Career Prep vs. Liberal Arts

Placement experts gather to talk about strategies for improving their efforts -- despite skepticism from some professors.
April 11, 2006

When Martin Ford began as director of the career center at Brandeis University in 2004, he noticed a troubling statistic in a student survey: Only 3.5 percent of respondents gave his office a “satisfactory” rating.

“They thought we did a horrible job of assisting them in their careers,” Ford said. “We had low usage rates among students. They didn’t see it as an integral part of their education.”

The business world knew about Brandeis but wasn’t familiar with its students, Ford said. The alumni giving rate hovered around 20 percent, and many alumni reported that a primary factor in their decision not to donate was a lack of help from the career center.

Ford said for students to have a complete experience at Brandeis, they need to learn how to approach job interviews and network in a social setting. Many professors believe, however, that the university “isn’t here for careers” and, as a liberal arts-oriented institution, shouldn’t be concerned with non-pedagogical matters such as job placement, he said.

When he interviewed for his position, Ford said the Brandeis president noted the divide and asked, “Can we deal with that clash?” to which Ford responded, "Sure we can.”

Integrating “career” in a liberal arts institution was the topic of Ford’s presentation Friday at the inaugural National Career Conference in Baltimore. Villa Julie College, a 3,000-student institution with campuses in Maryland that offer both liberal arts and pre-professional programs, organized the conference. The 200 participants talked about creating "a career culture" at institutions of varying styles and curricular emphases. Sessions covered topics such as marketing services to students, preparing students for working in diverse workplaces, how to get students involved in career planning before they are seniors, and career services for adult learners.

“The great challenge is to integrate career practices into the curriculum,” said Kevin Manning, president of Villa Julie. “One of the measures after four years is whether a student has met the end goal of getting a job.”

While that message comes through clearly in Villa Julie's mission, Ford said at Brandeis, he is forced to pay close attention to semantics. “My colleagues flinch when I talk about my students as products,” Ford told the seminar audience. “I’m hesitant to even bring up the word 'career.' I refer to it as 'life after Brandeis.' ”

Students on some liberal arts campuses have called for an increase in career-oriented programs. An editorial this month in Grinnell College’s student weekly, Scarlet & Black, called for the addition of practical courses. “Students came here knowing they wouldn’t receive vocational training, but Grinnell is far too skittish about exploring 'practical' subjects,” the editorial reads.

Jason Rathod, the newspaper’s opinion editor, said Grinnell often attracts students who upon graduating choose the Peace Corps over medical school or high-paying consulting jobs. While Rathod said he appreciates Grinnell’s liberal arts mission and doesn’t want to see students majoring in pharmacy or cruise ship management, he doesn’t see any problem with the college providing more vocational options.

“At the end of the year, as seniors start to decide about their careers, there’s some tension,” Rathod said. “There’s a consistent joke that Grinnellians go back and live with their parents because they don’t know what they’re going to do after graduation.”

Pablo Silva, a Grinnell history professor, said he was “saddened” to see the piece appear in print. “The recent editorial makes the distinction between vocational and theoretical courses,” Silva wrote in an e-mail. “The understanding seems to be that 'liberal arts' means theoretical and non-vocational, or even anti-vocational.  And the implication is that liberal arts courses don’t prepare people to work.”

Silva said he backs the traditional liberal arts approach, “through which students acquire basic critical reasoning skills and learn certain habits of mind and attitudes towards knowledge and learning.”   

Dickinson College was among the liberal arts institutions represented at the Villa Julie conference. Michael Fratantuono, chair of international business and management at Dickinson, in a phone interview said “we would get hammered hard by the faculty” if his department tried to include vocational-themed lectures -- how to start a business, for example -- into the curriculum. “What we do in the classroom as faculty at a liberal arts institution has an education-first, career-consideration far second thrust.”

Fratantuono said it’s the job of the career center -- not the faculty -- to inform students of their post-graduation options.

Patrick Mullane, who heads Dickinson’s career center, said at the conference that he had strong college support for his efforts -- which he said is essential. For example, he said Dickinson created a new position to work with alumni (both to help them with their careers and to recruit their help for current students) and moved the career center from the edge of the campus to a central location.

Ford said Brandeis recently authorized the creation of a similar alumni position. The university is sponsing alumni panel discussions and now offers a “Networking 101 seminar.”  

Before freshmen begin classes at Brandeis, they fill out a values and skills assessment. Manning, the Villa Julie president, said it’s natural for colleges to help students “discover what their fundamental purpose is” and how a career fits into the equation. Ford said he always asks students if they have a minor, because "sometimes that's more indicative of what the students wants to do."

Brandeis' career center has increased its database of employers from 30 to 225 in the last two years and is asking for regular feedback from students, Ford said. Student use of the office is up 29 percent. The most recent student survey showed that 11 percent of students said the office is now doing a "satisfactory" job.

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