Their broad, multidisciplinary education may be just what employers need in an increasingly complex world.
These are challenging times for higher education in the United States. Colleges and universities face higher operating costs, intense competition for students and constrained resources. Students are confronted with the rapidly rising cost of tuition, contributing to an ever-growing student debt crisis.
The result is increased public scrutiny, demands for greater accountability and mounting questions over the very value of post-secondary education. Is college truly worth the cost? Is a baccalaureate degree the guaranteed gateway to a fulfilling career with real earning potential? Are institutions of higher learning producing the type of graduates that employers want and need?
Nowhere is this focus more intense than in the liberal arts and sciences. In contrast to their professional school counterparts who study in specialized, occupationally-focused fields, liberal arts and sciences students major or concentrate their undergraduate studies in particular academic disciplines, such as mathematics, history or psychology. However, their broad education extends across the fine arts, humanities, social sciences, natural sciences and computational sciences. Thus, liberal arts and sciences graduates are not “trained” for specific careers. Given a high-quality college education does not come cheaply, some question the wisdom and practicality of a liberal arts and sciences degree.
The Three Competencies
Yet, this perspective is regrettable given liberal arts and sciences graduates are well-positioned to meet the needs of employers in the business, government and nonprofit sectors of the economy. After all, a liberal arts and sciences education develops a set of highly relevant competencies that form the foundation for professional success in the 21st century. These competencies can be categorized by the three Cs: critical thinking, communication and context.
A liberal arts and sciences education fosters critical thinking skills because it demands inquiry, analytic reasoning, the ability to use qualitative and quantitative data, and the capacity to master and synthesize complex information. It also provides the knowledge and tools for ethical decisionmaking. The result is a literate and reflective employee with a moral compass who can tackle and solve big problems.
Students who major in the liberal arts and sciences develop written and oral communication skills. While the ability to communicate effectively in English is essential, communication extends to the adept use of technology, foreign languages and other mediums fostered by a liberal arts and sciences education. Today, more than ever, employers need individuals who can communicate with diverse audiences across a variety of traditional and nontraditional platforms.
Liberal arts and sciences graduates are educated to understand context. That is, they have the capacity to see a larger societal picture and where they, their work and personal pursuits fit in. A liberal arts and sciences education teaches an understanding and appreciation for others. This is good news for employers who wish to recruit those who will care about the organization and their coworkers. Many liberal arts and sciences degree holders will also possess a global perspective, the ability to work in teams of diverse individuals and a strong sense of social responsibility. In addition to these considerations, a liberal arts and sciences graduate is likely to understand the past and recognize how the successes and failures of human history truly inform the present. This is an especially valuable asset in a contemporary world where there is often a tendency to overlook the lessons of the past.
A Broader View
Beyond the many valuable competencies associated with critical thinking, communication and context, broadly educated liberal arts and sciences graduates offer employers three more advantages. First, they are inclined to be more comfortable than their professional school counterparts in working between and among a range of academic disciplines. As a result, they will be able to integrate knowledge from different fields and work effectively with specialists in those fields in a variety of settings. Second, employers will find liberal arts and sciences degree holders readily trainable, because they have not been prepared for one specific profession. These graduates will be receptive to an organization’s distinct mission, culture and operations. Third, most liberal arts and sciences graduates are intellectually curious individuals with a predisposition, if not a passion, for lifelong learning. The result is employees with the capacity to adapt to organizational and environmental change in a fast-paced, global economy.
Thus, the news is good for both employers and liberal arts and sciences graduates. Employers stand to gain well-rounded individuals who possess the knowledge, competencies and intellectual curiosity to adapt and succeed in the highly demanding and ever-changing workplace. Liberal arts and sciences graduates, in turn, stand to discover their broad, multidisciplinary education may be just what employers want (and need) as they position their organizations for success in an increasingly complex and interdependent world. iBi
Christopher M. Jones, PhD, is dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at Bradley University and professor of political science specializing in U.S. foreign and defense policy.