Ironically, China, Singapore, South Korea and other Asian countries are adopting the opposite position by investing in the creation of high school and university curriculum to provide a liberal education in hopes of developing nimble, adaptable and creative thinkers. Concerned that their traditional system only produces stellar test takers, but few innovators and inventors, they are moving towards the educational model that America seems ready to leave behind.
Employers are seeking candidates who have the critical, creative thinking and interpersonal skills that result from a liberal education, plus the technical skills required for the job and finally, the hunger and passion to do and learn what’s required to be an outstanding and productive contributor for the firm. According to former Procter & Gamble chairman A.G. Lafley, “The formula for businesses trying to compete in today’s economy is simple: hire employees with the mental agility, leadership and passion to navigate constant change – in other words, hire those who are liberally educated.” Sound advice when you consider the CEOs of Dell, JP Morgan Chase, Walt Disney Company, IBM, and FedEx were liberally educated.
Here are a few recommendations for liberal arts colleges to more deeply realize and communicate the value of the liberal education for the world of work today:
• Develop partnerships that bridge the career development office with the faculty and academic advisors. Students demand to know how their choice of major will affect their career options. By sharing these data and student examples with the faculty and academic advisors, the career development office becomes more vital to students and to the faculty. With the endorsement and influence of the faculty, students utilize the complete range of resources offered by the career development office starting from their first year on campus.
• Provide opportunities for faculty to understand the needs of employers. When professors understand why employers hire certain students, they can articulate how the academic material can be applied variety of work settings and help students recognize and better market this knowledge and skills. They can also more effectively mentor students and provide career advice and connections.
• Make internships and/or research projects an integral part of the student experience. Make sure the student demonstrates the drive to stick with a research problem for longer than a semester. A survey by the Association of American Colleges and Universities found that 84 percent of executives at private sector and non-profit organizations expressed a desire for students to complete a significant project before graduation to demonstrate their depth of knowledge and a passion for a particular areas, as well as their acquisition of broad analytical, problem solving and communication skills.
• Offer credit-based courses in career development so that students learn the fundamentals for lifelong career management. With projections that today’s graduate will have eight or more jobs in their life, they must be equipped with the knowledge, skills and tools to navigate the path from college to career as well as post-graduate career changes.
• Bring recent alumni from a variety of careers to campus and perhaps into the classroom to share their experiences for how they utilize their liberal education. Today’s students expect immediate answers and a direct line from major to career. At Wake Forest University, history professors require their students to participate in teleconferences with alumni who applied their bachelor’s degree in history to relevant but not directly related fields, such as journalism, law and marketing. Understanding the breadth of real-world opportunities dispels the myth that all history – and other liberal arts – majors are destined to become professors.
• Develop partnerships between the liberal arts college and the business school to enable faculty and students to work and learn across boundaries. Entrepreneurship and Social Enterprise, now the most popular minor at Wake Forest, emerged from a college-business school collaboration. Alternatively, many students choose to acquire the Masters in Management degree at Wake Forest in their fifth year to develop the business knowledge and leadership skills to complement their liberal undergraduate education. These types of partnerships are essential to provide students with the skills to apply their liberal arts skills to business-world problems.
There are many possible solutions to help students realize and articulate the relevancy of the liberal education to the world of work. The one requirement is that liberal arts colleges must make personal and career development a mission-critical part of the undergraduate experience – and they must collaborate with faculty in the endeavor.
A liberal arts education, long regarded as one of America’s unique sources of strength, remains an important vehicle for nurturing young talent who will produce the answers for our future. However, a liberal education without regard to career relevance is not enough. Liberal arts colleges must begin rethinking success by demonstrating relevance beyond the classroom.