It has long been a truism in American higher education that junior and senior year are seen as at the top of the curricular pecking order. That is when the major is taken and, frankly, that is where most of our senior faculty really prefer to teach.
First year, on the other hand, is seen by many of us as less important. And because of this, guess who is often assigned general education and introductory courses? Adjuncts, graduate assistants and our most junior faculty.
It’s almost as though introductory and general education courses that define the first two years of college are what students get through as quickly as possible so that they can get to the good stuff in their third and fourth years -- that is, upper-level courses and the major.
But this view is out of sync with what many prospective college students and their parents are thinking. In a book I recently wrote about the transition from high school to college, virtually all of the high school seniors I interviewed, along with their parents, hoped that the first year of college would be a major step up from what they were doing in high school. But they are often disappointed.
At many colleges and universities, first-year students take large introductory courses in classes of 100 or more. Teaching is usually done by an instructor lecturing in front of the classroom while students dutifully take notes later to be regurgitated on a quiz. There is very little class participation involving discussion and debate. Writing anything over a few pages is unusual.
Arizona State University has gone even further. They are offering a Global Freshman Academy that allows first-year students to take their courses by the use of MOOCs (massive open online courses). Students won’t even have to leave the comfort of home to complete their first year! First year is seen as a means to an end, with the end being upper-level courses and the major.
But I would argue that the first year of college is far more important than this -- perhaps, in some ways, just as important as the final years of college.
Why do I believe this?
First year is when college students get a sound, cross-disciplinary grounding in the liberal arts and sciences, especially those who go on to vocational majors like engineering or nursing. The liberal arts are where they learn how to think critically and how to communicate effectively, skills that are crucial for a generation that will have many different careers in their lifetime.
First year to sophomore year is when attrition is at its highest. When I was a college president, 20 percent of first-year students at my institution didn’t return for their sophomore year. Some transferred, but many dropped out of college altogether. Why does this happen? In far too many exit interviews I have seen, dropouts say that they found their first-year classes meaningless.
I will never forget the admissions tour I took at a well-known university with my youngest daughter. We were in the university’s amazing library, and the tour guide, a sophomore, was bragging about the fact that most of his teachers were graduate assistants. “They’re really cool,” he said, “and understand our generation,” whereupon a mother standing next to me uttered sotto voce (but loud enough for everyone to hear), “Why am I paying a small fortune to have my child taught by someone who is only a couple years older than she is?”
That parent was articulating what many parents I interviewed for my book were saying: for $50,000 or more per year, the expectation is that their children will be taught by experienced faculty with the requisite credentials, not by part-time employees or graduate students.
Of course, many of the instructors assigned to introductory or general education courses including adjuncts and graduate students are quite capable teachers. But I believe that first-year students could really benefit from also being taught by senior faculty members who excel in the classroom. In many ways -- and I know this is heretical -- assistant professors who just completed their Ph.D. dissertations are probably the most capable of teaching the major that requires up-to-date knowledge of their discipline. Senior faculty, on the other hand, who through wisdom and experience have a wider view of the world are, in my opinion, the most qualified to teach general education courses designed to give first-year students a broader perspective on human knowledge and, in the process, excite them about what will come later.
Increasingly, colleges are coming to see the crucial importance of the first year. At one college I feature in my book, the freshman writing seminar is largely taught by the college’s most distinguished and experienced senior faculty, who are handpicked because they are also master teachers. First-year advising is also being given a new emphasis. At far too many colleges, advising is relegated to new faculty who have limited knowledge of the curriculum or to adjuncts who have equally limited office hours. But many colleges, realizing that solid advising reduces attrition, are assigning experienced faculty who are skilled at advising or professional advisers to first-year students.
For these colleges and universities, the first year has been given a new priority.
I’d like to end by saying that there is money to be raised by rethinking the first year, which should make presidents who are reading this article happy. I believe that philanthropic individuals and foundations, concerned about the cost of higher education and the human waste when students prematurely drop out and don’t graduate, will resonate to programs that support first-year students and keep them in college. I’m talking about:
Innovative first-year general education programs that challenge and excite first-year students through active learning (including discussion, debate and writing) so that they don’t want to leave college.
Endowed writing centers and other support systems that can save kids who come to college with academic deficiencies.
Endowed first-year opportunity programs that keep underserved and first-generation students in college.
