Navigating the Crisis in Higher Education

By Manfred Werner – Tsui (Own work) CC-BY-SA-3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Unemployment, student loan debt, and protest are colliding with rising education costs, endowment building, branding wars, and labor outsourcing. At this tumultuous moment in higher education, this course asks students to reflect on the fate of liberal arts education through a focused analysis of its past and present. Specifically, how do economic pressures and technological innovations impact the sustainability of liberal arts values such as social justice, serving the public good, and cultivating a “life of the mind”?  Students will debate and synthesize arguments about the value and sustainability of liberal arts education by viewing higher education from the perspective of private corporations, governments, college administrators, faculty, parents, and students. In so doing, students will learn to situate their personal experiences within broader institutional, historical, economic and political contexts. Through reflective essays that incorporate both primary and secondary sources, students will develop critical thinking skills, authorial voice, and a sense of ownership over their own education.

Better than a Professionally Focused Education?

 

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The main issue that arises when considering whether or not to pursue higher education is the likelihood of economic prosperity. The choice to put tens of thousands of dollars into an institution is a big risk in itself that is only complicated once one is made aware of the different types of institutions that exist. It is arguable that one’s main goal is to optimize one’s chances of successful outcomes, therefore the value of a liberal arts education or a more professionally focused education becomes the topic of a perpetual debate. Although both types of education (liberal arts and professionally focused) offer skills and qualities that the other does not, the question becomes what denotes success? My goal is to ultimately weigh the outcomes of a liberal arts education as compared professionally geared education and how they correlate to people’s definitions of success.

In order to establish a model for referencing a school’s ability to produce a desired outcome, the word “success” must be defined. According to a study done by Strayer University in 2014, success is characterized by “happiness more than it is by other factors such as money, fame or power” (Smith 2014). Because of this definition, the terms of success become far more complex. The determinable value of education can no longer be defined economics payout of a degree from a certain type of institution. Because of how the terms of success are defined, it is necessary to define happiness as well. In accordance to the psychological study by Strayer University, subjects defined happiness as “living a fulfilling life” (Smith 2014) which we know are not determinant on monetary or material acquisition. So how exactly does one determine which institution will better constitute success?

Liberal arts schools and other skill based schools each offer valuable assets to their students. Both offer an accelerated level of education that ultimately contributes to the development of knowledge among its students. The main differences between the two types of institutions are the approaches they take in educating. Liberal arts institutions typically allow students to explore a plethora of topics while pre-professional institutions prepare students for specific field of study (i.e. pre-medical, pre-law or engineering). Both sides exist in the ongoing debate on which schooling system is superior. Some make the case that the liberal arts are less focused and pre-professional fields are more successful at helping people find jobs and that those who obtain liberal arts degrees generally have a more difficult time getting job. On the contrary however, many argue that obtaining a liberal arts degree benefits people the most. According to an LA times article, mastering the liberal arts can help one think critically in different aspects of academics. (LA Times). The benefit of such a skill helps people across disciplines (like using sociology as a pre-med students to help with social interaction). For this reason, I would like to argue that a liberal arts education is the most successful in helping students achieve success. It is within a liberal arts educational environment that a health science major would be able to take a course in sociology and would be able to better understand the implications of human interaction and would be able to better understand engagement with a patient, than they would be able to under the guise of classes on the technical application of that knowledge.

In terms of the success described above, liberal arts education helps to facilitate an environment where individuals are not only able to obtain a job, but excel at it. In accordance to the previous definition of the word, those who have obtained a liberal arts education are able to more easily obtain the non-tangible forms of success and happiness that appeal to the human psyche. Therefore, a liberal arts education is, as a whole, more indicative of a success and thus is the more beneficial form of education.

 

 

 

 

The Liberal Arts Will Adapt and Survive

By Luke Yasui          February 15th, 2016

HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS – PART 2

Like Hogwarts, liberal arts schools are under attack

              Liberal arts degrees, once sought after as the ideal pathway to success through higher education, are now heavily debated over as to their worth in today’s job market. Whichever side you take, it remains a fact that liberal arts schools are rapidly disappearing; from 1990 to 2009, the number of liberal arts schools in the U.S. has decreased from 212 to 137, a decrease of approximately 35% (Baker). Critics claim that liberal arts schools teach outdated skills that do not translate to employment, and thus inadequately prepares students for employment in the postgraduate world. On the contrary, supporters argue that the liberal arts teach unique skills that are still highly valuable in modern society.  In my opinion, both sides of the argument explain important truths; the liberal arts education is still uniquely valuable, however getting a degree alone without supplementing with proper career preparation is likely to result in unemployment.

               Critics of the liberal arts argue that pre-professional degrees, like those from STEM fields or vocational schools, are much more likely to yield a job than traditional Liberal Arts degrees, and thus paying hundreds of thousands for a liberal arts degree is not worth it. In his article How Liberal Arts Colleges Are Failing America, Scott Gerber cites a statistic that in 2011, 53% of bachelor’s degree holders under 25 were unemployed. This statistic suggests that liberal arts graduates struggle to find jobs immediately post graduation, however it does not mean that specific technical degrees, which tend to provide graduates with immediate employment, are more valuable than liberal arts degrees in the long term. A report, which examined earnings and long-term career paths for college graduates, shows how liberal arts majors tend to struggle after graduation, but several decades they tend to out-earn those who found immediate with pre-professional degrees (Grasgreen). This is because liberal arts majors tend to adapt better when the job market changes.

