Heart of the Matter

Andy Chan's Blog for Parents, Mentors and Teachers

Higher Education

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.

2012 First Destination Data

Each year, the OPCD surveys graduating seniors to acquire the first destination outcomes of the graduating class within six months after graduation. We strive to capture information about every student, but we typically are able to capture the first destination information from 75-85% of each class. The following results are based on the 828 student outcomes we received this year, representing 78% of the class of 2012.  The best news is that 95% of the class of 2012 either had a job offer or a graduate school acceptance within six months of graduation demonstrating the impact of the significant investment and transformation of how personal, career and professional development is delivered at Wake Forest.

As the media, politicians and general public debate the value of college and President Obama promotes his College Scorecard, I think that it’s time for colleges and universities to be more transparent and informative about the outcomes of its graduates. Many colleges do not reliably gather and report this information each year. So it is high time to initiate new procedures and policies to obtain and report this now mission critical information on many college campuses. Everyone wants it and expects it, so why don’t we share it with them?

At Wake Forest, this outcome information is readily available on our website, including the first jobs of our last 5 years of graduates for every major. We share this information with our faculty and they appreciate knowing the wide range of jobs our students secure no matter what they choose to major in. We plan on adding more types of career-related information and metrics over time.  Our aspiration is to provide a model that other colleges and universities can follow to be more transparent and accurate in communicating their value proposition.

Until then, prospective student applicants should proactively ask probing questions about how their college-of-interest invests in the college-to-career process for EVERY student. Also ask admissions and career center representatives for their graduates’ First Destination outcome data and trends.  Remember to ask about the survey response rate as you’ll find that most colleges’ data is not representative of the entire student body.

Overall Results

95% of reporting graduates are employed or attending graduate school.

Employment by Function

The 566 employed graduates’ positions are reported in the following functional areas:

*Other includes functions each with less than 2.1% of respondents: Accounting, Actuarial, Advertising, Athletics/Coaching, Creative, Customer Service, Entrepreneur, Fundraising/Development, Human Resources, Insurance, Legal Services, Logistics/Transportation, Manufacturing, Military, Nonscientific Research, Operations/Production, Professional Athletics, Public Relations, Real Estate, Religious Occupations, Scientific Research, Writing/Editing


The 566 employed graduates’ positions are reported in the following industries:

Graduate School

217 graduates reported attending graduate or professional schools:

Closing Remarks

Energizing, enriching, enlightening — these are three words attendees used to describe the Rethinking Success conference. Others included: inspirational, thought-provoking, disruptive, and challenging.

In closing, President Hatch said he was encouraged by the discussions on the value of a liberal arts education in the world of work and the creative and innovative ideas presented during the conference. Finding the language to clearly explain what a liberal arts education is and why it’s valuable and then “proclaiming” it is critical, he said. By thinking in integrative ways and combining academics, student affairs and career services, for example, schools can broaden and deepen students’ experiences.

Dean of Wake Forest College Jacque Fetrow emphasized that any effort in higher ed to make changes to an institution’s culture and goals must engage faculty. “If faculty don’t come to the table, we won’t succeed,” she said.

Two other take-aways from the conference Fetrow noted are:

  • A liberal education is relevant to the 21st century. It provides an edge. But we must learn to tell that story loudly, often and effectively.
  • We must help students to learn to tell their stories. Faculty should articulate for students the competencies and skills they are teaching so that students can explain to employers how what they have learned will provide value to the organization.

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

Videos: Daw, Penmetsa

Meredith Daw, the director of Career Advising and Planning Services, University of Chicago, and Mallika Penmetsa, a Wake Forest senior, answer questions a panel at “Rethinking Success: From Liberal Arts to Careers in the 21st Century,” a conference held by Wake Forest University on April 13, 2012.