Attrition is enormously expensive. A college of 2,000 students like my own that loses 20 percent of the first-year class potentially forgoes $5 million or more in tuition, room and board, which for many colleges is more than the development office raises each year in the annual fund.
In summary, by putting more energy and resources into the first year I believe we keep more of our students in college and thereby cut down on the enormous human waste when otherwise good students prematurely leave college with outsize debts they can’t pay back because they are unemployable. At the same time we improve our bottom line by not losing so much in tuition dollars. Most important, we graduate students for whom education from the very beginning is a pleasure, not a hardship to be endured.
Roger Martin is president emeritus and professor of history at Randolph-Macon College. He is the author of Off to College: A Guide for Parents. This essay is based on a presentation at the Council of Independent Colleges’ Institute for Chief Academic and Chief Advancement Officers.
Many college seniors have long considered law school an all-purpose next chapter in their lives. Even if they don’t know exactly how they plan to use the degree, they commonly believe that once they figure out what they want to do for a living, the skills picked up along the way to acquiring a J.D. should come in handy.
Yet that view is significantly changing, given growing student interest in issues of social justice, escalating private investments in social impact bonds, raging social activism across the country (including on college campuses) and increasing concerns about the intractability of massive social problems linked to intolerance and economic inequality. A master of social work, or M.S.W., degree is quickly becoming the 21st century’s law degree, especially for young people interested in making the world a better place.
I can already predict some of the loudest objections to any claim about the value and versatility of social work education -- besides the fact that “making the world a better place” sounds like such a cliché. For one thing, social workers aren’t known to earn a lot of money -- by most estimates, somewhere between $40,000 and $70,000 a year. Hardly what people think of as lawyering salaries.
On top of that, social workers probably have even more of a PR problem than lawyers do, despite popular jokes about the latter being unabashed liars and ambulance chasers. I’ve had M.S.W. students crying in my campus office because their parents were pressuring them to study something other than social work, usually out of concern about their job prospects.
But, ironically, it is the average newly minted lawyer who will probably have the tougher time landing a fulfilling gig in his or her field. In fact, law school applications have been dropping precipitously since about 2010, presumably because fewer people see it as a foolproof way to get the job of their dreams -- especially if they don’t already know what that dream job looks like.
Social work, by contrast, is increasingly on the forefront of education and employment trends. For one thing, social work teaches marketable skills that cut across traditional disciplines and professions. Students learn how to interpret dense policy briefs and clients’ subtle facial cues in equal measure.
Social work education is the future of all academic teaching, even if most academicians don’t know it yet. It mixes training in social theory with mandatory hours of work in the field, putting those theories decidedly into practice -- something that most students clamor for. It places one-on-one or clinical work with individuals and families in the context of larger systematic concerns.
Indeed, the best social work programs don't make a fetish out of the dividing line between thinking and doing, between the interpersonal emphasis of the therapist and the macrostructural understandings of the social scientist. They demand both.
Social workers sometimes work for the government, but they also run their own successful magnet schools and nonprofit organizations addressing everything from homelessness to arts education. And they usually do all of this without flashing lights or formal decrees, which is another one of their big PR problems. Social workers don’t spend a lot of time tooting their own horns.
Today’s social work is not your grandfather's social work. That is, not if your grandfather thought that social work was reducible to the visits that a caseworker made to his home periodically so that the city knew he was doing OK, which is just what my mother did in New York when I was a kid. Social workers are now immediately and intensely engaged in the major events of the day, whether those events are linked to poverty, mental health, prison reform or other important issues.
Think about any serious crime, no matter how tragic or bloody. The police are the first ones to get there. They tape off the scene, take statements and answer questions from reporters. Those aforementioned lawyers come later, staying through litigation and any ultimate decision about criminal culpability. But all along the way, without fanfare or press conferences, social workers are doing the absolutely crucial things that must get done: counseling victims, housing survivors, moving impacted children to special schools, running major local advocacy groups connected to the issues implicated in the tragedy, helping officers and lawyers think about victims and clients in holistic and humane ways, crafting social policies to avoid the worst consequences of such events in the future, and conducting research on the calamity’s causes and effects.
And that doesn’t even cover all that social workers tackle in the context of tragedy. Whether it is a San Bernardino or Sandy Hook, the Sept. 11 attacks or urban police shootings, social work is the glue that tries to keep people’s lives together when the world seems most intent on ripping those lives apart.
