Would a prospective engineer be more likely to pursue an undergraduate education at a liberal arts college if the college could show that there's a clear path to graduate school? What if there were also data showing that employers want to  hire people with the skills that liberal arts institutions aim to instill in students, and that liberal arts grads over time  earn enviable salaries, especially when they have graduate degrees?
Those data do exist, and Austin College is about to find the answer to that question. This week, the 1,300-student institution in Sherman, Texas, will announce its new "Gateways Initiative," the latest example of liberal arts educators stepping up to demonstrate value and help students prepare for jobs.
The program links the college to more than a half-dozen law, medicine, health care and accounting graduate programs across the country, which will offer Austin College's graduates perks such as research projects, summer study, dual degree opportunities and preferred admission. (The latter varies by institution; an Austin student with a minimum GRE score or grade point average might get a guaranteed interview or even automatic admission into a graduate program.)
"Many of our families and students who were thinking about college were anxious about whether or not a liberal arts undergraduate program would be the stepping stone that we knew it was," Austin President Marjorie Hass says. "We were concerned that there are many, many students out there who don't even bother to talk to us or to apply ... either because they think it's out of reach financially, or because they don't think that it can get them where they want to go."
Austin College's Partner Programs
- Carnegie Mellon University's for master's programs in public policy and management, arts management, and healthcare policy and management
- Kansas State University for programs in family financial planning, gerontology, conflict resolution, and personal financial planning
- Texas Tech University's School of Law and Jerry S. Rawls College of Business Administration
- The University of Texas at Tyler (programs not named)
- The University of Texas at Arlington (programs not named)
- Universidad Iberomaericana (UNIBE) in the Dominican Republic (programs not named)
The program could be especially beneficial for incoming freshmen who aren't sure how they'll do in college or what will come after, says Richard Ekman, president of the Council of Independent Colleges.
"There is this public view these days that if you study the liberal arts, it's not pointing you toward a career path. So to make it explicit," Ekman says, "is a good thing."
This is the first phase of Gateways, and Austin College will announce partnerships with additional graduate schools later on. The second phase will focus on internships and careers.
President Obama himself is the latest to publicly question the career prospects of liberal arts graduates, in an offhand quip  about art history majors, for which he later apologized . But after an escalation of similar criticisms from (mostly Republican) politicians, employers and the public in recent years, many liberal arts educators are directly challenging the narrative.
A long-term study  of the employment and salary tracks of liberal arts graduates released in January by the Association of American Colleges and Universities, which reported the data noted at the beginning of this article, marked an unusually aggressive assertion by the sector. Institutions  are experimenting with programs that immediately usher graduates into the workforce. Many are partnering  with private companies that help students get a jump start on improving their post-grad prospects.
Liberal arts colleges need to make their case not just to prospective students and their parents, but to Obama, whose proposed federal ratings plan  will likely emphasize graduates' earning power and job placement rates.
Texas Tech University agreed to the most extensive partnership with Austin College; its law school and business administration college, as well as its master's program in accounting, all count themselves among the college's partners. Texas Tech already plans on several options for Austin graduates including early decision for admission into the law school, and access to internship opportunities and the school's pre-law academy, a three-week, seven-credit course where students test drive the law program.
Darby Dickerson, dean of Texas Tech's law school, says she's taught some graduate students out of Austin College who were the first in their families to graduate from college. The Gateways program "helps to level the playing field for those who come from backgrounds who aren't as familiar with these different professions," she says.
"It's something that really is a pipeline," Dickerson says. "We know that they have very high-quality students, so we're interested in strengthening our ties."
At Kansas State University's College of Human Ecology, Austin College students can earn dual credit as they approach graduation, and have a head start if they decide to pursue a graduate degree there. The college's personal financial planning program in particular is a good fit for Austin graduates because it takes "a person-focused approach" and elements of sociology, psychology and business, says John Buckwalter, dean of the college.
"I've got an appreciation for that form of [liberal arts] education. I think what we sometimes fail to realize here in the United States is that we really have a rich set of opportunities in the higher education landscape," Buckwalter says. "We provide some of those opportunities to gloss, and give graduate programs that may have more defined jobs at the end, and yet they are still able to benefit from that broad education."
While the concept of dual degrees has been around for awhile, Ekman says, Austin College has proposed a new rationale for the idea: a clearer pathway to an end game, as opposed to just a tactic to save time and money. (Many of the arrangements also entail some sort of financial aid or fee waiver covered by the graduate school, Hass says.)
"Families increasingly are looking for a clear understanding of what opportunities the college degree will make possible for their children, and we want to be able to demonstrate, in a variety of ways, the kind of launching pad that we can be," Hass says. "By formalizing these partnerships, it really helps students see from the beginning that there's a road map to the profession."