Video: Meredith Daw »
Video: Mallika Penmetsa »

Getting to Action

Sheila Curran, President and Chief Strategy Consultant of Curran Career Consulting, kicked off the final panel discussion of the Rethinking Success conference by reminding the crowd of Winston Churchill’s admonition, “Without action, thinking is mere idleness.” Curran moderated a discussion around “Real Transformational Change,” featuring success stories and action-oriented tips from leaders representing the career centers at the University of Chicago; Washington University, St. Louis; and Wake Forest University.

Meredith Daw speaks on the panel.

Meredith Daw speaks on the panel.

Meredith Daw, Director of Career Advising and Planning Services at the University of Chicago talked about the transformation that she has helped lead. “Six years ago, we crunched the numbers,” she said. “Not enough of our students were realizing the return on investment we hoped for. They were graduating without jobs and falling behind peers graduating from other schools.”

Daw explained how she started making significant changes at Chicago with three strategies: connecting earlier with students, implementing pre-professional programs with the graduate schools to complement the liberal arts experience, and focusing on increased internship opportunities.

In 2005, only 25 percent of first- and second-year students took advantage of the career advising and planning services Daw and her colleagues offered. Today, more than 80 percent of students come through her office within their first two years on campus.

She talked about a job shadowing externship program – only open to freshmen and sophomores – as part of the office’s success. She also talked about strengthening the link to the admissions office, which now talks up the services she offers before students even arrive on campus.

Daw credited much of the success of her office with eight pre-professional programs called “Chicago Careers In…” The programs offer exposure to careers in the arts, business, higher education, health professions, journalism, law, public and social services, and science and technology. To ensure the success of the programs, Daw hired industry specialists from outside of higher education to complement the advising expertise of career generalists. These experts brought a heightened sense of credibility among students and parents. The career office also made mentorship alliances with the professional graduate programs on campus. Undergrads are paired with graduate students to understand opportunities to advance their goals and undergraduates are now able to take courses within the graduate programs.

To increase internship opportunities, Daw talked about expanding their reach outside of the Chicago area. They now offer internships in 40 different cities and eight foreign countries. With a few thousand dollars of seed money they started a program, called Treks, to take students to geographic areas with large employer bases on the east and west coasts. After demonstrating the value of this outreach, Daw was able to secure corporate funding and additional institutional support to grow the program.

Daw closed out her remarks by talking about how the work of the career office complements the work of faculty without trying to change the core academic experience. As a result, faculty have come to appreciate and endorse Daw’s efforts.

At Chicago, they had recognized a trend of students moving into economics majors as a pathway to business school and a perceived career advantage. The impact was that the students without a passion for economics were not satisfied with the experience and academic programs with a less-defined career path, like history and philosophy, were losing students. The Chicago Careers In… programs helped students explore career avenues launched from a variety of degrees and helped stop the unnecessary change in majors.

All three panelists echoed the importance of data, focus groups, and surveys tracking students and alumni. Tracking trends and patterns outside of career services helps to communicate with other departments around campus about how to make real transformational change.

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

Video: Condoleezza Rice

Condoleezza Rice, the former Secretary of State, delivers the keynote speech at “Rethinking Success: From Liberal Arts to Careers in the 21st Century,” a conference held by Wake Forest University on April 11, 2012.

Video: Condoleezza Rice »

Video: Marc Lautenbach

Marc Lautenbach, managing partner, Global Business Services, North America, IBM Corporation, answers questions after speaking on a panel at “Rethinking Success: From Liberal Arts to Careers in the 21st Century,” a conference held by Wake Forest University on April 12, 2012.

Video: Marc Lautenbach »

Current and Future World of Work

Marc Lautenbach

Marc Lautenbach makes a point while the panel listens.

Marc Lautenbach, a managing partner in global business services with IBM Corporation, started the panel discussion with the reminder that millennials are the first generation with the potential to have a lower standard of living than their parents.

With this statistic in the current economy, it’s not surprising that parents are concerned that their children choose majors with clear career paths and high earning potential.