The Society for Social Work and Research (SSWR) met in Washington, D.C., last month, but very few non-social workers noticed. More of us should have, especially since SSWR used the conference to unveil their “grand challenges” for the profession, which include ending homelessness by 2026. To pull off something that ambitious, social work will need all of the would-be law students it can muster.
John L. Jackson Jr. is dean of the School of Social Policy & Practice at the University of Pennsylvania. He is one of the architects behind the Penn Top 10 project, an academic website focused on the most pressing social justice and policy issues.
College psychology curricula are missing important information on disabilities, according to a new study. Published in Teaching of Psychology, the study analyzed the titles and descriptions of nearly 700 psychology courses from 98 undergraduate psychology programs across the country. All the programs offered courses on psychiatric disability -- but only eight offered courses on physical disability.
Courses on disability also tended to focus on diagnosis, treatment and cure, the researchers found. But the psychological approach to disability is changing: newer models focus on coping, acceptance, reducing prejudice and social policy.
“About 57 million people in the U.S. have a disability, and it’s likely we will all interact with someone with a disability on a regular basis,” Kathleen Bogart, an assistant professor of psychology at Oregon State University and a co-author of the study, said in a press release. “Yet in terms of minority groups, we teach about disability the least.”
Let’s face it: no one likes grading student essays, because student essays, in general, aren’t very good. When you’re halfway through a pile of essays that seem rote and devoid of thought, it’s easy to feel your soul shriveling. Students don’t usually enjoy the experience, either -- for them it’s hard, time-consuming and anxiety producing. And, as several writers have recently pointed out, academic essays don’t play much of a role outside academe.
But does that mean we should stop seeing essays as the baseline work college students do? A rash of articles in recent years have suggested exactly that.
Canadian teacher Jon David Groff, for instance, writes that essays don’t prepare students for the real-world work. They are, he says, “a highly inauthentic form of writing.” Rebecca Schuman, in an article that got a fair bit of attention in Slate, also claims that writing essays isn’t worth the time and trouble. Schuman focuses on three issues: “bad” essays, the careless students who produce them and the labor involved in teaching and grading essays. Schuman concludes by saying that essays should be reserved for advanced humanities majors and that everyone else should just take exams. After all, she says, “you cannot bullshit a line-ID.”
It’s true that the prevalent essay form -- the five-paragraph essay -- is usually awful to read and boring to write. Karen Harris’s recent piece for TimesHigher Education focuses, quite reasonably, on how formulaic that kind of essay is. (A typical five-paragraph essay starts with a big, overarching thesis statement, backs it up with three interchangeable examples, then restates the thesis). Harris blames fusty academics wed to an out-of-date and restrictive form for the essay’s failures. She would prefer that students have more options: perhaps, she suggests, a student might create “a dialogue, a series of letters, an animation or a documentary.”
Options aren’t a bad thing, of course, but while animations and documentaries may feel more contemporary, they don’t actually offer students the learning opportunities inherent in essay writing. If our goal is to teach students to think hard, then the essay remains a crucial feature of a college education and trashing it is a classic case of throwing out the baby with the bathwater. Teaching writing may be difficult, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth the effort. And though it’s tempting to imagine a world without lousy papers to grade, the let’s-get-rid-of-the-essay movement has many problems.
First, it’s mistaken in its understanding of what we’re setting out to teach students. If our goal is to instruct them in who Renoir or Freud was and what they did or said, then a line-ID or animation works fine. But if our goal is to teach students to read critically, ask questions, perform meaningful analysis, marshal arguments, draw conclusions and communicate complex ideas -- the most “real-world” skills of all -- then there’s no replacing the essay. You may not be able to “bullshit a line-ID,” but you also can’t fake the skills essay writing requires. Those habits of mind are hard to learn and hard to teach -- but they’re the most important approaches that students acquire in college.
A second, related problem is the old story of academic labor and the question of what academe values. When student papers are terrible, we tend, in our frustration, to blame the students. But students who are “bad writers” are actually the victims of a system rigged against them. As anyone who has taught a composition course knows, the profession tends to view the teaching of writing as a “service” or “skills” activity. It’s scut work, and it’s usually foisted on the least powerful and most overworked people in the system: adjuncts, contract instructors and pretenure instructors. Some unfortunates have to teach writing -- and spend countless hours grading papers, at very low pay -- while others can focus on teaching the exciting big ideas they went to grad school to study. Unsurprisingly, given this system, writing pedagogy receives short shrift in graduate programs and professional development -- so most professors never learn how to teach writing. We’ve met plenty of eager, dedicated teachers doing their best with virtually no training in the work they’ve been asked to do.
