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Liberal Arts Evolving For 21st Century Job Market

The liberal arts is a label that’s been used for generations to indicate a “well-rounded” education. The rationale was straightforward— in order to succeed in the world, a college graduate needed exposure to a wide variety of subjects, not just the skills that they would use every day in their careers.

The job market has shifted radically in recent decades, and employers now seek out graduates with hard skills that are in high demand: science, technology, engineering, math and health care. Far too many liberal arts graduates have found themselves in pits of despair after graduating deeply in debt and facing underemployment.

Liberal arts colleges have been on the decline as college students are waking up to discover that many of these degrees are expensive and don’t give them the skills they need to succeed in the job market. Fortunately, some liberal arts schools are evolving, and trying to preserve their traditions, while integrating coursework that employers look for in today’s hyper-competitive world.

Emory, Dartmouth and Denison have introduced data programs to complement their liberal arts offerings. Dozens of other schools are following suit as graduates who have training in data analysis have much better career prospects. Liberal arts schools everywhere are finally caving under the pressure of accommodating our new economic realities.

How the times have changed

As a student at a small liberal arts school more than a decade ago, I found myself in the eye of the storm of the growing controversy over adding more practical majors. Professors were aghast at the prospect of a business program at our school, and they fought it tooth and nail. Today, business is one of the most popular majors at my alma mater. What was once an extremely controversial move at any liberal arts school is now standard practice.

This battle has played out over and over again across the country as liberal arts schools realize that they’re going to go the way of the dinosaur if they don’t change. Undergraduates are increasingly choosing majors that lead to steady employment, and if these schools don’t accommodate this seismic shift, they will simply fade away.

Liberal arts schools are slowly disappearing as savvy consumers have little tolerance for absurd tuition costs coupled with zero job-market readiness. These schools aren’t necessarily closing as many are merely rebranding themselves as traditional institutions.

Liberal arts: A luxury product for the few

Make no mistake, a liberal arts education is an unbelievable experience. The instructional quality facilitates self-discovery and maturation and an incredible amount of intellectual empowerment. When I think about what I am personally most grateful for in life, my liberal arts education is at the top of my list.

But realistically, most people cannot afford a private liberal arts education, even with a scholarship. That’s because it’s almost near-certain that you’ll have to go to graduate school in order to find meaningful work.

Tuition at liberal arts schools, including my alma mater, continues to rise to unimaginable levels, locking out students from families of more limited means. In the meantime, they’ve built our university president an unbelievably fancy new mansion.

My liberal arts education taught me enough to know that this is ethically abject.

Takeaway: Liberal arts is just one problem with higher education

Colleges and universities have become bloated bureaucracies and have completely lost sight of why they exist — to educate students. They’re too expensive and need to better prepare their graduates for success.

We must hold colleges accountable for their post-graduate outcomes. The liberal arts is a solid philosophical approach to a university education as producing well-rounded students is exactly what college is all about.

And this is precisely why liberal arts colleges should expand their offerings to include subjects that were not traditionally part of their curriculum. A well-rounded graduate today needs 21st century skills, and the liberal arts should accommodate these new realities.

This article was originally published on GenFKD.org.

Photo by Mike Saechang

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