                Supporters claim that the traditional liberal arts education, which focuses on the humanities and writing, teach unique critical thinking and interpersonal skills, also referred to as “soft skills”, which provide graduates with advantages in the modern job market. They claim that since the modern job market is so unpredictable and rapidly changing, a broad set of skills and adaptability are key skills for success, since new jobs are replacing old jobs at a high rate. At any given time, certain specific professional skills have immediate financial reward in the economy, however as ten years go by, those skills become obsolete and are too specific to be used for another field. In his article College Calculus, John Cassidy points out:“During the dot-com era, enrollment in computer-science and information-technology programs rose sharply. After the bursting of the stock-market bubble, many of these graduates couldn’t find work.” Pre-professional education can be risky for a long term career if it is purposed to craft specifically skilled workers. Whereas the broader soft skills possessed by liberal arts graduates are beneficial when the market replaces your job with a new one with different required skills; the creative thinking, learning, and communication skills allow a liberal arts student to smoothly transition into a new working environment and learn the new required workplace skills. Nevertheless, the initial struggle of liberal arts graduates is significant enough to question whether long term adaptability is worth enduring potential years of unemployment.

Calvin career preparation               

            Alongside the advantages of a liberal arts education, there are enough apparent disadvantages that reveal much room for improvement. At the start of spring in 2011, just 56% of college graduates of 2010 held a job, and only half of those jobs actually required a degree (Rampell). While some graduates only endure this job struggle for a year or two before being launched upwards into a degree-based career, many find themselves stuck at low wage jobs with a cloud of student debt looming over them. In her article, Is It Time To Kill The Liberal Arts Degree, Kim Brooks tells a story about her seven years of post-graduation struggles, despite her student accomplishments. “I’d spent four years at a rigorous institution honing my writing, research and critical-thinking skills. I’d written an impressive senior thesis, gathered recommendations from professors, completed summer internships in various journalistic endeavors… “But I do wonder, why was I allowed to decide on a major without ever sitting down with my advisor and talking about what I might do with that major after graduating?” Reflecting on her college experience, she feels she was one of many students, two out of three she estimates, who graduated without having received proper career guidance. With price tags upwards of $100,000, many students of and critics of liberal arts alike are confounded by the lack of post-graduate career stability. Many critics and supporters agree that liberal arts schools could benefit by supplementing their well rounded, creative thinking students with better practical career skills.

                 Based on my personal experience, it appears that liberal arts colleges are both creating talented critical thinkers that will go on become great leaders of positive change in the world, while also providing a dangerously over-priced experience with little reward for students who lack self-direction and professional drive. Unfortunately, many kids at my school believe that as long as they follow their passion, and graduate with a degree, they will easily land in a great career. I worry that they will struggle, as they tend to shrug off the idea of writing a resumé, or searching for work experience opportunities. Perhaps the graduate unemployment and student debt crisis is not due to “worthless” humanities majors, but rather due to kids who wait until they are about to graduate college to start planning their future. It’s not the degree that makes a career, it’s the student.

                   With that being said, liberal arts schools should continue adapting to include more business and career training for their students. A liberal arts student who builds additional professional skills is not guaranteed a job straight out of college, but they are far better off than the student who only focuses on liberal arts studies. Similarly, a pre-professional student who also practices analytical writing and studies philosophy is more likely to achieve long-term success than a student who devotes all their time to master one skill. Whether we choose STEM or liberal arts, we all must acknowledge the unique values of the other discipline and not assume that one is inherently superior to the other. Going forward, The liberal arts will continue to adapt and survive as they collaborate with pre-professional schooling, and integrate their practices into their traditional educational method. 

 

 

Bibliography

Gerber, Scott. 2012 “How Liberal Arts Colleges Are Failing America” The Atlantic, September 24.

Grasgreen, Allie. 2014 “Liberal Arts Grads Win Long-Term” Inside Higher Ed, January 22nd.

Bellis, Rich. 2015 “How To Get A Job Of The Future With A Liberal Arts Degree” Fast Company, September 30.

Cassidy, John. 2015 “College Calculus” The New Yorker, September 7th.

Rampell, Catherine. 2011 “Many With New College Degree Find The Job Market Humbling” The New York Times, May 18.

 

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The Complete Package: A Liberal Arts Education

College is more expensive than ever, and the decision on where to attend is a decision on how your money is being used. Many students choose to attend a large university, such as UC Davis. Others, actually a significant less, choose to attend small liberal arts colleges, such as Occidental. Victor E. Ferrall, in his book titled Liberal Arts at the Brink, explores many definitions of the “Liberal Arts”. In the first chapter, he uses Webster’s dictionary to define liberal arts as “fields of knowledge that are not practical” (8). However, later on in the chapter, Ferrall refers to a definition from Amherst College history professor, Hugh Hawkins, stating that Liberal Arts “develops interests and capabilities that will enrich both the individual learner and future communities” (13). These contrasting definitions both have their prevalence in today’s society, with many people justifying liberal arts’ practicality and others justifying its impracticality.

A liberal arts education develops students who are adequately equipped for the challenges outside of college. A liberal arts education allows students to develop skills that employers desire, such as critical thinking, analysis, and creativity. Jessica Kleiman, in her article for Forbes, uses anecdotal evidence to praise her liberal arts education she received at the University of Michigan. She claims that a liberal arts education served her well and strengthened her critical thinking and writing skills. With the help of a liberal arts education, she landed many internships at magazines and PR firms and is now an executive vice president of communications at a media company. As an actual example of a liberal arts education used well, Kleiman is a reliable source.  In Time Magazine, Annette Gordon-Reed, a professor of history at Harvard, argues that critics of the liberal arts are wrong. She uses an employer survey and described applications of the liberal arts to argue against its critics. The survey shows employers expressed a preference for an education that “has taught them to write well, think critically, and communicate easily”, which are all results of a liberal arts education. She believes that students “should be prepared not just for their first job but for their fourth and fifth jobs”. A liberal arts education prepares students to be flexible and they will have no issue transitioning to a new job or role. In his article in USA Today, Adam Lerner, a senior studying English at Cornell University, uses many statistics to show the decrease in popularity of a liberal arts education. He argues against Obama’s call in the State of the Union Address to “reward schools that create classes that focus on science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM)”. Lerner writes about a World Values Survey that ranked the United States as only 14th among 54 surveyed countries in arts participation. In a study conducted by the Conference Board, many surveyed CEOs believed that creativity is “increasingly important for new hires”. However, Lerner describes today’s education as a system that emphasizes computation skills over creative skills. A liberal arts education isn’t part of “today’s education”, it helps foster creative skills as well as many other skills that will be practical in the world outside of college.

