More and more, those of us in higher education, particularly at community colleges like Fulton-Montgomery Community College, hear from elected officials and government agencies that we need to focus on workforce development. We need to prepare people to work in the new economy. We need to listen to the needs of business. All of that is true; and, we do.
However, it seems as if our liberal arts programs are considered non-essential as a part of this discussion. In fact, often when those that encourage us to focus on workforce development mention the liberal arts it is almost with a sense of disdain for such offerings. I suspect it comes from the often quoted, and mostly overblown, stories of the graduate from a private liberal arts institution who graduated with a degree in poetry and a $100,000 student loan debt. I have two comments regarding these stories. First, there are not that many that are true when compared to the number of students graduating from college each year. And second, the average student loan debt for the class of 2015 is about $35,000. That, also, may be too high; however, there are a lot of choices students and their families make that affect that number which could be a completely different article.
So why defend liberal arts? There are a number of reasons to defend the liberal arts. A liberal arts degree at the Associate's Degree or Bachelor's Degree level often is designed to prepare students for graduate studies that focus on careers - like law, education or medicine. At FM nearly 50% of our students are in Liberal Arts: General Studies programs, and almost all of them have a career goal in mind. Very few of our students are renaissance students who are taking college courses for the sole purpose of learning.
Also, most of the liberal arts programs, or courses, teach students many of the skills that employers consistently ask of higher education. Those skills include communication (both orally and in writing), an understanding of different cultures (business is more global), critical thinking (employees need to reason and problem solve), teamwork, research skills and many other skills that are honed by liberal arts.
Liberal arts also adds to the economy. Many studies demonstrate clearly that those students with a degree (liberal arts or others) contribute more to their community through volunteer work or philanthropy; they are healthier; they are employed; they vote; and, in many cases they become community leaders. In Richard Florida's book, Rise of the Creative Class, he talks about those who understand and create art, theater, dance, etc., actually have revitalized communities in which they lived. Those communities that embraced the arts have historically done better economically than those who have not.
Lastly, colleges, including community colleges, are not workforce training institutes. While we certainly prepare people for work as a part of our missions, we also prepare our citizenry for life. Our purpose is to educate the whole person; and that, my friends, requires liberal arts.