As a result of this lack of preparation and downplaying of writing pedagogy as a meaningful activity, professors tend to see writing as a more or less “natural” activity, one that some people are born to do and others are not. But that is a confusion of student preparation and student ability. When we assume that some students just “can’t” write, we overlook inequities in resources and preparation. It’s easy to laud those who “can” write while overlooking the fact that they tend to be privileged graduates of elite public and private schools, clustered in colleges and universities that value the liberal arts. And when professors suggest that some students aren’t served by the essay, they’re signing off on a tiered class system where some students get the good stuff while others are spared the task of having to think hard.
The third, related issue that affects students’ writing and learning is affinity. Students who resemble their professors -- who think in narrative, have read widely, understand writing as a persuasive act -- are rewarded and valued. Those who don’t think like their instructors are not. But often students who “can’t write” can write quite well if they’re taught in ways that make sense to them. At the Cooper Union, where we’ve done most of our teaching, our students are art, engineering and architecture students. And they often tell us that they don’t think in narrative but in numbers and equations, or in 3-D, or in images. They don’t necessarily learn by listening to a lecture on writing. They learn by doing, and they learn better -- and produce better work -- when they understand the point of essay writing. That means understanding essay writing as an analytical act that involves starting with something in a text that they don’t already understand or know, taking apart the text to try to figure out what’s going on, coming to some conclusions, and then sharing their discoveries with readers.
Teaching students who aren’t “instinctive” (or privileged or well-prepared) writers isn’t easy, because it requires us as teachers to approach writing in new ways. But as we’ve learned over the years, the payoff is considerable: when writing makes sense to students, they produce work they care about and find interesting and challenging -- as well as work that is much more engaging for their instructors.
If we really value meaningful student learning, it’s time for all of us -- not just the small world of composition and rhetoric studies, but academe as a whole -- to put time and resources into the project of better writing instruction. “Bad” writers aren’t the problem; bad assignments and ill-trained and underpaid teachers are. And this means that the essay isn’t the problem and that throwing it out won’t fix anything. Instead, what’s needed is a reassessment of how the essay is defined and taught. And that isn’t our students’ responsibility: it’s ours.
Gwen Hyman and Martha Schulman are the co-authors of Thinking on the Page: A College Student's Guide to Effective Writing (Writers' Digest, 2015). Hyman is past director of the Center for Writing at Cooper Union and founder of Workshop Teaching. Schulman is director of the Cooper Union Summer Writing Program and adjunct instructor of humanities at Cooper Union.
Submitted by Anonymous on February 18, 2016 - 3:00am
Every week, it seems we read a report or article about the need for the United States to increase the number of students who have degrees or certificates to meet the country’s workforce needs. We in community colleges are doing our part to meet this challenge.
But too often promising practices for helping more students get to graduation fail to reach those who need them most -- the millions who enter college with literacy and numeracy challenges that put them years behind their peers. That has to change. And to do so will require strong collaboration with state policy makers.
Colleges have shown that they can successfully fast-track students who are close to college ready into college-level courses. But what about the many students who are farther behind, who continue to spin their wheels, taking the same developmental course four or five times without advancing to gatekeeper courses in math and English?
Who are these students? Why aren’t they succeeding in developmental education? What do we know about their prior learning and high school experiences? What happens to them after they leave our colleges?
We need robust data disaggregated by student groups to answer these and related questions. Once we have that information, we should focus on how best to engage and empower faculty members to find appropriate solutions. They are best equipped to lead efforts to design interventions that will benefit students with deep developmental needs and to bring those interventions to scale. It is essential to put faculty and staff members at the center of this process and to ensure that they have enhanced professional development opportunities so they can have the greatest impact.
There are numerous examples of programs proven to be effective for students who are close to college ready, including the City University of New York’s Accelerated Study in Associate Programs, the Charles A. Dana Center’s New Mathways Project and the Community College of Baltimore County’s Accelerated Learning Program. As emerging research from Redesigning America’s Community Colleges is beginning to demonstrate, accelerated learning programs are also showing promise in helping students who are less prepared for college. But the fact remains that there are few well-researched examples for students who are farthest behind, creating a crucial need for new models and more evidence about what works for these students across multiple academic areas.
