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Bringing Career Planning into Liberal Arts Classrooms

A college's ultimate responsibility is to help students clarify their sense of self. We do them a disservice if we ignore their future working life as they discover their talents, passions and convictions.
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Life after college has gotten harder in the recession's wake, and colleges are not doing enough to prepare students for an anxiety-inducing job market.

As a result, there is increasing skepticism about the value of college. The debate over higher education, however, is about far more than the return-on-investment for a degree. Indeed, America's future economic competitiveness is at stake.

Colleges and universities are seabeds of innovation, idealism and civic renewal. But, in many ways, higher education's relentless pursuit of specialization and competitive achievement has muffled those ideals. Too often neglected is an understanding of why students are attending college in the first place, and what they will do with their degrees.

Traditional, four-year institutions like Wake Forest University, where I serve as president, should be honest about the uphill struggle students face in this fast-changing and complex economic environment. It is a terribly hard time to enter the workforce, and colleges need to make fundamental changes to help graduates find their way.

This shift begins with faculty members, who should prioritize mentoring students and teaching them to use what they learn after graduation. This means an end to the status quo at many universities, where faculty-student interaction is restricted largely to the mastery of a given academic discipline.

Professors often don't know or care what students do after college. That apathy was understandable when Americans could safely assume that a degree from a quality university guaranteed a high-paying, secure job. Today faculty members must see themselves in broader roles if they are to continue to attract students to a liberal arts education. It is great to major in English, philosophy, or physics, but students also must be shown how such academic paths lead beyond the academy.

To help students with vocational discernment, Wake Forest in 2010 created the Office of Personal & Career Development, which is tasked with teaching, advising and equipping all of our students to successfully navigate the path from college to career. Staff in the new office are creating a toolkit to help professors think more about the interesting and diverse paths that graduates have pursued. Our faculty members have responded well to the call.

At first glimpse, a focus on career might seem at odds with a liberal arts education, which is often viewed as too intellectually lofty to tackle something as practical as finding a job. But this is a misperception. The liberal arts are about wrestling with big questions, such as: What do I believe? What are these courses and why am I taking them? And, most importantly, what am I going to do with my life?

Compatibility between the liberal arts and vocational exploration has also been enhanced in the knowledge economy. Innovation and creativity, key elements of a liberal arts education, have never been more important. And any liberal arts curriculum stresses the importance of lifelong learning, which is crucial when many career paths require regular adjustments.

Our efforts at Wake Forest go well beyond helping students land internships. We want to give them opportunities to learn important competencies for life and work, including mentoring, leadership, professional skills and entrepreneurship.

One indication that this approach is working has been our fundraising efforts for the new Office of Personal & Career Development. We raised $5 million over 18 months from parents of current students, who apparently appreciate an intense focus on career.

A college's ultimate responsibility is to help students clarify their sense of self. We do them a disservice if we ignore their future working life as they discover their talents, passions and convictions. Drifting college graduates aren't the only ones who a career-neglecting higher education hurts -- our economy and our nation may continue to drift as well.

Nathan O. Hatch is president of Wake Forest University.