Others argue that a liberal arts education is impractical and inferior to a vocational degree. Rob Reuteman, in his article in CNBC, synthesizes many well-qualified critics’ opinions to argue that a liberal arts education is impractical. He first quotes Richard Vedder, the director of the Center for College Affordability and Productivity. In a time period where “we graduate more people from college than we have jobs for”, a liberal arts degree is becoming useless. Reuteman then quotes Betty Krump, who is an executive director of the American Technical Education Association. Krump believes that the choice between critical thinking and technical job-specific skills is becoming more obvious due to economic reality. Many families now choose a technical education, which according to Krump, is the “key to our future success”. Reuteman also quotes individuals who are involved in a liberal arts education themselves, whether they are teaching or studying it. For example, Frederick Starr, former 11-year president of Oberlin College, regrets that “top liberal arts programs are out of reach of more than a few good students”. In another article in Fox Business, author Steve Tobak uses statistics to exemplify the useless liberal arts degree. Tobak writes that median salaries of students who attended elite liberal arts colleges are far lower than those of students who graduated from equally selective universities. Tobak blames an education system that provides “no practical real-world guidance whatsoever” for the difficulty of landing a decent job.

As a student at a liberal arts college and with many friends attending large universities, I can see there is a large difference between the two. In many articles praising a liberal arts education, authors state that a liberal arts education allows students to have a more personal experience in the classroom. At a liberal arts college, such as Occidental, classes rarely exceed 30 people and have classes with as low as 7 people. A professor in an introductory mathematics course, a course anyone can take, will actually know everyone’s names and students actively asked and answered questions, but in an introductory mathematics course at a large university, you are in a large lecture hall with hundreds of other people the professor doesn’t personally know. With a liberal arts education, you are held accountable and professors care about how you are doing in the class. A liberal arts education allows students to explore a wide range of subjects, unlike a traditional university. Students, similar to me, who had no idea what they’re going to study will benefit from the broadness of a liberal arts education. You don’t have to declare a major right away and can use your first year to take a variety of classes to figure out what you want to study.

There are many people who will praise a liberal arts education and others who will look down on it. The development of critical thinking skills, personal relationships with professors, and a broad education, are some of the arguments in favor of a liberal arts education. As a first-year student at a liberal arts college, I believe the benefits have outweighed the consequences.

For Liberal or Science: First Generation Students Debate

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For the past few years, there has been a continuous debate between the value of a liberal arts education and a Science Technology Engineering Mathematics (S.T.E.M.) education. An argument said that a liberal arts education is  equivalent to a “wasted piece of paper and a job at a fast-food chain.” (Provencio, 2015). This underlines the idea that a degree in the S.T.E.M. field is more beneficial in the long term. Despite the pressure from family and society on minorities to gain socioeconomic mobility through a STEM education, the liberal arts provides an important alternative educational experience for first generation students. In this paper, arguments on how STEM education benefits first generation students are examined as it can potentially help with job preparation. Then, the arguments for liberal arts education provides an excellent alternative for first generation students because develops critical perspective, leadership preparation and social mobility.

From a young age, I have always been told that getting a degree in the sciences was a guaranteed way to have the opportunity of  a better life. Similarity, this type of reasoning was given to most minorities, particularly first generation students. First generation students are given information that supported this idea. Many first generation students are told “degrees in S.T.E.M. fields were listed among the top ten majors by salary potential” (Ebersole 2013). Additionally, there is evidence that obtaining a S.T.E.M. degree leads to many employment opportunities. MarketWatch, a leading American website, states that “nearly 50% of job seekers said they believe there are “no jobs” out there for those with a liberal arts degree, according to a survey of 2,978 job seekers“ (Fottrell, 2014). For a first generation student like myself, there is pressure to make your family and community proud. Being the first to pursue a higher education makes the pressure to succeed immense and pressure from family members to get a respectable job like a doctor. Thus most first generation students focus on a field that leads to a job with high potential to be high paying. Thus the reason why the STEM field is typically the top choice and making it hard to pursue something that does not have a bright future like the supposed liberal arts. However, this mindset ignores an entire different schooling that people have been attending: the liberal arts.

The path towards a S.T.E.M. degree is extremely rigorous and audacious to pursue. Minorities, such as first generation students, often have trouble with the limited exposure to that type of environment. Many minorities switch from the S.T.E.M. route to the liberal arts because they are “discouraged, unprepared or struggling” (Newlon, 2013). In today’s job market, it is encouraged by many employers to pursue a graduate degree. Evidence suggests that “for those who do seek further education, their prospects are better. About 40% of humanities and social sciences students attend graduate school versus 30% of professional and pre-professional students” (Fottrell 2014) which includes students with a STEM degree.  

A liberal arts education is often scrutinized for not being useful in terms of job prospects and opportunities. However, having a liberal arts degree in fields for the liberal arts like History, Linguistics, and Political Science have advantage that a STEM degree cannot provide. According to the Huffington Post article, Is an Education in the Liberal Arts Important?, many different degrees can be beneficial to employment. For example, the author talks about how “Humanities majors encourage analysis, critical-thinking, and a vast knowledge of various topics.” and the “majors look deeper into varied texts that affect media, culture, society, literature, and politics.” (Provencio 2015). Furthermore, a survey conducted by Northwestern University shows evidence about how  “an overwhelming 73 percent of employers said that being well-rounded with a range of abilities is more important than having industry expertise because job-specific skills can be learned at work.” (Ebersole, 2013). This is included with salaries and educational prospects as a liberal arts education can compete with a STEM degree. When looking at salaries that the liberal arts education can provide, it is not too far off that a STEM education can provide. According to Is an Education in the Liberal Arts Important?, “Among the top five schools listed by PayScale for liberal arts degrees, the mid-career pay ranges from $64,400 to $79,000… with an median income for all households in the U.S. is $51,017” (Ebersole 2013). Thus showing that the earning potential of a liberal arts education is higher than expected and closer to the average for $66,123 that was provided from Burning Glass Technology.