Students attending liberal arts schools with strong writing programs have an advantage. “The number of college graduates who can write well is shockingly small,” Lautenbach said. Young people with writing skills have a significant advantage in the marketplace.

Panelist John McConnell, CEO of Wake Forest Baptist medical center stressed that medical schools are looking more favorably on students who come from non-traditional pathways. He also talked about the rapidly-growing allied health care field and the opportunities for physicians assistants and nurse practitioners — who will be providing more primary care services going forward. “We won’t be able to train enough people for these jobs,” he said.

Donna Boswell, a partner with the international law firm Hogan Lovells, emphasized the need to offer appropriate career guidance to students who think they want to be corporate lawyers. While legal firms are looking for well-rounded, critical thinkers, she noted that new corporate lawyers are expected to pay their dues with long hours and less than scintillating work. “You have to know that you are passionate about corporate law to succeed,” she said. “Otherwise, you will be miserable.”

When asked what advice she would give students interested in pursuing corporate law, Boswell said that an understanding of corporations and an empathy for business people is critical. “Look at different kinds of legal venues if you don’t like business,” she said. A fairly recent challenge law students face is that changes in global competition and technology mean legal firms can no longer offer extremely high-paying positions to law school graduates. There is a growing need to offer scholarships to offset this.

What are the critical success factors that students need when they graduate? President and CEO of VF Corporation Eric Wiseman said the ability to lead and the ability to communicate are top. Though these skills can be developed in any discipline, Wiseman said that liberal arts institutions must be willing to help guide students before they choose a major — providing data on what kinds of jobs alumni with a particular degree have pursued and what they are earning.

Liberal arts graduates who are teammates and consensus builders and are willing to take initiative will do well, said Wiseman. “But universities must help students to unlock the value of their education,” he said. “We all know that the kids we are interviewing are smart. We are looking for the hook. How will this person add value to our company.”

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

Video: Katharine Brooks

Katharine Brooks, the director of the Liberal Arts Career Services Center at the University of Texas, answers questions after speaking on a panel at “Rethinking Success: From Liberal Arts to Careers in the 21st Century,” a conference held by Wake Forest University on April 12, 2012.

Video: Katherine Brooks »

Demystifying 'college to career'

Katharine BrooksEveryone fears the unknown. In the world of the college students the biggest, scariest unknown of them all is the “real world,” that strange place we are all expected to enter upon graduation. At the Rethinking Success panel “Understanding Today’s Students,” conference participants were led to reflect on how universities can help demystify the “college to career” journey for their students.

Katharine Brooks, director of the Liberal Arts Career Services Center at the University of Texas, challenged universities to change their campus culture around the career search. She presented four concrete areas for change:

  1. Shift the way we talk about the career journey. Finding a job today is a practice in chaos theory. It’s not a standard linear path. Instead, many students will “fall” into positions by taking advantage of unexpected opportunities. Bottom line: it’s OK to not know what you want or where you’re going. Focus on developing yourself and learning who you are, and you will be ready to take advantage of the unplanned chances that come your way.
  2. Give permission to explore. Create spaces where students are encouraged to engage in deep explorations of how the liberal arts connects to vocation.
  3. Encourage reflection. Students need to figure out the value of their education for themselves. Don’t give them the canned answers about why history matters. Get a group of history majors together and ask them what makes a good history major. What unique perspectives, methodologies and skills do they have because of what they study?
  4. Make students practice their story. A consistent theme of the conference has been the inability of liberal arts students to translate their college experiences into meaningful narratives. Newsflash: Telling your story is difficult. The first time you try, you’re not going to be very good. So please ask students good questions about what they love, how they think and how they want to change the world.

Brooks said that “Everyone on campus has the potential to be a career coach.”

I would argue that if universities are going to support their students like they should, everyone on campus must be a career coach. We should all be invested in helping today’s students discover who they are and where they want to go.

— Guest post by Beth Ann Williams (‘11),
Wake Forest Fellow,
from the “Rethinking Success” conference