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Is the main purpose of education to acquire skills and prepare for the workplace? Or is the purpose more generally to expand the intellect and broaden the learner’s horizons? This dichotomy has confronted American higher education since at least the 19th century. It’s embedded in the Morrill Act of 1862, which, in providing for America’s land grant universities, also differentiated “scientific and classical studies” from “learning … related to agriculture and the mechanical arts.“

Too often, the distinction is framed in terms of “useful” versus “useless” knowledge. But this is a false dichotomy. 

Although American higher education has wrestled with this supposed polarity for much of its history, just a glance at the earliest American colleges shows that it wasn’t always so. The colonial college curriculum consisted of Hebrew, Latin, Greek and Aramaic -- language studies that would surely come under the “useless” label today. But in a new land in need of pastors, the study of Biblical languages was quite pragmatic. Let’s be clear: this was pre-professional training.

It’s salutary to recall these origins of the American college in our post-recession era, when the call for college education to provide “job-readiness” sounds loud and strong. History reminds us that de-coupling career preparation from academic study is not a necessary (perhaps not even a desirable) feature of the American higher education landscape. Today, politicians, pundits, parents, and prospective students seek greater assurance that the investment in higher education will indeed yield employability.

Active and creative response to this perceived need for a closer linkage between students’ academic learning experiences and post-graduation career paths is one of the most prevalent and transformative movements in the independent college sector, as is documented in the “Career Connections” section of the recent report from the Council of Independent Colleges, Innovation and the Independent College: Examples from the Sector. I highlight here just three examples (with which I’m personally familiar) of the many strategies small colleges are deploying to prepare graduates more intentionally for their lives post-graduation.

The Career Center, Re-Invented

On many -- if not most -- campuses, career preparation has moved from the periphery to the center, both literally and figuratively. In recent memory, a college’s Career Center was typically small, cluttered, under-staffed, and remote. Few students went out of their way to visit these offices, and those who did were most often mere months from graduation. No more.

Today, this resource has often moved to a central, well-trafficked place on the college campus—perhaps the library, the student center, or even the admissions office. No longer are second-semester seniors the lone visitors. Now, thoughtful integration of academic and career planning are often top-of-mind for students (and their parents) from the moment of matriculation.

An early, highly successful example of this new generation of career centers is APEX (Advising, Planning, and Experiential Learning) at The College of Wooster in Ohio. This lively space, integrated into the college’s centrally-located library, offers one-stop shopping for course registration, academic advising, study abroad, internships, vocational exploration, entrepreneurship, and more; in short:  a full array of programs and opportunities that enable students to connect their studies with career paths.  Always crowded, the site is a favorite study spot.  Annually, about 70% of the student body visits APEX.

Re-Imagining the Curriculum

In 2015, Agnes Scott College, a small women’s college near Atlanta, undertook a major curricular overhaul, billed as nothing less than the reinvention of a liberal arts education for the 21st century. The SUMMIT program ambitiously aims to “prepare every student to be an effective change agent in a global society.” Signature features offered for each student include: leadership development infused throughout the curriculum “from day one,” faculty-led international study tours, a four-person “board of advisors,” and the creation of a digital portfolio “to show future employers.”  The SUMMIT program is still a work in progress, but it was well received initially, leading to record high enrollment for the college.  U.S. News and World Report named the school the 4th “most innovative” liberal arts college in the nation in 2017 and the 2nd most innovative in 2018.

While this was one of the most dramatic curricular revisions in the sector, more and more small colleges and universities are introducing curricular and co-curricular opportunities for leadership development, skills-building and hands-on experiences that bridge classroom learning and career preparation.  Wilson College introduces all students to financial literacy in a first-year seminar. Goucher College has instituted a new curriculum intended to develop proficiency in data analytics, among other skills.  Augustana College in Illinois has developed a “Viking Score” worksheet that tracks students’ level of professional preparation for life after graduation.

The Alumni Connection

One of the most promising ways to offer students greater career-readiness is through engaging current undergraduates with alumni (and parents).  This virtuous cycle not only offers students an opportunity to learn about possible career paths--through job-shadowing, externships, internships, or even structured phone and on-line conversations; it also tends to bring alumni into closer relationship with their alma mater, often sparking re-engagement and greater support.

A great example is St. Lawrence University’s “SLU Connect” program.  Begun by an alumna and trustee in Washington, DC, the popular program has spread (to date) to:  Albany, Boston, the Mountain States, New York City, and San Francisco.  Events range from a simple reception connecting current students with graduates to a five-day experience in which students meet with multiple alumni to learn about their work and the paths they took in their professional lives. Described as a program that “helps ambitious students connect with enthusiastic Laurentians,” this type of initiative is relatively low cost and high-impact, often leading directly to internship and job opportunities for the students.

The marriage of a liberal-arts-based academic program to the development of career-oriented skills is, in some ways, directly related to our current economic moment.  But it is neither a radical nor an entirely new idea. In 1989, a report entitled, Liberal Education and the Corporation was issued by the Corporate Council on the Liberal Arts.  This blue-ribbon group brought together 14 CEO’s of major corporations with college and university leaders. The goal was to “advance the understanding of the subtle but positive relationship between a liberal arts education and effective management in the corporate world.” Their recommendation? 

The strongest liberal arts education would include basic business skills, opportunities for internships, and interaction with business leaders, such as alumni -- exactly what is taking place in the independent college sector today.

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