A liberal arts education provides first generation students the chance to gain two important skills that employers always seek, critical and leadership preparation. These important skills are desired by employers as they allow people to actually change the world as innovators as opposed to being carbon copies performing tasks without any desire to change the world. These skills are obtained by learning about different aspects of the world and connecting them together. Students who attend a liberal arts college have the opportunity to take classes from a wide range of academic fields. For example, a student, such as myself, could be a chemistry major, take some science classes, math classes like a typical STEM student, but can also take a few acting classes, philosophy classes, history classes, or anything they desire because they have the opportunity to do so. With these different classes, students can have different perspectives from their classes and apply it in their careers to have a more complete understanding of the different aspects in the world that are affected them. And when someone is able to connect different aspects of the world, they are able to lead people to new way of think, design new inventions, ideas and everything in between. Usually first generation students do not have the chance to get any of these important experiences if they only attend classes for the sake of being educated in one particular field. This is the reason why the liberal arts exist, to provide people, especially first generation students, to learn and understand all their different interests and connecting everything together.

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Supporting the Liberal Arts: Why We Should Believe in its Value

In the formidable process of deciding on a college, individuals are forced to choose between a vocational-technical/career (specializing in a particular industry) type of institution and a liberal arts-oriented institution. Recently, there has been uncertainty surrounding the liberal arts as its value has been widely questioned and heavily subjected to public scrutiny. Scholars argue that a liberal arts education is an unnecessary costly investment, that fails to prepare individuals for the competitiveness of the workforce. They claim that this educational model should be removed, and institutional focus should be placed on technical fields (i.e. science, technology, engineering, and mathematical realms). On the contrary, supporters of the liberal arts believe that it is actually beneficial, which I agree, because it provides a set of skills that are practical and that enable an individual to stand out. These tools are unique to the liberal arts, and are unattainable in a technical/vocational college environment.

Some scholarly individuals believe that the value of the liberal arts educational model has diminished. Victor E. Ferrall defines the liberal arts, in his book Liberal Arts at the Brink, as “fields of knowledge that are not practical” of higher education (Ferrall, 2011). The only “practical” fields of knowledge are those in the “technical” category (Ferrall, 2011) or essentially any field in the STEM realm. Critics also argue that the high price tag is not justifiable, and in fact, question why individuals should take on such a financial burden, to invest in something that will not provide a “profitable” return? The current job market does not have room for ill-prepared individuals, because there are anyway not enough jobs for the number of students graduating with college degrees. However, an individual would be more prepared in a liberal arts environment, especially since one of the benefits of attending such an institution is having the opportunity to explore various fields of study through the multitude of courses offered. I have been a beneficiary of this advantage because as a first-year in college, I have always been asked about what I plan to pursue. While I enjoy psychology, it has been very insightful to explore courses, such as cognitive science and sociology, to aid in deciding whether I am certain of my decision. Furthermore, in a recent Forbes article, Jessica Kleiman says that having this opportunity “fueled [her] curiosity, strengthened [her] critical thinking and writing skills and made [her] knowledgeable on a variety of subjects” (Kleiman, 2014). Meanwhile, individuals attending technical/vocational institutions do not have this privilege of exploration, as the focus is heavily on fields of study in the STEM realm.

In addition, colleges seek to provide individuals with the tools to be successful. As the workforce becomes increasingly competitive, individuals strive to be the best of the best, and even then, the situation may not work out. Regardless, they take all the necessary steps to ensure that success is attainable – one of them being choosing a college (a technical/vocational institution) that will aid in this. In a recent CNBC article, Betty Krump, the executive director of the American Technical Education Association, says “our society has figured out that technical education” is more practical and the “key to our future success, and that someone with a two-year associate degree or technical diploma will make more money entering the workforce than a person with a bachelor’s degree,” (Reuteman, 2011). In the last few years, the percentage of individuals attending liberal arts institutions has decreased because these individuals do not see the value of investment. This is heavily influenced by the societal notion that a liberal arts degree will not provide job security. In fact, by attending a liberal arts institution, individuals have the opportunity to work in close proximity with their professors and subsequently, develop connections which aid in obtaining research opportunities and internships. Since the student body is not large, individuals receive individualized attention and guidance in navigating the job market, and securing a future after college. Therefore to argue that, pursuing a liberal arts degree means an individual would have to take a risk, is invalid because there will always be an element of uncertainty regardless of what type of college an individual attends.

Individuals invest in a college education in order to become employable, and currently, “nearly 50% of job seekers said they believe there are no jobs out there for those with a liberal arts degree” (Fottrell, 2014). This is also influenced by the notion that technical/vocational institutions are the only practical investments. By encouraging students to focus solely on STEM and more technical fields of study, one is only making the job market more competitive and difficult. Instead, by having students learn the same material and receive the same degree as everyone else, how is one individual supposed to stand out amongst other candidates? Kleiman argues that if students entering college are being told to focus on specific fields because of the opportunities, then “every other job will ultimately have too few candidates to choose from” (Kleiman, 2014). Hence, having a degree in the liberal arts is useful in the competitive job market because the variety and well-roundedness give candidates an edge.

