Liberal Education

Did You Know? Employers Do Not Want Narrow, Illiberal Learning!

The public policy arena is currently awash in proposals based on the dangerously mistaken premise that study in the liberal arts is unrelated—or, worse still, actually counterproductive—to preparation for today’s workforce. The National Governors Association has suggested that higher education institutions should forgo “their long-established emphasis on broad liberal arts education” and instead “embrace a more active role in workforce development.” In Florida, where the governor has spoken out publicly against anthropology as a worthwhile major, there is a proposal to charge lower tuition to students in the STEM fields—and higher tuition to students majoring in other liberal arts disciplines. In North Carolina, the governor has suggested that public funds should not be spent to subsidize gender studies and other “useless” majors.

Meanwhile, even as they work to shut off the trickle of funding that remains for the humanities, legislators at the federal level are now taking aim at the social sciences. The House majority leader recently proposed eliminating the research “funds currently spent by the government on social science,” for example, and at the end of March, Congress passed—and the president signed—a continuing resolution for the 2013 fiscal year that includes an amendment from Senator Tom Coburn that severely restricts funding for political science research. The National Science Foundation is now expressly forbidden to spend federal funds on political science research, “except for research projects that the Director of the National Science Foundation certifies as promoting national security or the economic interests of the United States.”

While ostensibly designed to connect college education more directly to the needs of the economy while defunding “frills,” these and other kindred proposals to abandon America’s liberal arts tradition would almost certainly have the effect of unraveling the educational practices that made the United States the envy of the world. Our colleges and universities have long grounded students’ college studies in a strong “big-picture” liberal arts and sciences core, helping form generations of citizen innovators who, in turn, have made the United States a powerhouse of economic dynamism and creativity. Steve Jobs frequently underlined this connection, observing that the “marriage of liberal arts and technology” was a key to Apple’s worldwide success. Indeed, America’s signature educational tradition has served us remarkably well—so well, in fact, that our chief competitors in Asia are currently reforming their educational systems along American lines. In Hong Kong, for example, the educational system is being reformed to add general education in the arts and sciences at all levels, in the schools and across a university curriculum now expanded from three years to four. China also is helping its top-tier universities add general education to the curriculum.

Competitor nations recognize the value of the “big-picture” thinking that study in the liberal arts provides. But strong learning depends on scholarly vitality. If scholarly work in specific fields withers and fades, there is no way that student learning in these same areas can flourish.

Policy leaders seem to think that they need to eviscerate the liberal arts in order to grow the economy. But what do employers themselves actually say about their own priorities for the kinds of learning that college students need to succeed in today’s innovation-fueled economy? Do employers share policy makers’ disdain for the liberal arts? Are they calling on higher education to focus more narrowly on workforce development and eliminate the liberal arts dimensions of college learning?

Since 2005, when we launched the Liberal Education and America’s Promise (LEAP) initiative, AAC&U has commissioned a series of employer surveys and focus groups. A report on the 2013 survey, released in April, provides a detailed analysis of employers’ priorities. Chief among the findings is that employers recognize the continued importance of liberal education and the liberal arts:

  • 80 percent of employers agree that, regardless of their major, every college student should acquire broad knowledge in the liberal arts and sciences.
  • When given a description of the twenty-first-century liberal education AAC&U has been championing through the LEAP initiative, a large majority of employers recognize its importance; 74 percent would recommend this kind of education to a young person they know as the best way to prepare for success in today’s global economy.
  • The majority of employers agree that having both field-specific knowledge and skills and a broad range of skills and knowledge is most important for recent college graduates to achieve long-term career success; few think that having field-specific knowledge and skills alone is what is most needed for individuals’ career success. Twenty-nine percent prefer broad learning only!

In addition, nearly all the employers surveyed (95 percent) give hiring preference to college graduates with skills that will enable them to contribute to innovation in the workplace. Nearly all (93 percent) also say that a demonstrated capacity to think critically, communicate clearly, and solve complex problems is more important than a job candidate’s undergraduate major. Across many areas tested, employers strongly endorse educational practices that involve students in active, effortful critical inquiry and evidence-based reasoning—practices including collaborative problem solving, internships, senior projects, and community engagements. Employers consistently rank outcomes and practices that involve application of skills over acquisition of discrete bodies of knowledge, and they also strongly endorse practices that require students to demonstrate both acquisition and application of knowledge. In sum, employers seek to hire liberally educated college graduates.

As these results reveal, then, the worrisome disconnect is not between study in the liberal arts and preparation for success in today’s economy, but rather between leading policy makers’ views of the kind of preparation students need and the overlapping views of educators and employers.

Recognizing that action is needed to achieve greater alignment between public policy priorities, workforce demand, and educational practice, AAC&U has worked through the LEAP Presidents’ Trust, a leadership group consisting of presidents from all sectors of higher education, to shape the Employer-Educator Compact (see Bringing together college presidents and leading employers of college graduates in order to support the goals of the LEAP initiative, this newly launched effort underscores the importance of liberal education for the economy. This ongoing endeavor will be featured in the spring issue of Liberal Education, where we will publish the full results from our latest employer survey and the full text of the Employer-Educator Compact. Stay tuned—and join the LEAP campaign! We need all hands on deck to insist and ensure that the liberal arts and sciences remain absolutely indispensable to America’s future and to students’ long-term success.

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