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Knowing Their Worth: Three Ways to Help Students Connect a Liberal Arts Degree to Career Paths
Since the 2007–09 Great Recession and continuing through the current pandemic, college students’ anxiety over their future employment prospects has been rampant. As a result, one of the most common questions students and their parents ask campus career counselors, faculty advisors, and other educators is “What can be done with a degree in the liberal arts?” While many professional options are available to graduates with a degree in a liberal arts field, we educators sometimes struggle to supply a direct answer to the question, instead pointing to the value of learning to think critically and of using the college years to explore one’s identity. But where does that leave us if interest in certain areas of the liberal arts is declining, student interest in job placements is continuing to increase, and the state of the hiring environment is in flux?
Many students seek refuge from uncertainty about their future employment prospects by reaching out to their campus career education center, but they often don’t connect the advice they receive there to what they learn in the classroom. This is one big reason faculty need to incorporate career preparation into their courses. Another is that faculty are the experts most closely aligned with the subject matter and have a unique platform for guiding students on their prospective career journeys.
Between 2012 and 2015, the number of bachelor’s degrees conferred in the humanities—a big area of the liberal arts—dropped by nearly 10 percent, according to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. One reason for the decline may be the general public’s perception that a degree in the humanities won’t lead to financial security. Meanwhile, the public regularly receives messages about the positive career outcomes associated with studies in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). As Betsy DeVos, then US secretary of education, said in a November 2020 press release, “This Administration’s strategic focus on STEM education will help expose America’s students to new and exciting learning environments that will prepare them for in-demand, high-paying careers.” Because of rhetoric like this, the next generation of college students is likely to correlate high-paying careers solely with STEM fields, potentially causing them to bypass a large part of the liberal arts altogether.
Another reason for the declining enrollment in the humanities is the uptick in Advanced Placement humanities course completion—which quadrupled to two million students between 1996 and 2015, according to Robert Townsend, a researcher with the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. With many students testing out of general education humanities courses, fewer are introduced to humanities subjects early in their higher education journey, making it less likely that they will major in the humanities.
Faculty members have many opportunities to point out the value of majoring in the liberal arts in the context of future career success. When I taught communication at Lasell University in Massachusetts, I was impressed with the institution’s connected learning approach. Lasell describes its connected learning as a “curriculum that deepens classroom learning through real-world experience” and explains that “every major includes practical, hands-on activities in the form of internships, service learning, study abroad, and collaborative research.” Real-world experiences allow students to build a robust résumé, and Lasell educators are expected to prioritize the integration of professional and liberal arts programs—a necessary combination.
I personally experienced the power of this combination in my classroom. My students, many of whom were the first in their families to pursue a college degree, regularly asked me about how to leverage Lasell’s connected learning philosophy for their benefit when interviewing for a job. The students often wanted to go through our syllabus and pinpoint which assignments were acceptable to use for their postgraduate portfolios or which they should describe in a cover letter or interview. The process of addressing their questions—outside of class time—was extremely effective. One-on-one interactions with students help them relate the course content to their personal experiences. Once an educator knows why and how the learning objectives in a course can help students achieve their career goals, the conversations become more meaningful.
For example, the pressure to “make something” of themselves drove many of my students’ academic decisions. I had a communications student whose parents had immigrated to the United States in pursuit of the American dream. The student’s time was consumed by securing internships, networking, and finding career development experiences. Though the student’s parents had started their own business and lived a financially secure life, the parents viewed this student’s entrance into college as a way for their child to access direct career opportunities associated with an education. If the student didn’t find a position immediately after graduation in public relations or a media-related field, the family would deem the education useless. After thoughtfully observing this student’s initiative, I realized that students are craving career guidance tied to their studies, especially if the college experience is new to them and their families.
First-generation college students especially can benefit from having faculty coach them about how to connect lessons and assignments to job prospects. Because many of these students don’t have family members or mentors who have gone through the college experience, they are thirsty for actionable advice on how to use their degrees to find a job. Beyond holding one-on-one meetings with students to discuss career opportunities, educators can also invite guest speakers to class to share their successful career experiences.
At Lasell, I had the pleasure of providing career counseling to many first-generation students, and now, as an associate professor of practice at Simmons University in Boston, I am tasked with creating lessons that encourage workforce readiness. Simmons is a women-centered institution with a goal of becoming the most inclusive campus in New England. Our ambition to achieve this goal has thrust our commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) to the forefront of all that we do, and it informs our student-led conversations about effectively leveraging a liberal arts education to obtain a meaningful career.