The current notion is that, if an individual is a liberal arts major and applying for a job position in marketing or finance, he/she will have a more difficult case to present, compared to a candidate with a technical background. In actuality, a candidate with a liberal arts degree would be more highly qualified because he/she would have skills such as confidence and efficiency (which are ideal for marketing and finance), that are harder to learn in a larger, more technical environment. This situation could only occur in a biased circumstance, in which job recruiters have preconceived notions of liberal arts institutions. It is also believed that the only way individuals with liberal arts degrees could improve their career prospects, is if they pursue further studies. However, these days graduate school is highly recommended regardless of whether an individual pursues a technical degree or a liberal arts one. Therefore, the argument that a liberal arts education would entail more work and require more money, in order to compete for the same opportunities as individuals with technical degrees, is inaccurate. With a liberal arts education, individuals gain more because along with learning a field of study, individuals also obtain a set of personal skills such as learning more about oneself, becoming a creative critical thinker and effective communicator. These will prove to be very beneficial tools in the competitive workforce. According to “several cross-sectional and longitudinal studies” of students at liberal arts institutions of higher education, individual improvement in multiple areas of competence, over the four years, was much more significant in liberal arts schools compared to community colleges and vocational-oriented schools that focused on technical fields of study (Winter, 1981). This is possible because of the atmosphere of small class sizes and individualized attention, created by liberal arts institutions. This would not be possible in a technical/vocational institution.

In summary, the response to Jessica Kleiman’s question of whether “people who choose to pursue a liberal arts degree” are “any less skilled or desirable in the marketplace,” is that these individuals are competent candidates, who are in no way lesser than candidates who receive technical degrees. In fact, there are a multitude of benefits to obtaining a liberal arts education, which include learning “practical” fields of knowledge, becoming a well-rounded individual through exploration of various fields of study, while also having the opportunity to learn more about oneself. Ferrall is accurate in his representation of the liberal arts as encompassing knowledge, wisdom, and other desirable qualities of mind and character – this is what makes the liberal arts educational model unique. As a supporter of the liberal arts, it is unfortunate to see the increased disregard for its value. Having had the choice of attending a technical research institution, and in the end deciding to attend a liberal arts institution, I continue to be satisfied with my decision as I am confident of the preparation that I will receive.

 

Liberal Arts Schools: Is it Worth it?

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Alejandro Pelayo
CSP Liberal Arts on the Brink
Professor Sargent
28 January 2016

Liberal arts schools: Is it worth it?

Many have debated for years pertaining the value liberal arts colleges provide to its graduates. A liberal Arts college is an institution known for its small class sizes, focused faculty, and its aim for students to attain a broad general knowledge. Most people look at a liberal arts college and think it’s a school that is supremely liberal and encompassed with democrats. When in fact, Liberal Arts schools are enclosed with students that have the freedom to be curious and study a wide range of areas. Many claim that liberal arts colleges develop general intellectual capacities that creates better citizens and aids in the student’s future success. However on the contrast, others would argue that a liberal arts education is worthless and schools like vocational or technical that are directed to specific areas of study will lead to better success in the future. From my own experience, I have found that Occidental has made me a well rounded student through the spirituality offered on campus.

A liberal arts education teaches students how to think and challenges them to be able to adapt to new situations which is key to the work force. Liberal arts aims to develop general intellectual capacities, in contrast, to vocational school or technical school that force the students to study a specific area. If students are entering college and are being directed to focus on the fields that have the most opportunities, then all the other jobs will have too few candidates to choose from. It is actually an immense risk to focus on a certain area and choosing the wrong path can make things worse, not better. The real problem is that nobody can predict where the future jobs will be and the economy is simply too volatile to guess way ahead of time. To use a Wall Street-related analogy, “preparing for one specific job is similar to investing heavily in a single stock based on its past performance—widely considered a bad investment strategy. Diversification, spreading the risk across a variety of sectors and investments, is a more judicious approach.”

Some people argue that technical education is the key to our future success because they claim a technical diploma will bring in more money than a person with a bachelor’s degree. However to counter this, Noah Leavitt says, “You know, not too long ago I read that a third of Fortunes 500 CEOs were liberal arts students as undergraduates.” People with liberal arts degrees do so well in business because they can get along with people. A liberal arts education teaches students to be a better citizen and in turn gives us effective resources to be successful. One argument that comes up frequently in articles is that some surveys show a large majority of employers rating that college graduates they hire are unprepared for their jobs. However, every new job comes with a learning curve and employers value workers that work hard, learn fast, and know how to teach themselves.

I believe liberal arts schools are out to educate the whole person which I find to be very valuable. Teaching a student to be a better citizen and a better well rounded person is key to success in the future. From my own personal experience, Occidental has made me a better person through my faith and spirituality offered on campus. I go to a Christian club twice a week called Intervarsity fellowship of Christians and it has had a positive impact on my life. Spirituality also brings out a sense of community and belonging. I consider the people in intervarsity as some of my closest friends and I know they only want what’s best for me. Spirituality strengthens our connections with others on campus and will overcome the sense of isolation that many college students go through during their experience. Occidental has made me into a better well rounded character and in my opinion a liberal arts schools is more than worth it. From all this I can conclude, given the global leadership of American graduate education and the global economy’s demands for flexible, adaptable employees, undergraduate liberal-arts education is more than relevant. It remains one of our country’s great assets and will continue to flourish in the changing world that we live in.

Citations

Astin, Alexander W. 2004. Why Spirituality Deserves a Central Place in Liberal Education ERIC. March

Krislov, Marvin. 2013. “The enduring relevance of a liberal-arts education.” The Hechinger Report. December 5

Deresiewics, William. 2014. Don’t Send Your Kid to the Ivy League The New Republic. July 21

Williams, Mary Elizabeth. 2014 “Hooray for worthless’ education!” Salon. Mar 27.