Whenever we discuss what works to accelerate developmental education for students with deeper remedial needs, we round up a few usual suspects, such as Washington State’s Integrated Basic Education and Skills Training (I-BEST), which relies on contextualization and team teaching to deliver intensive supports to students whose test scores place them into adult basic education, and the City University of New York’s Start program, where students delay college-level courses to first participate in 15 to 18 weeks of intensive instruction in reading, writing and math.
I-BEST is particularly well researched. Quasi-experimental evaluations of I-BEST students found that they performed better than students not in the program on a range of measures, from number of college credits earned to persistence and earning a credential.
We need to create a more significant R&D effort in this area -- which will have significant payoff for community colleges and their students.
In addition, to ensure that we can scale up innovative efforts and help them take hold, we will have to reimagine how we fund our community colleges, to make it possible to 1) generate additional resources for effective interventions and professional development and 2) direct the most money to the students with the greatest needs, both academically and nonacademically.
State agencies and legislative bodies are understandably reluctant to provide new resources, given the limited results that developmental education has produced. Colleges must demonstrate that they can improve results with increasingly sophisticated developmental education practices, such as those identified in the recently released “Core Principles for Transforming Remediation Within a Comprehensive Student Success Strategy.” This document offers community colleges promising practices to draw upon, from managing intake of students to providing academic support in gatekeeper courses aligned with career interests.
Showing results will energize the conversation about how we, as a nation, invest in our human capital. At the moment, the bulk of public dollars flows to institutions that enroll students who have always enjoyed educational advantages. However, it's lending a strong hand to students without those advantages that will broaden the path to upward mobility. Increasing investment in institutions dedicated to opening their doors to those who have long been denied opportunity isn't optional. It's the only route to a skilled and prosperous workforce and a vibrant democracy.
Equally important, as states mull more investment, they should consider creative options for rewarding colleges for helping the most at-risk students persist. Performance-based funding models can provide colleges incentives for graduation, and institutions can develop strategies to reallocate resources to build the next level of intensive interventions needed for students who are not succeeding under existing models.
As co-chairs of the Policy Leadership Trust for Student Success at Jobs for the Future, home to the Taskforce on Developmental Education, we're fully committed to furthering solutions that change outcomes for students.
We know that the best way for colleges to increase the number of United States citizens holding degrees and credentials is to retain and advance our current students. That starts with creating a robust, multidimensional developmental education system that is student centered -- and persuading state governments to do everything in their power to make it happen.
Reynaldo Garcia is president emeritus of the Texas Association of Community Colleges. Scott Ralls is president of Northern Virginia Community College and previously was president of the North Carolina Community College System. Garcia and Ralls serve as co-chairs of the Policy Leadership Trust for Student Success at Jobs for the Future, which seeks solutions to high-priority policy barriers that block community college students from graduating and earning credentials.
A few years ago I received a call from a concerned father of one of our first-year engineering students. His daughter was failing chemistry and, for the first time in her life, she wasn’t able to work her way out of the problem. He said, “My daughter can’t see a path that leads to success. As a father, if I can’t help her find a path, her only opportunity is to fail.”
Unfortunately, at places like engineering schools, where new students tend to be extremely bright and analytical, this problem is all too familiar. As adults, we know that surviving failure can be a valuable lesson in resilience and that the path to success isn’t always clear or straightforward. We also know that in such moments of intense uncertainty, we have an opportunity to discover previously untapped reservoirs of performance.
Many college freshmen, however, have not been inoculated to the experience of failure. They are often the brightest and the best in their high schools. Through talent or hard work, they have never failed at anything. Frequently, we see that a factor in their success -- and their fear of failure -- is that they have “snowplow” parents who have been diligent about clearing every obstacle from their path.
The snowplow strategy, as well-meaning as it is, takes a toll on the very children these parents are trying to help. Instead of learning resilience and to trust in their capacity to respond in the face of uncertainty, students are trained to fixate on outcomes like grades. They often confuse quality with quantity and maximize the volume of their activities. They are conditioned to avoid situations where the outcome is unpredictable. Add to that the ever-growing demands for their attention and the newly acquired independence of college life, and it isn’t difficult to see why a significant number of students who are used to mastering their lives feel overwhelmed -- even though they have the capacity to succeed in college.
