Career Prep and the Liberal Arts

Every year around this time, in anticipation of the May 1 college decision day, parents and their high school seniors sit at the dinner table having that important discussion about what college to enroll in. Location, student-body size, financial awards, and even quality of cafeteria food typically become part of the decision-making process.

But according to a recent study by the American Association of Colleges and Universities (AAC&U), there is much more that must be part of that all-important dinner table summit: the merits of the educational curriculum and its potential impact on career entry and advancement.

The AAC&U report, It Takes More Than a Major: Employer Priorities for College Learning and Student Success, summarizes a recent survey of business and nonprofit leaders, three-quarters of whom would recommend a "twenty-first century liberal education" to the young people they know to prepare them for "long-term professional success in today's global economy."

Further noted in the study, more than 90 percent of the respondents agreed upon what constitutes a 21st century liberal education. It is one that helps students learn to think critically and communicate effectively. It integrates ideas from multiple disciplines, builds competence and confidence, and teaches students how to analyze situations from various vantage points. It teaches students to recognize the complexity of problems and to offer innovative solutions, and it provides opportunity to apply learning in work settings and across the globe.

What might this model of education look like? I'll give you examples from the college I lead.

A recent faculty-led travel course to Amsterdam, co-taught by professors of business and environmental science, introduced students to the heads of international corporations who talked about how to promote business success through environmentally-sustainable practices. Students tested their classroom learning against real-life examples and saw others grappling with challenges yet to be solved.

Students in psychology, kinesiology, nutrition, and child development courses work on projects assigned by non-profit organizations in town. Whether they investigate how to cut food waste in an elementary school cafeteria, motivate youth to exercise regularly, or help to design a community garden, students learn to see the world from others' perspectives and test theory against practice.

In the biology and chemistry departments, students who are conducting research into the science of aging are also working directly with residents of a nearby assisted living facility. Students see first-hand the physical and cognitive effects of growing old, as well as gain empathy for those who could benefit from their research.

This kind of education -- active, deliberate, and rooted in contextual breath as well as depth of subject -- trains students to think beyond the box, a desirable trait according to the AAC&U study. We are going to want and need innovative and empathic scientists and doctors, political leaders who can navigate the complex geopolitical issues of our day, and creative business leaders who will help our economy stay strong. We are going to want these young people to be smarter than we are, and this is our opportunity.

Parents, in difficult economic times it is tempting to steer sons and daughters to focus, narrow their interests, and learn a specific set of skills that seem designed for a particular job. To thrive in the world ahead, much more is needed. Read the report!