Strength in Ambiguity: The Value of a Liberal Arts Education

liberal arts

Liberal arts colleges have a mixed reputation in the public eye. Some view liberal arts colleges as a waste of money and time that could be better spent gaining practical job oriented skills. However, at the same time, liberal arts colleges are notorious for being elite small schools that provide a top notch education to students. A liberal arts education is actually extremely valuable because of the inherent academic rigor and the pursuit of knowledge for the sake of learning that is so lost in this day and age.

Although the world is currently hyper-focused on the job market and choosing colleges and majors that prepare people for careers, Jessica Kleiman shares a different perspective in the Forbes article, “Why Getting A Liberal Arts College Education Is Not A Mistake.” She mainly draws from anecdotal experience in the article, claiming “the classes I took…fueled my curiosity, strengthened my critical thinking and writing skills and made me knowledgeable on a variety of subjects” (Kleiman). Her strong advocacy for the skill set gained from a liberal arts education is based on her own experiences and therefore a reliable source. It must also be acknowledged that this is a fairly biased opinion and not an objective outlook on all forms of education, because she can only speak from her point of view. However, what she preaches is well known– liberal arts challenge students in a way that encourages growth. This is valuable in the long run because these skills are applicable everywhere in the professional world. Not only that, but students deepen and enhance their learning, broadening their knowledge in many different fields as opposed to focusing on one specific area of study. I have personally experienced the benefits of this, even in just one short semester at Occidental College. I am still currently undecided on a course of major, but so far at Oxy I haven’t been pressured to figure it out immediately. It is starting to become clear to me that the beauty of a liberal arts school is to explore and grow in order to expand all avenues of learning. This allows me to learn about subjects that may not necessarily be deemed “useful” (like the class “Topics in Opera” that I took first semester for example) but are interesting to take simply for the pursuit of knowledge in and of itself. The holistic approach to education can be a great way to develop interests in lots of areas in order to create a well-rounded, knowledgeable person.

Despite the many benefits of a liberal arts education, people still question the usefulness of these degrees versus technical degrees. In the article, “Is the Four-Year, Liberal-Arts Education Model Dead?” Betty Krump, the executive director of the American Technical Education Association argues, “I think our society has figured out that technical education is the key to our future success, and that someone with a two-year associate degree or technical diploma will make more money entering the workforce than a person with a bachelor’s degree” (Reutman). It is precisely these ideas that are sweeping and taking root in society, swaying people to believe that a liberal arts education is worthless based on the amount of monetary value after graduation. There is no factual base for this statement included in the article, which is problematic. The lack of statistics or numerical salary values detracts from the credibility of the quote. This quote is contradicted by the article “Why Top Tech CEOs Want Employees With Liberal Arts Degrees” by Elizabeth Segran. The idea the title suggests is not surprising considering that technical degrees are much more common compared to the more elusive liberal arts degree. According to the author of the article, “liberal arts training- with its emphasis on creativity and critical thinking- is vital to the success of business” (Segran). The reason for this lies in the liberal arts’ multi-faceted and interdisciplinary approach to education. The article gives multiple examples of liberal arts graduates that have ended up as successful business moguls who vouch for the education they received and how it has helped them in the technical world. Interestingly enough, the “ambiguity” of liberal arts education that people condemn is actually a strong suit in the technical world. It provides skills helpful for problem-solving and is one of the reasons CEOs are seeking employees with liberal arts degrees. Although liberal arts degrees are being sought out in the technical world, it is important to realize that the main focus of the liberal arts is not to craft its majors to earn large salaries. A much greater amount of value is placed on learning and development of skill sets. As stated in an article in The Washington Post, “Great and successful careers rarely end up having much connection to major. They do to intelligence, leadership, innovation, creativity, aptitude in assessing uncertainty, ability” (Strauss). Liberal arts institutions harness many valuable aspects of curriculum in order to provide a well-rounded education for their students.

The debate for and against the liberal arts is one that dominates modern times. Technical degrees are often seen as more practical and useful in the job market. Contrary to popular belief, liberal arts degrees are even more coveted in the technical world because of the highly applicable skills developed in such an education. Although liberal arts majors are still valuable in careers, that is not their only value. Liberal arts schools are academically challenging and bring out the best in students, while trying to instill an appreciation of knowledge for its own sake that students today often lack in their drive for monetary success. I have experienced firsthand the many benefits of a liberal arts college and wholeheartedly believe in the strengths of its students as opposed to other paths of education.

The Value of a Liberal Arts Education

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Education is the building block which allows us humans to interact in the simple and complex manners in which we do. A vital element to a person’s success in the United States’ capitalist economy today is their level of education. A highly debated concept is whether it is better to receive an education from a vocational college, focusing education in a single field, or to attend a liberal arts college and receive a well-rounded education which develops people to their fullest potential. After learning about the benefits and costs of vocational and liberal arts educations, I think that it is much more beneficial for people to invest the time and money in order to attend and graduate from a liberal arts college because it fully prepares the individual for real world issues in a way that the study of a single field cannot.

The benefits of receiving a liberal arts degree are vast; they equip individuals with skills which many employers prefer workers to possess such as communication, problem solving, and creative thinking. John Ebersole’s article discusses the results of a survey taken by business leaders. The survey revealed that, “an overwhelming 73 percent said that being well-rounded with a range of abilities is more important than having industry expertise because job-specific skills can be learned at work” (Ebersole, 2013). Based on Ebersole’s research, business leaders prefer to hire graduates who have strongly developed creative thinking ability instead of specialized training due to the fact that the first helps people deal with issues that they face on the job. People without the skills provided by a liberal arts education are more likely to struggle when faced with complications because of a lack of communication and problem solving skill. These are both vital characteristics of successful employees. Marvin Krislov wrote an article that supports the idea that liberal arts educations are more valuable than ever in today’s market economy. In his article he discusses the importance of gaining the well-rounded education to help people think creatively, instead of focusing on a single field because, “Studies show that current college graduates will likely change careers 15 times in their lives” (Krislov, 2013). Krislov’s statement supports the idea that a liberal arts education is in fact much more beneficial for the individual because it helps provide people with the necessary skills to succeed in multiple different work places instead of only one. This is an important skill to have because a student’s horizontal mobility in the job market is limited if they receive a degree in a specific field from a vocational college. There may be a shortage in demand for their job by the time they graduate, leaving them few alternatives to pursue due to a lack of a broader education. These are both very strong pieces of evidence which support the fact that a liberal arts education properly prepares individuals to go straight into the work force and be successful.

