Heart of the Matter

Andy Chan's Blog for Parents, Mentors and Teachers

Value of a Liberal Arts Education

The value of a college education and its relevance to this century’s world of work is being questioned around dinner tables, in high schools and college dorms, in the national media, by governors and legislators, and by President Obama in his State of the Union address. Many of these conversations have focused on liberal arts institutions because economic factors, low job placement rates, and an ever-increasing tuition price tag have opened the door for critics to vilify these institutions as little more than petty thieves stealing from the uninformed. In fact, in efforts to help families make more educated decisions, private companies as well as the Department of Education, with its College Scorecard, have developed tools to measure and rate schools based on factors such as cost, graduation rate, loan default rate, median borrowing, and employment.

The prevailing argument is that students should study or major in something “employable,” something that is directly correlated to a job in a high paying career field. This view is espoused by many parents and national leaders, including politicians on both sides of the aisle. Many have called for additional STEM majors as well as eliminating funding for “softer” disciplines. North Carolina’s recently elected Governor Pat McCrory has stated publicly that he is against taxpayer dollars supporting disciplines such as Philosophy and Women & Gender Studies because they “have no chance of getting people jobs.”

However, Governor McCrory and others are operating under a false assumption: that a student’s area of study dictates his or her employability. As I stated in my Op-Ed in the Charlotte Observer, a specific academic focus is not required to secure employment nor is directly correlated with success in many careers such as account management, consulting, marketing, program and project management, analyst, sales, research, and many more. In his rebuttal to Governor McCrory, Wake Forest Professor of Classics Michael Sloan explains how college students are trained through a liberal arts curriculum to develop valuable skills and competencies that employers seek. Robert Zimmer, president of the University of Chicago, echoes this sentiment in his AAC&U article. The true problem, then, is that most colleges and universities do not provide their students with sufficient guidance and support to connect their interests, values, strengths and skills to the world of work.

At Wake Forest, through the support of President Nathan Hatch and the work of the Office of Personal & Career Development, we have significantly increased the resources available to students. While other institutions are cutting career office budgets by an average of 16% this year, Wake Forest is boldly investing millions of dollars in personal and career development. In fact, Wake Forest’s approach has been so transformative that our office has fielded inquiries and visits from over 100 institutions to learn more about our model and successes. To address these important issues and the demand for more information by all higher education institutions, Wake Forest hosted a national conference in April 2012 entitled “Rethinking Success: From the Liberal Arts to Careers in the 21st Century” which examined role and value of a liberal arts education.

One of the main drivers of our success has been the holistic approach we take to personal and career development. As described in a recent AAC&U article, our students are contacted as early as their first year on campus and kept engaged through innovative career courses, partnerships with faculty, alumni and employers, and other innovative programs. Students are taken through a progression of four questions: “Who am I?” “What shall I do?” “How will I get there?” and “Once there, how will I be successful?” While career offices at most schools focus exclusively on the third question related to job search skills and job development, the OPCD guides Wake Forest students navigate each stage of the process with clarity, competence, and confidence.

Additionally, we are partnering with employers – many of whom are alumni and parents – to not only provide our students with increased exploratory opportunities and connections for full-time jobs and internships, but to also better understand the needs of the marketplace. Subsequently, our students can make informed decisions about their career interests and be well-prepared for networking, interviews and on-the-job success. Employer partnerships resulted in several recent career exploration opportunities: A career trek to Bermuda for 17 students over spring break to meet with executives in the insurance and risk management industry; job shadowing at local organizations for over 60 students in the College To Career courses; career treks for 45 Wake Forest students to Chicago, San Francisco, and Washington, D.C. in partnership with the University of Chicago and Stanford University; and a career trek to Washington, D.C. for 20 students to network with nine hot startups who are actively hiring college students.

We are very fortunate at Wake Forest to have an administration that has committed to making personal and career development a mission critical component of the undergraduate student experience. Parents, encourage your student to take advantage of the extensive resources available. No matter where your student is in in the process, the OPCD is ready to help.

Category: Higher Education