By Iwona Hamrick
There has been an ongoing debate among politicians, the media and, most of all, in academic circles about the purpose and benefits of a college education. Although the majority of those involved in the discussion admit that today a college degree is essential in finding a higher-paying job and in advancing one’s social status, there is little agreement about whether colleges should equip students with a set of job-specific skills or offer them general knowledge in a wide range of subjects such as the humanities, math and the natural sciences, collectively known as a liberal arts education.
It seems that a long-established tradition of a liberal arts education is now losing ground to vocational programs, which focus on job training in competitive careers.
President Obama has been an advocate of higher education for all, but his stance on the subject is clear: career and technical programs are more applicable to the demands of today’s economy than degrees in art history.
Governor Rick Scott has long argued that taxpayer money – if to subsidize higher education – should “go to degrees where people can get jobs in this state,” as he told the The Herald Tribune in 2011, and not pay for fancy majors such as anthropology.
Statements that “you can make a really good living and have a great career without getting a four-year college education as long as you get the skills and the training that you need,” as President Obama said to Wisconsin voters in 2014, send a message to millions of college hopefuls that obtaining a degree should not be a time-consuming endeavor, and that the sole purpose of higher education is to prepare students for a job.
The assumptions, endorsed by our leaders, that a liberal arts education has become as outdated as the idea of spending four years of one’s life in a residential college, lead many young people to believe that only a degree directly connected to landing a job is a key to success in today’s job market.
This is a belief that for-profit colleges thrive on. Kaplan, DeVry, University of Phoenix and the like promise fast-track online college programs in “hot” careers to those who want to see an immediate return on their investment in higher education. Many eager students are unaware, though, that these institutions may be a financial trap and many of their degrees are of no value.
The facts are that the enrollments in majors offering general knowledge are rapidly declining as career-oriented students overwhelmingly choose vocational programs. Falling enrollments in liberal arts majors have forced many liberal arts colleges to introduce or expand on programs that focus on occupational training – often unwanted but a necessary move in their effort to stay alive.
Despite being the object of the political critique and contrary to current trends in students’ preferences for vocational degrees, a liberal arts education – as the recent data confirms – is still a worthy investment. The 2014 report by the Association of American Colleges and Universities and the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems shows that, in terms of employment and salary rates, liberal arts graduates do not lag behind graduates who majored in professional fields.
The report not only makes the case that liberal arts graduates can find jobs that pay decently, but it also brings to light the fact that the majority of employers want to hire people with a general knowledge foundation and transferable skills: the academic qualities that liberal arts students excel at.
The 2013 survey by Hart Research Associates found that over 90% of employers prefer candidates who can demonstrate creativity and intercultural awareness, and over 80% of employers seek proficiency in written and oral communication, and capacity to think critically and solve complex problems.
In his commencement speech at Sarah Lawrence College, Fareed Zakaria, a Washington Post columnist, observed that specific skills learned in vocational programs quickly become outdated “given the pace of change that is transforming industries and professions.” According to Zakaria, rapid advancements in technology require interdisciplinary knowledge and a capacity for critical thinking, analyzing and the application of a theory to a specific problem.
The strength of a liberal arts education lies in the nurturing of the cognitive faculties; a well-trained mind adapts smoothly to the ever-changing work environment and is able to “re-tool all the time.”
Pensacola State College takes a part in the debate about the importance of cultivating the tradition of a liberal arts education and offers a wide range of associate degrees in arts: English, math, social and natural sciences.
While PSC aims to accommodate the needs and interests of most undergraduates by also offering various career programs, it still requires vocational students to complete select liberal arts classes as a part of their curriculum.
There is no doubt that today’s economy needs experts in highly technical fields and specialists trained for particular jobs. However, a larger picture needs to be taken into account: there is more to life than just a satisfying career – the life itself – or, as Zakaria puts it, “one needs not just a good job but also a good life.”
The value of a liberal arts education reaches out beyond the college campus and the workplace; its ultimate purpose is to shape students into well-rounded individuals who can appreciate the great works of mankind, to prepare students for their civic role as valuable community members, and, finally, to turn students into responsible and committed citizens who are capable of their own judgments and unwilling to subscribe to political demagoguery.