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The Future of Liberal Arts Education

Liberal arts colleges and universities are part of an evolving educational landscape. Between financial changes, rising competition and an emphasis on social impact, liberal arts educators have long insisted that, instead of teaching technical skills, they teach students how to think.

In the face of these changes, liberal arts colleges have had to make changes to keep up with the demands of a growing workforce and educational marketplace. The Boston Globe reported that Colby-Sawyer College, a small liberal arts college in New Hampshire, had to remove English and Philosophy from its course offerings. What does this mean for the future of the liberal arts education?

The most recent survey from Inside Higher Ed explored this debate, measuring the response from Chief Academic Officers (CAOs) on the changing role of a liberal arts education. They believe that the rise of STEM offerings should not overshadow liberal arts subjects like literature, philosophy and art. Seventy-seven percent in Private or Nonprofit institutions believed that liberal arts are essential to undergraduate programs.

What the Liberal Arts education offers

According to the Association of American Colleges and Universities, a liberal arts education offers students a multi-faceted experience, in the classroom and outside of it. It highlighted the civic responsibility it cultivates among students as well as social awareness, both of which are important traits in the face of changing political times.

The role of cross-discipline education

This determination to broaden students’ cultural horizons may also explain the desire for faculty to offer more classes on diversity on their own campuses. Diversity can encapsulate many different initiatives within higher education. A liberal arts education gives students the opportunity to engage in connecting ideas across departments – combining psychology and economics into behavioral economics, for instance. However, many students are eschewing this cross-discipline approach. When faced with the job market, students are enrolling in fewer humanities courses. When surveyed over eight years, from 2008 to 2016, Wellesley College saw a 14 percent decline in these areas of study, Inside Higher Ed reported. However, this attempt to specialize could backfire for students.

The growing role of work experience and internships before graduation

In an article for U.S. News and World Report, the director of research at the National Association of Colleges and Employers noted that career-oriented degrees offer hands-on training that can directly show employers their capabilities. New graduates are under pressure to enter the workforce with little additional training from their employer. Paired with a changing technological environment, students with this technical training – in subjects like computer science or accounting – can see higher employment rates and higher salaries immediately after graduation. According to NACE, students holding degrees in computer science in 2016 saw an 8 percent salary increase from the previous year.

However, some higher education administrators argue, students also need transferrable skills that will help them keep pace with a quickly changing working environment. In an opinion column for The Washington Post, college president Carol Quillen suggested that students need these softer skills just as much as they need technical training. The challenge is to find a way to show how these skills that students can accrue as part of their liberal arts education can translate in the workplace.

Hands-on learning in the classroom may be the answer for students pursuing a liberal arts education. Higher education administrators can offer classes that give students the chance to demonstrate skills that they can apply to the business world. For instance, Skidmore College offers non-business students an Introduction to Management and Business class that gives them a real business problem to solve. Students are placed on a team and must develop their project management skills, hone their ability to communicate with their classmates and problem solve creatively. At the end of the semester, students must present their findings to a panel of business professionals. This can demonstrate a student’s ability to apply what they have learned to a future employer.

Another way for liberal arts graduates to highlight their skills is to accept an internship. These positions, typically unpaid, are designed to give students insight into their desired career. As the job market grows more competitive, internships have increased in popularity for students graduating from a liberal arts institution: NACE noted that 65 percent of students graduating in 2015 participated in an internship or co-op. These internships, like technical training, can show employers that graduates have industry-specific knowledge that can help them thrive in the workplace.

Perhaps as a result of their popularity, internships no longer need to be strictly in person: Fast Company reported on the increase in virtual micro-internships – or project specific internships that students can access from their dorm room. These micro-internships fit in with the changing pace of the working world, as more workers turn to this type of economy, looking to freelance websites like Contently or Fivrr. To help prepare students – and help them maximize the value of their internships – college administrations can work to increase resources available surrounding in-person and virtual internship opportunities.

How Liberal Arts can move forward

As a result of the challenges liberal arts colleges face, more than half of CAOs at private and public institutions believe that the number of these colleges will decrease over the next five years. However, there might be a chance for the liberal arts education to survive – but it will likely require them to adapt. If higher education administrators are able to include artistic pursuits, like literature and theater, in their curricula while also giving students the tools in business or mathematics, graduates may be able to get the best of both worlds. They could graduate, prepared to join the workforce, while also feeling ready to address their role as global citizens. With a liberal arts degree, you can address these questions, among many others facing today’s higher education leaders.