Critics have argued that liberal arts degrees fail to impress employers, resulting in a lack of demand for graduates who have liberal arts degrees. Quentin Fottrell’s article, “(More) Bad News for Liberal Arts Majors” is about the disadvantages of getting a liberal arts degree. As evidence, he includes the survey results that revealed, “Nearly 50% of job seekers said they believe there are “no jobs” out there for those with a liberal arts degree” (Fottrell, 2014). The truthfulness of this survey is debatable and seems biased to say the least, but it also does not provide any factual evidence that this statement is true in practice. It is also unclear if this is referring to a degree received from a liberal arts college, or a degree specifically in liberal arts. Either way, Fottrell’s argument is very weak and opinion based, failing to prove that liberal arts degrees are not highly sought after by employers. He does not provide concrete evidence supporting the idea that liberal arts educations are less beneficial than a vocational education. Another source which belittles the benefits of a liberal arts degree is the article, “Liberal Arts Majors Are Screwed” written by Dan Schawbel. Schawbel argued liberal arts do educate individuals in fields he calls “soft skills” such as communication, team work, and attitude, but that these are not the type of attributes employers are pursuing in hiring new graduates. He provides the results of a study stating that, “only 2% of employers are actively recruiting liberal arts degree holders” (Schawbel, 2014). The validity of the study is questionable, and again it is not clear if Schawbel is referring to a degree from a liberal arts school or a liberal arts degree itself. The main point that Schawbel is trying to make in his article is liberal arts majors do not properly equip graduates with the skills needed to land a job in the US economy. Schawbel’s statistic conflicts with the evidence provided by Ebersole. I think this is because Schawbel’s sample does not sufficiently represent all employers. This leads me to conclude that liberal art educations are very beneficial, properly train students to possess the skill necessary to succeed in the work place, and are highly demanded by employers.

While some may criticize the relevance of a liberal arts education, it is an extremely rewarding and useful to obtain. It fully develops individuals in their communication and problem solving skills, and to be the best version of themselves. From my experience so far at Occidental, I can tell that taking a broad range of classes has made me very curious to learn more in different subjects in order to increase my knowledge on different topics. This has fueled my inner desire to accomplish more and become a more educated citizen so that I can have a positive effect on the world surrounding me. I can tell that after I receive my degree I will indeed be much more creative, better at communicating, and ready to deal with real world issues. I truly do believe attending a liberal arts college properly prepares individuals to succeed after graduating, and is a much better investment than attending and receiving a degree from a vocational college.

The Necessity of the Liberal Art Education

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The Liberal Art education, which is usually offered in the small colleges in the United States, offers a broad education of humanities and sciences to undergraduate students. The Liberal Art colleges usually teach students in close communities of small numbers of students, residential settings, and small classes taught by tenured professors. Such colleges focus far less on vocational and professional training on specified majors for students than other institutions of higher education (Ferral, 13). The debate between Liberal Art education and vocational education keeps going from the ancient age up to the perplex world today of globalization of technological advancement. Therefore, multiple new perspectives according to the global economy today enter the discourse of the pursuit of higher education today, emphasizing the capability of the graduates joining the global economic labor force. Despite the graduates’ difficulties in searching for jobs that others proclaim, Liberal Art education still enlighten students and prepares for their future in the rapidly changing modern world.

Liberal Art education better guides students to derive creativity and critical thinking skills, which is essential elements required to take leadership in crucial positions of the global economy today. Many successful figures in entrepreneurship today and I disagree with Gerber’s assumption on the outcome of higher education. Many CEOs of technology companies graduated from Liberal Art education and highly value it. Steve Jobs highlighted the value of Liberal Arts in the spirit of Apple, “It’s in Apple’s DNA that technology alone is not enough, It’s technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields the results that make our hearts sing.” Jobs’ words show that technology or entrepreneurship alone cannot yield the innovative achievement of Apple Inc. The spirit of Liberal Art makes Apple successful in the rapidly changing world of technology. Steve Yi, the CEO of MediaAlpha and Danielle Sheer, the CEO of Carbonite also experienced Liberal Art education. Both of them emphasized that the contents of humanities, philosophy and cultural studies they have studied in colleges help them succeeding in business. Liberal Art education enables them to think creatively and take multiple perspectives of views (Segran). The Liberal Art experiences prepare students for leadership in the new global economy instead of merely focus on vocational training or instructions on one specific field.

Criticizers of Liberal Art educations overly emphasize the unemployment and debt issues of college graduates, especially those from Liberal Art colleges, and question the value of bachelor degrees. Scott Gerber takes such approach while criticizing Liberal Art colleges in America for not guaranteeing their graduate better employment and income in his article on The Atlantis. He blames the colleges without entrepreneur department for failing to prepare the students ready for the new global economy and putting students in debt. He praises those institutions which focus more on entrepreneur education rather than humanities because he believes that entrepreneur education better trains students to fit into the economy today. His argument fails to convince me. He takes the assumption that specified entrepreneur education better prepares students to become entrepreneurs and succeed in the economy today. However, variant cases of successful CEOs graduating from Liberal Art colleges prove that Liberal Art education well prepare students for today’s economy.