Workplaces are also becoming more diverse, and educators should emphasize how DEI efforts and addressing social justice prepares students for the job market. In the Association of American Colleges and Universities’ most recent employer
survey, 89 percent of employers ranked the “ability to analyze and solve problems with people from different backgrounds and cultures” as “very important” or “somewhat important.” In Simmons’ Department of Communications, we thread themes of social justice and activism, as well as a commitment to ourselves and each other, through all our courses. Students regularly participate in experiential learning. Whether it’s through a social media campaign focusing on social issues or a creative storytelling project in which students confront and address biases, we’re preparing them to navigate the current job market shifts that have led to an increased value on—and prioritization of—equity and inclusion. For example, in the course “Digital Cultures,” students make an online persona for a person they’ve never met, solely based on photos. Through that lesson, we can talk about biases and how employers might view job candidates based on their digital footprints.
Students will always ask us about the career paths available to someone with a degree in the liberal arts, and we have to specifically call out assignments and lessons that demonstrate skills that could be applied in a future job. Here are three ways faculty and administrators can better serve students who are unsure of how to maximize their liberal arts degree and apply it to a career path.
1) Don’t undervalue soft skills. Students and their parents often overlook the emphasis on soft skills in the marketplace. Big-name employers like Google are seeking to hire candidates with soft skills such as leadership, teamwork, flexibility, and empathy—the same skills acquired through a liberal arts education. In fact, in 2013, Google found that its most successful teams were those that exhibited interpersonal skills, not just technical ones. Technology is constantly changing, but mastering soft skills will serve students throughout their lives and is imperative to a successful career.
We must communicate to students how the learning in our courses will provide value in the workplace. For example, in an advertising and branding course, students defend their creative concepts for an ad campaign as I play the role of chief marketing officer for a major brand. I poke holes in the creative concepts, making sure the students are ready to stand up for their ideas with arguments based on facts and data, not opinion. My students dread the project, but at the end, they say they’re thankful for the experience. They’ve learned that the field of advertising is competitive and high-pressure, and the mock campaign presentations help them gain skills for interacting with executives. The “working well under pressure” soft skill cannot be overvalued, so I take time to teach students how to describe what they learned from the campaign exercise in a cover letter and an interview.
2) Focus on skills, not classes. Many students ask me which classes they should take to learn marketable skills. But that’s the wrong question. Instead, I ask students what they hope to do after they complete their Simmons education or which positions they think might be a good fit for them. Once they describe in detail what they think they want to do, we talk about which courses might offer skills or projects that they can use in a postgraduate portfolio. For example, if a student wants to go into politics, I might advise taking a public speaking course since writing, delivering, and promoting speeches are part of any political career. Similarly, I might advise that students in other majors take women’s and gender studies courses if they are considering a career in nonprofit work that will focus on gender equity.
Over the course of their entire undergraduate education, students should complete assignments, projects, and activities that will help them stand out to prospective employers. When advising and mentoring, educators must help students identify key pieces of work that can demonstrate their unique skill sets so employers know what students can offer the organization. In a nutshell, we should be less concerned about course titles and more concerned about the tangible work samples students leave with.
3) Emphasize the how. “We teach people how to think.” This mantra is echoed in the halls of many liberal arts institutions but without much explanation. Faculty and administrators should make a conscious effort to focus on how critical and analytical thinking leads to problem solving. Sadly, we often understate the value of problem solving when, in reality, astute problem solvers are in demand in fields like law, business, medicine, and technology to address societal challenges and deliver long-term solutions. I advise faculty to pause during a lesson that includes critical and analytical thinking in order to explain how the students are sharpening their problem-solving skills. For example, during a crisis communications simulation, I give students a prompt that describes a complex communications conundrum, such as when a CEO’s past social media behavior is called into question. The students have to choose who or what caused the crisis—and I specifically write the prompt in a way in which the onus could be on several parties. After students make their case and justify their thinking, I explain to them that their critical thinking has led to the start of a crisis communications strategy. Students then develop tactics for how to solve the problem. I later give them written language for describing the simulation to future employers. Essentially, students can confidently report that they have some knowledge of developing and executing a crisis plan. From there, instructors should demonstrate how students could use this knowledge in an interview or on a résumé. Specifically, using the example above, students would write that they know how to plan for a crisis with an emphasis on reputation management and community building. We must help students connect the dots between what they are doing for a grade and what they’ll be doing on the job. This is how we will broadcast the value of a liberal arts education most loudly.
Kristina Markos is an associate professor of practice in the Department of Communications at Simmons University.