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Sunday, August 18, 2013
It’s back-to-school season, and students are heading to college. Over the past few years, the question of the cost and value of college education has become part of our national conversation. The sticker price of many private colleges is now more than $40,000 a year, and public universities are much more expensive than even 10 years ago, as they increasingly depend on tuition dollars.
The public generally recognizes that a college education, or at least a college degree, is a passport to career opportunities not available to those with only a high school education. Indeed, census data indicate that the median annual income for a college graduate aged 25 or over is more than $22,000 higher than the median for a worker with only a high school degree. The gains are not only monetary. College graduates report higher overall job and life satisfaction than those without a college degree.
This doesn’t completely relieve the public’s sticker shock, however. Increasingly, college students and their families are looking for ways to justify the high expense, and in a constricted labor market, immediate job prospects are a high priority. In UCLA’s most recent freshman survey, which collects responses from new students at 283 colleges and universities, more than 87 percent of students surveyed cited “getting a better job” as their top reason to go to college, an all-time high. This number is up more than 20 percent over the survey’s results in 1976. At the same time, the survey reveals that fewer students are choosing to go to college to “gain a general education and appreciation of ideas,” a reason that used to be cited just as often as getting a better job.
The focus on job prospects has led many students toward fields of study they deem most likely to result in employment after graduation. Traditional liberal arts fields, such as history, literature, modern languages, classics or my own field, philosophy, appear less attractive to students whose primary concern is employment. Indeed, studies of higher education over the past 20 years indicate that the number of liberal arts colleges is shrinking. This is not because they are shutting down. They are adapting to the demands of the marketplace by adding graduate degrees, pre-professional programs, and business and law schools. A 2012 study concluded that only 130 true liberal arts colleges remain, down from 540 in the Carnegie Foundation’s 1987 classification.
The shrinking of the liberal arts results is a loss of the broad-based education provided by liberal arts colleges. This education puts as much emphasis on general skills as on acquiring topic-specific knowledge. The skills are developed by reading, assessing and evaluating texts, conducting scientific research, and appreciating and producing artworks, all of which promote critical thinking, reasoning, writing and effective communication.
What might surprise today’s college students is that employers are looking for exactly the skills that a traditional liberal arts education best produces. An April 2013 survey conducted by the American Association of Colleges and Universities asked employers what skills are most important in hiring decisions. The results were a laundry list familiar to any liberal arts college: critical thinking, analytical reasoning, clear oral and written communication skills, ability to locate, organize and evaluate information from multiple sources, etc. When employers were asked what a college education should emphasize, they rated a broad range of skills typical of the liberal arts curriculum higher than any specific area of knowledge. Employers said that while both these broad skills and field-specific knowledge were important to job success, they consider the broad range of skills more important for long-term career advancement. Applicants who had only field-specific knowledge would make good entry-level employees but are less likely to advance in their fields.
The rest of the world recognizes the strength of the U.S. liberal arts tradition. Some Asian universities recently began inserting liberal arts into their mostly technical curricula. Officials from Korea, Japan and China have visited U.S. liberal arts colleges such as Williams and Swarthmore to learn how to design a liberal arts program. These Asian universities recognize that their current educational system needs reform — an overreliance on technical education has its limits. They see the seeds of more than a century of American innovation in our distinctive system of higher education, and they want to replicate it in their own countries. Apple co-founder Steve Jobs is an oft-cited example of this connection between the liberal arts and innovation. In his commencement address to Stanford University, Jobs credited his study of calligraphy at Reed College as the inspiration for the industry-changing font design on the Macintosh computer. As American students worry about their post-college jobs, Asian universities hope that they will produce the next Jobs.
Students headed to college this fall should consider that a liberal arts education may very well be their best option for future employment, not only in the short-term, but over the course of their careers. What’s more, the choices they make in college and among colleges determine the future shape of higher education in the U.S. The rest of the world looks to us as a model of education that promotes innovation, and preserving our liberal arts heritage protects what we have built.
Weather JournalMidday update: More ice likely later