How do we help today’s college students learn that uncertainty is just another word for opportunity? How can we teach resilience and show our students how to choose the best path for themselves when failure is a possible outcome? The answer certainly doesn’t lie in simply doing more of what worked in high school. If we do a good job of supporting these very intelligent young people at this critical juncture, we will not only help them past their immediate crises. We will also help them unlock capacity that they didn’t know existed and ways of tapping into it.
At Northwestern University, we have developed a curriculum that includes a special emphasis on teaching engineering students how to deal with stress and cope with their fear of failure through mindfulness and emotional intelligence. We do this in a number of different ways. For example, we work with colleagues across the campus to offer courses in areas like improvisation and swing dancing to teach students how to connect with themselves and others as they engage in and negotiate the challenges of collaborative problem solving.
We provide special counseling for undergraduates, like the distraught chemistry student I previously mentioned, designed to teach them how to be intentional with the questions they ask about their situation and how to live in the present moment nonjudgmentally instead of falling into self-criticism. One of the most troubling things I see revealed through students’ uncertain moments, is the self-brutalizing nature of the stories they tell themselves. When I ask students who their most critical voice is, their answer is almost always “myself.” Helping students understand there is no one correct path and that other people share their uncertainty enables them to let go of the judgment that fuels their fear of taking action.
These are just a few examples of how we teach emotional intelligence and the practice of mindfulness to help students develop a richer awareness of what they are experiencing in the present moment. Leveraging the channels of sensations, emotions and thoughts allows them to see more clearly just how judgment, in the form of unproductive stories and self-criticism, interferes with their ability to show up fully and strategically. We want to help our students master these channels of connection to enable them to be mindful engineers with accurate self-awareness and trained attention.
One particularly successful approach that we use to help our students develop a mindfulness-based way of responding to uncertainty is called PATH Advising. PATH (Personal Academic Tactical Help) is a structured way of encouraging students to tune in to their fictions, feelings and facts to allow them to see more clearly the reality of their situation. They can then begin crafting a strategy to reach their desired outcomes by managing constraints, leveraging resources and prioritizing other competing interests. Understanding that focusing their attention can enable them to use both their considerable intelligence and their intuition when it matters most gives them the confidence to redefine success for themselves.
The other day a young woman came to my office worried about her performance in a class. As we spoke it became clear that much of her anxiety centered on the impact that dropping or failing this class would have on her family. She told herself that not completing this class would add a year to her studies, which was an impossible outcome. We were able to reality test her assumptions, allowing her to realize she was much closer to graduating than she thought. Redirecting her attention from her fiction of failure to her desired outcome within the legitimate constraints she was facing allowed her to see multiple paths leading to success.
We teach them how to transform their fear of failure into opportunities. The metaphor I use is that of driving a stick shift. In high school, students drove around town just fine using first, second and third gear. But once they got to college, they needed to go faster. When they did this, they either redlined their engine or found a higher gear. Just as a clutch is needed to shift from one gear to the next, students transitioning from high school to college need to disengage from obsolete strategies in order to make room for new, more powerful ones.
Only through responding to a stressful situation can they find that next gear and a new level of performance and understanding. Once that new level is found, it’s a tool that’s always available to them going forward.
The first-year chemistry student who was overwhelmed by her fear of failure found a way to reach out and accept help in her new environment, transforming a sense of hopelessness into a C plus. Like so many students, she wasn’t afraid of hard work; she was afraid that her efforts were futile. Needing help was a foreign experience for her, because she was always the one her peers sought out for help. Acknowledging her fear and learning that seeking and accepting help is not weakness but rather a sign of strength and a skill to be developed allowed us to connect her with a tutor. It wasn’t the A she wanted, but more important, she found the right move at the right time. Proving to herself that she had the capacity to respond in the face of uncertainty allowed her to find a path for lasting success.
Joseph Holtgreive is the assistant dean for personal development at Northwestern University’s McCormick School of Engineering.
Concordia College, in Moorhead, Minn., last week announced cuts that would eliminate a number of programs, many of them in languages. The cuts eliminate programs in Latin, Latin education, French, French education and German -- along with classical studies, classics, health, humanities and Scandinavian studies. College officials cited low enrollments and the need for budget savings.
