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The Liberal Arts and Careers

April 12, 2012

WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. -- For Wake Forest University students in the “Options in the World of Work” course on Wednesday, the topic was location. Heidi Robinson, the instructor, walked students through exercises in which they discussed how to evaluate job opportunities in different localities. The students were divided into small groups, each with an iPad with material designed to compare a specific job here (in a relatively small, affordable city) and a larger city such as Boston or Los Angeles. Salaries are provided for the jobs, and students are given websites to find out how much they would spend on groceries in a week, the cost of an apartment, and so forth.

Before they do the analysis, Robinson leads the class in a discussion of a range of issues to consider when deciding where to pursue jobs -- the possibility for advancement (or moving to different companies in the same city), the quality of these jobs, opportunities for a social life. Then she listens in on the small groups, firing questions at the students. When someone boasts of finding an affordable apartment in Los Angeles, Robinson asks if she can see photos of the apartment and figure out whether the neighborhood is one she would want to live in. When a student jokes about being able to afford living in Boston if she could just skip buying any groceries, Robinson gently reminds the group that groceries aren't optional for post-college life. As she moves around the room engaging with students, it's clear she knows each student's major, internship history and home town.

The students' homework assignment will be to do a comparison of salary and expense prospects in two cities they select, for a career they want to pursue. And the assignment after that will be to factor in the costs and benefits of an appropriate graduate degree for the career they have selected.

The course is one of four new offerings at Wake Forest -- each one a half semester, and each one worth 1.5 credits. The other courses are Personal Framework for Career Exploration, Strategic Job Search Processes, and Professional and Life Skills. The students in this course are a mix of undergraduates (from freshmen to seniors), and from a range of majors (liberal arts fields and business). The seniors appear to be learning for the first time about websites that allow one to make good comparisons of cost of living.

The courses are part of Wake Forest's answer to the questions posed by a national conference that started shortly after Robinson's course Wednesday, Rethinking Success: From Liberal Arts to Careers in the 21st Century. As the meeting kicked off, educators from around the country -- a mix of college leaders, academic advisors, career center directors and business leaders -- considered how much the liberal arts tradition should change (if at all) to deal with a generation of students and parents terrified about career prospects. And their discussions come amid a series of summits on the future of liberal arts education. While much of the focus of those other meetings is on the economic model of liberal arts education, the organizers of this conference see a definite relationship between career connections for the liberal arts and the ability of liberal arts programs to attract students.

Return on Investment

Prospective students and parents want to know what their education will get them, and liberal arts supporters shouldn't fear those discussions, said Andy Chan, vice president for personal and career development at Wake Forest. That title isn't in every college president's cabinet, but Chan said in an interview that high-level attention to career issues can help liberal arts educators.

Right now, he said, much of the discussion about the liberal arts is about their high cost (in tuition paid to colleges and the salaries paid by colleges to maintain low student-faculty ratios). Talking about careers is "talking about the value of the liberal arts," Chan said, something that is getting lost in the focus on costs. "When you think about your primary constituents, students and their families who are paying the bill, they are interested in making sure I am getting the appropriate value, and that includes preparation for life and work."

That doesn't just mean finding a job, he said, although that's part of it. Chan said that this movement is about promoting "clarity of direction," and helping students think about their futures and plan for them, including the kinds of questions about deep values that are associated with liberal arts education.

When making presentations to prospective students and parents, Chan said that the parents are "ecstatic" about the idea of seeing their children at an institution that takes these issues seriously. How ecstatic? Chan has raised $8.5 million in the last two years to support career-related activities at Wake Forest, and almost all the money has been raised from parents of current students or alumni.

Chan acknowledged that some academics question why credit should be awarded in these areas. (Several career directors here from other institutions said that they would love to start similar programs at their campuses, but couldn't get professors to approve.) Chan noted that many of those institutions give credit for physical education. "These credits are the equivalent of the credit students are getting to play golf. Why is your career health not the equivalent?" And he added that "it takes credit for students to take it seriously."

Some of the discussion in sessions here focused on whether liberal arts education (or higher education in general) is at a point of crisis in which it must demonstrate more job-related capability. Several speakers pointed to the steady stream of complaints about colleges, and suggested that this is a new era, with more pressure on colleges.

The Same Complaints

Debra Humphreys, vice president for communications and public affairs of the Association of American Colleges and Universities, suggested that some of the discussion is cyclical, and not out of the ordinary. She started her talk by showing a 1976 cover from Newsweek showing two people in caps and gowns working on a construction site. The headline: "Who Needs College?" She noted that the complaints about college in that article are nearly identical to those being made today, with regard to failing to assure graduates an easy path to a career.

But Humphreys did not dismiss the concerns. She cited studies by AAC&U noting that employers want critical thinking skills, understanding of diverse cultures and many other qualities associated with a liberal arts education. She said that part of what may be needed now is more involvement in linking a liberal arts education to long-term career goals -- more a matter of students thinking about these issues and planning accordingly than about them dropping one set of courses for another.

“I never set foot in the career center until my senior year," said Humphreys, and then she didn't find much of value. "No faculty member ever talked to me about these issues. Getting students to talk about their educational journey earlier, with academic advising and career advising, may be needed," she said.

Some of the ideas discussed here might, if adopted, push the assessment movement further in the direction of testing and certification. Mark Zandi, chief economist for Moody's Analytics, said that he finds it frustrating to try to evaluate the skills of new liberal arts graduates.

"It would be useful if there was some kind of certification process," he said, "to evaluate skills, in a very rapid way." He added, "When I interview someone with an engineering degree, you know they have a certain level of educational attainment. I don’t know that with someone with a liberal arts degree. I’d like something I can get my hands around."

Next Generation Recruiting

Philip D. Gardner, director of research at the Collegiate Employment Research Institute at Michigan State University, regularly surveys employers about what they are looking for. He offered some comfort to the liberal arts educators here -- but also plenty to worry about.

Starting with the good news, Gardner told them that the most recent surveys of employers show that 40 percent do not care at all about undergraduate major. "They want the best person. They want all majors," he said. Further, he said that asked about a choice between a liberal arts background and technical training, a majority of employers want a balance. There are really "only two choices" for graduates who want a lot of options, he said, "to be a technically savvy liberal arts graduate or a liberally educated technical graduate."

What Gardner went on to say, however, was much more challenging to the liberal arts educators. Gardner noted the strong push in recent years to encourage students to have "high impact experiences" that would enhance their education and make them better job candidates. New research by his institute, however, suggests that some of these experiences have much more value than others.

The top three things employers want to see in candidates are internships, leadership of professional organizations, and faculty supervised consulting with a company. Experiences like study abroad and civic engagement activities mean very little to employers, he said. "We value them and they are important, but employers don't value them," he said. Employers are focused on real experience in real businesses.

"All the engagement stuff is great, but students need to show it in internships, not by itself," he said. "The dynamics have changed, and students have done a very poor job of understanding what they are getting out of their experiences.”

Looking to the future, Gardner said he is hearing more interest from major employers in using behavior analysis and patterns to identify those college students on whom to focus. He predicted that some employers will start to go to colleges, tell them the 200 freshmen they see as potential hires (based on their high school records and high school attendance) and tell the colleges that this is the group they want considered for internships and, eventually, for jobs. The college's job would be to prepare that pre-selected group.

"I think you are going to see completely different models," he said.

 

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