The Liberal Arts & Employability: Facing a New Reality

We’ve seen a regular stream of news articles in all media during the the recession  trying to figure out whether or not there’s still “worth” for students to major in the liberal arts.  No doubt this has surfaced with vigor now both due to the narrowing of the job market for ALL graduates, but, in particular, because of the continued rise in tuition taking place at the same time.  Naturally, this has led to anxiety for parents and students over how to navigate choosing a major, at which institution, and towards what end (ah- this is the key word:  the “end” meaning either self-enlightenment or self-interest or a hoped-for link to increased employability post-graduation).

This recent essay in the NY Times examines how one institution, Wake Forest University, has attempted, through the creative and hard-charging effort of their new Vice President of personal and career development,  http://www.nytimes.com/2013/09/15/magazine/how-to-get-a-job-with-a-philosophy-degree.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0, Andy Chan, to impact both how parents view this issue and how students deal with it.

I’ve written often about how the two ways that students can interpret the value of studying abroad as related to their career development: there is the obvious visceral intrinsic value of such experience, and there is the extrinsic value of the learning which takes place while abroad which can be linked to student career development.  It seems that this same approach holds value with respect to addressing choice of major – albeit what is often missed in this discussion is that the choice-making process is different for students who do attend college with the expectation of going to work right after graduation.  These students are not only at community colleges; more and more middle class students are at four-year institutions and their families are more actively engaged with them when it comes to the choice of a major.

Back to the article:  seems that at Wake Forest, many faculty are relieved that Chan is actively working to allay fears of parents whose children opt for liberal arts majors. And this is because they do not want to answer the questions coming at them about the relevance of their field when it comes to prospects for employability.  Of course, I think more faculty need to understand how they can still focus on the intrinsic value of their courses while, at the same time, be attentive and knowledgeable to the career development issues facing their students.  In fact, I think it is the responsibility of all – student affairs staff and faculty – to be actively engaged with students about their career development.

The mission of the university has always been, and always will be, to prepare young adults to be actively engaged in the public life of the nation. The liberal arts will survive the turmoil of this time and remain “relevant.”  But the fact is that these times do demand that students more carefully consider why they choose a major and how their choice will impact their options when they look for work in their senior year.  I think this is a discussion which needs to begin as soon as students enter college…

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