But now the college is facing a strong backlash from students and alumni, The Star Tribune reported. Many note that Concordia may be best known for Concordia Language Villages, summer immersion programs. Concordia says that program will not change, but many question how a college can promote its summer programs in languages while eliminating them from the academic program. Latin teachers are lobbying against those cuts. And many are backing a petition with the name We Want Our Majors Back.
Policy makers, politicians and the general public have been doing a lot of hand-wringing over the idea that liberal arts programs are fatally out of touch with the job market. But, in fact, liberal arts majors are not as badly prepared as people fear -- and graduates with other majors may be less prepared than they believe.
It is true that recent liberal arts graduates have consistently had a higher unemployment rate than other bachelor's degree holders: 8.4 percent compared to 7.5 percent for college graduates overall, according to a 2015 study by the Center on Education and the Workforce at Georgetown University. Yet the core skills that liberal arts students acquire have never been more relevant to the job market. And those students can, in fact, virtually double their current employability with relatively little additional effort.
Job postings provide a view of the skills employers value most -- and of those that have been hardest for businesses to find. Across the full spectrum of jobs, what employers seem to call for, above all else, are foundational skills like writing, research, analysis, critical thinking and creativity. An analysis of job ads by my company, Burning Glass Technologies, which studies the job market, shows that fully one-third of all skill requirements listed are foundational -- even in technical fields like IT. And the data indicate that employers are coming up short when it comes to identifying people with these skills. The most consistent, cross-cutting skill shortage in the job market today is for one of the most basic abilities: writing.
Or consider this: across the labor market, many of the jobs that are both fastest growing and in highest demand are those that bring together different skill sets, like marketing and data analysis, or graphic design and programming. Such positions, which have grown by 53 percent over the last four years alone, are often hard to fill because technically oriented training programs tend to be tightly focused. By contrast, these “hybrid jobs” require people who can bridge domains and synthesize ideas.
Liberal arts graduates may not have direct training in those domains, but the liberal arts live within the core framework of interdisciplinary synthesis and critical evaluation. That’s a world apart from more technically oriented programs that dispatch their graduates into the workforce with a fixed portfolio of skills that, while marketable, may be of fleeting currency. In fact, even within a given occupation, the core work activities can evolve quickly, rendering a “practical” program obsolete. In the fast-growing field of data analysis, the entire skill set has shifted over just a three-year span away from pure statistical computation to place much more emphasis on visualization and business analysis.
Doubling the Open Positions
So why aren’t employers fighting over liberal arts graduates the way they compete for STEM majors? The problem is that, while employers need the capabilities students accrue in the humanities, they also expect their hires to have the specific technical skills to be productive from day one. That may seem like an unresolvable conflict, but arming students with both foundational and practical skills may be more feasible than one might think.
As things stand now, Burning Glass research shows that only one-quarter of all entry level jobs requesting a B.A., or roughly one million positions, are likely to be open to liberal arts graduates. They include positions like recruiters, administrative assistants, store managers, account representatives and others that may not measure up to the ambitions students or their families may have had for their college investment.
Now compare that with the options for a liberal arts graduate who has also acquired some specific technical skills, such as marketing, sales, business, social media, graphic design, data analysis or IT networking -- skills that can be picked up without a full degree. They can be learned in nondepartmental classes, a minor, an internship or a noncredit program outside of college.
With these skills, the number of jobs open to liberal arts majors nearly doubles, from 25 percent to 48 percent of entry-level bachelor’s positions. On top of that, the incremental jobs pay on average $6,000 more. Not only are more jobs available but also our research shows employers actually prefer the combination of broad knowledge and specific technical skills -- when they can get it. Even IT departments need people who can write.
Taken as a whole, this paints a picture of the liberal arts that doesn’t look at all like a discipline in crisis. Rather, it looks like a discipline that hasn’t acted on an easy solution.
The reason higher education hasn’t focused on that easy solution is because it’s been consumed by a lazy debate about whether students should pursue liberal arts or whether they should be channeled into more vocational majors. We end up arguing about the value of truth and beauty pitted against technology and commerce or about how closely educators and employers should work together. The subject is so prickly that some academics dismiss the argument that liberal arts graduates possess skills of value to the market as demeaning to the discipline.
