By Dr. Cary Fowler ’71
No wonder some young people are giving up entirely—a 16.8 percent unemployment rate plus soaring student loan debt is more than a little discouraging. Yet old-guard academic leaders are still clinging to the status quo—and loudly insisting that a four-year liberal arts degree is a worthy investment in every young American’s future.
“How Liberal Arts Colleges Are Failing America”
How much is this going to cost? What kind of job is my child going to get with a major in [fill in the blank with the least sellable major you can imagine]? Is our investment in college going to “pay off?” These are questions college administrators field every day.
As the parent of both a high school and a college senior, believe me, I empathize with concerns about costs and outcomes! As an adult who will qualify for Medicare later this year, I also realize that returns on investment in education cannot strictly be measured by dollars. The proof and value of an individual’s education may not fully manifest itself in the first job out of college. Or the second.
We no longer live in a world in which a student leaves college and neatly slips into a job directly associated with a specific major and stays put forever. There are for-profit colleges that cater to this dream; 50 percent more students attend them than liberal arts colleges. But in the world in which I live, society, the economy, and technology are not static. People change fields, jobs, and employers with some regularity over the course of a lifetime. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average Baby Boomer has held 11 jobs by the age of 46. Fast-forward a generation and we find that the 10 jobs most in demand in 2010 did not even exist six years earlier, according to Jeffrey Selingo, editor at large for the Chronicle of Higher Education. Moreover, 40 percent of college majors today weren’t around in 1990. The take-home lesson is that students who narrowly structure their education to prepare for a specific slot in today’s volatile job market better have a crystal ball or else they could find themselves preparing for yesterday’s jobs.
How many important world problems or even garden-variety challenges in business, science, civic affairs, or day-to-day life can be solved or even understood within the confines of a single academic major? In my experience, zero. How can we expect great things from students who choose their college and major based solely on today’s job market and salary expectations? Can we anticipate success or even minimal security for those who confine their education to one particular subject, whether it’s math or music, physics or philosophy? Selingo predicts that students who make such choices “will in all likelihood, without a passion to motivate them, struggle in both school and career.” It is thus critical that students explore different disciplines while leaving room to pursue the subjects they really love. Parents and students alike should understand that a major is simply a starting point for introducing the knowledge, understanding, and skills needed in life.
When it “takes,” a liberal arts education helps prepare students for any and all professions and the broadest range of careers. It provides them with the capacity to navigate change in the real world by honing critical-thinking skills, the ability to work in teams, and the ability to synthesize new material from disparate sources and “connect the dots.” It teaches how to learn and how to communicate orally and in writing—this alone is a ticket for success. And to be blunt, it also prepares young people to have a richer, less TV-dependent intellectual and social life. Not surprisingly, surveys indicate that employers view these kinds of skills as highly attractive and more important than a student’s particular major. (Case in point: all 2013 Rhodes grads in math and music, as well as physics and philosophy, were employed or in graduate school a year after graduating.)
Students at Rhodes and similar liberal arts colleges are clearly faring well in the job market, and according to a study published by the Association of American Colleges and Universities, “students who pursue their major within the context of a broad liberal education substantially increase their likelihood of achieving long-term professional success.”
There is no magic or mystery to this. Small liberal arts colleges are uniquely structured to bring out the best in students through deep mentoring relationships with faculty and experiential learning. They provide exposure to different disciplines and ways of thinking; offer undergraduate research opportunities; writing intensive courses; an emphasis on values, honor codes, and community service; and an important residential experience. Such colleges produce an inordinate number of graduates who are creative, confident, mature, and hardworking, who take responsibility, accept accountability, appreciate diversity, and are ready to engage the world with charity, civility, and integrity.
In a fast-changing world, such an education—which colleges such as Rhodes consciously aspire to offer—acts as a kind of personal insurance policy against obsolescence. In the words of Nannerl Keohane, it prepares young people for both “society and solitude.”
Our future civic, political, business, and scientific leaders could well benefit from this kind of educational experience. Perhaps it’s not for everyone, but it’s the kind of education I want for my children and they want for themselves.
Am I still nervous about costs and outcomes? You bet. But part of my own education involved taking the blinders off and learning to adapt to reality and risk. We’ll manage.
Dr. Cary Fowler ’71 is a member of the Rhodes College Board of Trustees and the former executive director of the Global Crop Diversity Trust. He is currently its special advisor.