Liberal Education, Soft Skills, and Success

This fall millions of recent high school graduates will enroll at colleges and universities across the United States, eager to begin this next stage of their lives, but perhaps apprehensive about their college choice. Have I made the right decision? Will I fit here? Can I handle the academic expectations of the place -- not to mention the challenge of navigating the social and cultural pathways of a new community absent the support of family and friends? And perhaps most important, have I chosen a college that will prepare me well for life -- including, of course, the world of work?

A prior question -- should I go to college? -- has a definitive economic answer. College may not be right for everyone, but many studies have demonstrated that simply possessing a baccalaureate degree typically means much higher earnings throughout one's life, a fact even clearer today than in previous generations.

But in a world that seems increasingly to equate learning and career preparation, many commentators are skeptical that students are acquiring the skills that will translate well into the marketplace. Two recent surveys of employers done by the Chronicle of Higher Education and the Workforce Solutions Group at St. Louis Community College, respectively, reveal their frustration with graduates who have not been adequately prepared for the job market.

These frustrations may not be what you think. Rather than lamenting the absence of technical or similar job-specific skills, many employers say that too many college graduates lack communication and decision-making ability, an understanding of how to think independently but also to work in teams, to solve complex problems and to construct cogent arguments. They lack, we're told, an understanding of leadership, creativity, and emotional intelligence. In other words, it isn't primarily the "hard skills" that these graduates lack, but the so-called "soft skills."

As the president of the University of Evansville, a liberal arts institution with colleges of arts and sciences, engineering and computer science, education and health sciences, and business, I couldn't resist an ironic chuckle. That's not because I doubt that such a problem exists, but rather that the soft skills so much in demand by America's employers are precisely at the core of the liberal arts and sciences experience -- at UE and at other schools with similar missions and curricular emphases.

Our stock in trade is transformation. Students typically begin their college experience thinking of learning as simply acquiring information, remembering it, and retrieving it when necessary. Our mission is to ensure that four years later they emerge as lifelong learners who recognize that education is not just a matter of what you know -- but how to ask the right questions, to develop well-supported arguments, and to apply knowledge in new and unfamiliar contexts. As William Butler Yeats memorably wrote, "education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire."

Sounds good -- but isn't a liberal arts university a brochure-pretty place with leafy and placid campuses separated by ivy-covered walls from the "real world"? You know, the place that produces over-educated and underemployed graduates? Even President Obama recently fell into that trap in an unthinking quip -- for which he later apologized -- about the employability of art history majors.

Anyone who believes this stereotype should visit one of our campuses, or take a good look at the employment outcomes of our graduates. Today's liberal arts colleges and universities are very different places than you might imagine.

A quiet revolution at our institutions is the integration of the classroom with the world around our campuses (and yes, they are beautiful). We recruit passionate faculty members whose primary energies are directed to teaching undergraduates -- even as they stay connected with their disciplines through active scholarship. Much of that passion finds its expression in our classrooms, to be sure, but you'll find today's liberal arts and sciences students serving millions of internships in companies, non-profits, and non-governmental organizations in the United States and around the world.

In addition, these young men and women engage in what we call, in our understated way, "experiential" activities. At the University of Evansville, this includes working with businesses to solve local and international problems and traveling to Mongolia and Central America to help people there deal with seemingly overwhelming challenges. Our engineering students work in teams to produce robots that compete with remarkable success against college and university teams, many from major research institutions, across the country. Does anyone doubt that we'll see more robotic technology in our future?

More than half of our students, from philosophy majors to chemistry majors to nursing students, live and study in another country at some point during their time at UE. And our students can begin working with career counselors as prospective students -- i.e., before they ever set foot in a college classroom.

The ivory tower? Hardly.

Perhaps it's time to take a closer look at liberal arts colleges and universities. Savvy business leaders recognize that the best education happens in a place where learning is broad and rich, rather than focused on the development of a collection of task-specific skills that may be rendered irrelevant by the next technological innovation or hot new internet-driven market. What better preparation could there be for a fast-changing and unpredictable economy?

Of course, those of us in the liberal arts understand that what happens to our students goes well beyond preparation for the job market. We know that even more important than economic success is exposure to an educational experience that helps students to understand the significance of living a life of meaning and purpose. The good news is that you don't have to choose one path over the other. At a great liberal arts institution, you'll emerge ready to tackle the world even as you are prepared to embrace the challenges and opportunities of life.