Doubling the number of jobs open to liberal arts graduates would go a long way toward ending this lazy debate. They certainly do have value, and employers know it. It’s just that liberal arts have twice as much value when combined with some specific technical skills.
Seizing this opportunity, however, does mean that colleges have to relate to students in a different way. Fortunately, several practical strategies have emerged for making this transformation:
Give students a road map to a career. Most academic advising is focused on getting students the courses they need to graduate in their major. In some cases, such as pre-med, advising is built around getting into a graduate school. But rarely is it built around what students need to make successful transition from college to career.
For example, one of the most bankable skills in the workforce is also one of the most mundane: using spreadsheets, particularly Microsoft Excel. Even among high-skill jobs, a whopping 83 percent require knowledge of Excel. But how often do students majoring in programs like anthropology, English literature or political science hear this from their advisers?
The fact is most advisers are themselves academics, so expecting them to be able to dispense detailed career advice may be unrealistic. This is where technology can help. Career applications can tell students what kinds of jobs will be accessible to them and what skills they will need to get there, enabling them to pick courses on the periphery of their liberal arts degree that will give them the practical tools to achieve good career outcomes.
Far from threatening the liberal arts, such an approach empowers students to take intellectual risks. Studying anthropology or the classics may not seem so impractical when there’s a road map showing students what other courses will ensure their employability.
Package courses around skill sets. Higher education already thinks in these terms: concentrations, specializations, certificates and other ways of bundling course work together in a meaningful way. Such packaging can provide useful signposts for liberal arts students thinking about the future -- and for employers looking for relevant talent. And it’s a way for students to try out different fields to see if they fit. In many cases, the necessary courses already exist. It is only a question of pulling the threads together.
That requires a certain amount of interdepartmental cooperation, traditionally not the strong suit at many institutions. Want to go into human resources? The sociology department’s organizational theory course, plus the political science department’s survey research course, plus the history department’s industrial relations course, plus the economics department’s introductory stats course would be a compelling cluster. Here, too, starting with an awareness of demand -- which jobs represent compelling targets and which technical skill bundles do they require -- can be useful in ensuring that there is a governing logic to the catalog of certificates that the institution curates.
That also requires being open to new ways of packaging skills. To go back to our earlier example of a career signpost, everything from full-semester courses to one-day training sessions on spreadsheets is available. The right approach for a particular student is going to depend on the career she is likely to pursue and how the course offering is structured.
Remember that when students reach the job market, skills are everything. Departments that are technically or professionally oriented already know this. Just as college faculty members expect students to show up ready to learn, employers expect new hires to show up ready to work.
You can see this in employer postings for entry-level jobs and even internships, where companies are quite specific about the skills students need to even be considered. Perhaps it’s no surprise that internships in IT and related fields demand knowledge of SQL or C++. But even in fields like finance, communications and design -- the kinds of careers to which many liberal arts students aspire -- employers call for interns and fresh graduates to have specific knowledge of social media, particular accounting software, Adobe Creative Suite and the like.
Faculty members in career-oriented departments make sure to build those skills into their courses. It’s hard to imagine a student getting through a design program without knowing Photoshop. And while it’s unreasonable to expect that the history department will similarly align its instruction to the demands of the market, liberal arts programs owe it to their students at least to point them in the right directions.
The most striking thing about the employment challenge facing the liberal arts is that the solution lies so close within the academy’s grasp. Indeed, providing students with a career map that leads through the liberal arts can only strengthen their appeal.
How many business students would be majoring in humanities if they felt confident they could still have a career in business after graduation? This approach requires no major curricular overhaul, no fundamental change to how colleges teach the arts, humanities and social sciences. It should not be a distraction from the fundamental role of these fields: to explore the connections across knowledge and evaluate ideas critically.
The lazy debate between art and commerce, in the end, will advance neither one. If employers truly value skills like writing and critical thinking -- and the evidence clearly says they do -- then abandoning America’s liberal arts heritage will only make a skills gap worse. And if the liberal arts become a luxury item, pursued only by those willing to make a financial sacrifice, then their influence in the fabric of American intellectual life will wither as well. The good news is that this lazy debate can be ended. It just requires an acceptance that a fulfilling career is as much a part of a life well lived as broad knowledge for its own sake -- and a new approach to making both accessible for students.
Matthew Sigelman is chief executive officer of Burning Glass Technologies, which delivers job market analytics to empower employers, workers and educators to make data-driven decisions.