Some of those who held position against Liberal Art education recommend science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM in short, as a better alternative of education because of better guarantee of job opportunities and possibly higher income. They argue that young adults should be looking for the education that brings them the high-paying jobs. Steve Tobak even portrays Liberal Art education as evil for the lower income or unemployment issue of the graduates, and informs that professional education is realistic and beneficial. He blames Liberal Art education for being too ideal, or even utopian (Tobak). G. W. Thielman takes another approach. He praises STEM education for better employment outcome and demonstrates STEM education have more advantage than Liberal Art education in multiple aspects of consideration through comparison. Therefore, Liberal Art education, in their opinion, become outmoded, unfit to time and fails to STEM education. Thielman believes that STEM students also have the abilities in humanities while they excel in sciences. The Liberal Art education in his view fail to educate students in both sciences and humanities because the focus on classical text fails to provide critical thinking skills (Thielman).

As a students of a Liberal Art college who has experienced education in both the Chinese and American system, I praise my Liberal Art experience at Occidental College in comparison to other alternatives of education. Students in Chinese education system focus on the preparation for the college entrance exam since high school. They have to choose between Liberal Art or STEM at the beginning of high school because the exam subjects differ for each route and they need to declare their major while they are admitted into a college. Taking my class in middle school as a sample, only a few students end up choosing the Liberal Art route whether in China or abroad. Being the very distinct student who had chosen the Liberal Art approach in America, my personal experience at Occidental College makes me reconsider many different phenomena I faced in both cultures critically. I not only faced the challenge of a heavy workload of academic reading and writing in a second language, but also learnt to adopts different perspectives of thinking from different contexts which are closely related to the globalizing and multicultural world today. I feel distinguished and unique from other students of STEM major after one semester at a Liberal Art college.

Despite the challenges from employment and income issue and competition from STEM education, Liberal Art education still prepares students with critical thinking, creativity and curiosity for the perplexing world of globalization and technological advancement. Technological advancement now is taking over many professions in the STEM field, so the vocational training in one single field is not a safe choice today. The Liberal Art spirit is not only needed in the technology companies, but is also required facing the advancing world today.

 

 

 

Works Cited

Gerber, Scott. 2012. “How Liberal Arts Colleges are Failing America.” The Atlantic.  Sept 24.

Sergan, Elizabeth. 2014. “Why Top Tech CEOs Want Employees With Liberal Arts Degree.” Fast Company. August 28

Tobak, Steve. 2015 “The Evils of a Liberal Arts Education.” FOX Business. Nov 5.

Thielman, G.W. 2015. “The Liberal Arts are Dead; Long Live STEM.” The Federalist.  June 2.

 

The Well-Rounded Philosophy

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The ongoing debate between a liberal arts college education and a vocational, specialized approach to college education has become quite controversial.  The liberal arts education has faced a massive decline in the percentage of enrollment.  According to Hersh (2010), “A hundred years ago, liberal arts colleges represented the leading edge of educational quality; 70 percent of college students attended such colleges.  That figure is now below 5 percent” (p. 16).  A significant argument of the liberal arts education is whether the development of overall knowledge is more beneficial than an education focused only on STEM. In my opinion, the critical thinking and writing skills obtained from a liberal arts education prepare students for the labor market more so than a STEM education.

STEM education stands for education in the fields of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math.  There is a nationwide appeal to entering this field and the primary factor is the quantity of economic success for those that take this route.  In Ebersole’s 2013 article he states, “The other survey announced this week, the annual PayScale College Salary Report, was based on data gathered from more than 1.4 million college graduates and it identified the mid-career median salaries for individuals who had earned various types of degrees… Not surprisingly, degrees in STEM fields were listed among the top ten majors by salary potential.”  However, finding a job in the market for STEM are difficult to come by.  The appeal for a high salary in the STEM field is clear, but guarantee of jobs in this field is not always perfect.  

A profession in the fields that use STEM has shown to have higher average salaries.  Additionally, these jobs have not always been high in volume, and recently STEM jobs have been booming.  However, Rich Bellis wrote in a 2015 article that, “As the New Yorker columnist John Cassidy recently pointed out, ‘During the dot-com era, enrollment in computer-science and information-technology programs rose sharply. After the bursting of the stock-market bubble, many of these graduates couldn’t find work.’”  The problem with a STEM only education is that it can be tough to find a job in another field if one is unsuccessful in finding work.  A liberal arts education can offer many different skills and benefits that do not force one occupational route.  

The development of critical thinking and overall knowledge are vital factors that the student benefits from in a liberal arts education.  Tuition prices have skyrocketed over the last several years and have resulted in more students reconsidering whether it is worth it to attend a liberal arts college for its value.  I am positive that the answer to this question is yes because of the lifetime benefits one will have.  A college education provides an enormous amount of preparation to the challenges that will be faced in all kinds of occupations.  This preparation includes steady practice of reading and writing skills, while also being challenged to think critically in a variety of subjects.  According to Mclaughlin (2016), “The association’s study also found that by the peak earnings years (ages 56 to 60), liberal-arts graduates have higher earnings on average than people who pursued more narrowly defined areas of study.”  A college education strongly emphasizes this concept of practice every day to students in all types of subjects for the purpose of developing a critical thinking skill set in a specialized field of work.  Every profession requires a certain level of practice within the area, which is why a major principle of schooling is to learn from academically rigorous practice.  Critical thinking skills help students transform into leaders by developing the skills necessary to be a successful decision-maker.

The experience of a liberal arts education is incomparable by the jobs or other pursuits a high school student could receive after they graduate.  Students are launched into a brand new environment with many unfamiliar people when college begins.  Liberal arts colleges give students the opportunity to really delve into their favorite subjects, while also developing a greater general knowledge in other important areas of study.  A liberal arts education is utilized to succeed throughout a lifetime and this success not only involves the classes, reading, or writing that is done, but also the experiences, relationships, and lessons that are learned built by living in a tight-knit community.