As anxieties grow in higher education over the decline of liberal arts in favor of increased vocational and career-centric training, one university is employing a new strategy to highlight the relevance of arts and humanities disciplines in career preparation.
Administrators at the University of Texas at Arlington have begun supporting new methods and concentrations within areas such as art and music designed to better prepare students for tangible employment immediately after graduation. While other universities have chosen to cut arts programs, pointing to declining enrollment numbers in the arts, UT Arlington has responded in a very different way to the changing landscape of arts education.
Vistasp Karbhari, UT Arlington's president, pointed to two examples of this new approach. In the art and art history department, the university offers specific courses and concentrations in the field of designing packaging -- a major industry in Texas that Karbhari said is looking for more professionally trained employees. In the music department, Arlington now offers students the opportunity to gain the traditional education in music performance while also taking classes within the music department and college of business to gain skills in musician management -- a degree called music business.
“If you look at the U.S. Department of Labor, the amount of musicians and singers in Texas is expected to grow by about 17 percent in the next eight years or so,” Karbhari said. “A lot of that growth comes from things like agents and business managers of music. The challenge within the industry is that most of the people who do this come out from the business major side or from communications -- it's not that they have a true understanding of music. And therefore musicians often feel that these people don’t quite understand what they’re trying to do.”
This is the theme of Karbhari’s strategies in these fields: to apply analysis of the job market to identify trends that promote an avenue for gainful employment postgraduation in fields where students may be apprehensive to enter due to work-force anxieties. Karbhari said he doesn’t believe the arts need any special treatment -- he simply wants to showcase the value that may not be so easily seen in an arts education. Karbhari said these changes came from faculty members within the departments -- and that the administration ran with them as they fell in line with the goals of the university.
“I’d hate for anyone to think we’re doing this because we feel the liberal arts need special support. The arts, humanities and social sciences are disciplines that have tremendous value not only academically but in daily life,” Karbhari said. “The challenge that we have across the board is trying to show relevance. I think this is sometimes where universities don’t do the best job. What our faculty have done a very good job of is not reinventing the wheel but actually working to show the relevance of that discipline is in today’s world.”
Karbhari said one of the things that makes UT Arlington unique is its many nontraditional students, with 56 percent of all students being transfer students. These students often have a greater focus on postgraduate career success.
When it comes to art, the university has partnered with groups with knowledge of the packaging industry. Karbhari said the concentration has grown to over 100 students taking art department classes related specifically to packaging. Dallas and north Texas are home to a number of companies with broad demand for packaging designers.
Robert Hower, department chair for the art and art history department at UT Arlington, said the goal is to allow students with a passion for a traditional education in the arts to do so with the ability to consider different avenues for building postgraduate careers.
“We’re making sure the past is considered, the future is considered and that there’s a blend that creates a lifelong educated individual,” Hower said.
Hower said the packaging courses have been thriving and have grown significantly since the department started offering them in 2012. Karbhari said numerous students have gone on to jobs in the industry after connecting through internships during their undergraduate years.
“The general question that many parents ask and [people] across academia often ask is can a student who [majors in art] get a good-paying job when they graduate four years later,” Karbhari said. “I can imagine a student saying they’d love to do that but that they have to balance their passion for some things with my needs that I make sure that I can have a good life and make life better for my family.”
In the music department, the music management concentration has continued to grow as well, with 30 students majoring in the program now. Karbhari expects that to grow to as many 100 in the next year.
Dan Cavanagh, chair of UT Arlington's music department, said that anxieties over postgraduate careers are looming over every field. But since these anxieties always followed the arts, the arts are more suited to adapt to them.
“When I went to college, I was double majoring and music and math, and I switched to just music and my dad said, ‘Oh God, you’re going to live with us for the rest of your life,’” Cavanagh said with a laugh. “We want to really showcase that there are a ton of opportunities in music, and it doesn’t need to be a hobby. We think music is really important as a humanity, and this is another way to support that importance for our culture.”
Karbhari said that as trends continue to change in regards to liberal arts, he hopes to continue to show the value of a degree when put in the right economic context.
“The liberal arts are of tremendous value. We just haven’t been able to enunciate what the value is, and these programs do exactly that,” Karbhari said. “They show that you can follow your passion and yet be almost guaranteed a wonderful job at the end of that -- you can marry both things.”