Yes, Employers Do Value Liberal Arts Degrees…But Will That Change Public Opinion?

liberal arts degrees Boston

Dr. Lynn Pasquerella, president of the American Association of Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) authored an article for the September 2019 Harvard Business Review touting the merits of liberal arts degrees. AAC&U represents institutions committed to the value of liberal arts programs. In fact, APUS is a member and recognized by its accreditor, the Higher Learning Commission as a liberal arts institution.

Dr. Pasquerella notes that “it’s no secret that American higher education is under siege” and adds that politicians have fueled this dynamic by proposing legislation that would base funding on students’ employment after graduation and requiring institutions to amend mission statements citing such aspirations as “search for truth,” “public service,” and “improving the human condition.” She adds that the “achieve the American Dream” vision has been decoupled from higher education, keeping many individuals from recognizing that colleges and universities still contribute substantially toward societal and institutional transformation.

According to Dr. Pasquerella, higher education institutions need to respond to the hue and cry that a college education is too expensive, too difficult to access, and does not teach students skills needed to survive in a 21st-century job market. I agree wholeheartedly. She discusses some of the findings from a recent AAC&U-sponsored employer research study, “Fulfilling the American Dream: Liberal Education and the Future of Work.” While I don’t necessarily disagree with these findings, I don’t believe this report will sway prevailing public opinion.

Does it surprise me that 500+ business executives and hiring managers expressed greater confidence in colleges and universities than the American public? No. After all, most of these companies are not expending or borrowing cash to pay for the degrees earned by their new employees. Why wouldn’t they agree that higher education is “an essential and worthwhile investment of time and money” when it’s generally not their money being invested or time away from work incurred by their employees? I wonder if the same findings would result were the questions only given to companies or organizations where most employees lack a degree and that provide substantial tuition benefits to employees.

The survey found that internships and apprenticeships were highly valued, with 93% of the executives and 94% of the hiring managers indicating they would be more likely to hire someone with this experience versus someone without it. Of course, they would! While I don’t have a supporting statistic, based on my experiences with children of friends and relatives who have recently attended colleges, most of those who received internships and apprenticeships were in the business school. The results further indicate that only 33% of executives and 30% of hiring managers believe that recent graduates are well prepared to apply knowledge and skills in actual job settings. It seems to me that this finding supports the previous one. Are there movements afoot in liberal arts institutions to provide internships and apprenticeships to students while they are attending schools? I can confirm from knowing a few students attending a few elite institutions that they have access to internships. I can’t confirm a broader participation from students at non-elite institutions. Perhaps the AAC&U can.

To her credit, Dr. Pasquerella calls for institutions to work with business and industry to develop 21st-century skills for the workplace. As a parent, I believe the business schools are much further along in helping their students develop those skills. As an educator AND a liberal arts grad, I think those partnerships with programs outside of the school of business need to occur now to change the court of public opinion about the value of a liberal arts degree. But will that change public opinion?

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