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The National Governors Association's College Overhaul Favors Job-Centric Education

May 27, 2011

The National Governors Association Center for Best Practices (CBP) recently released a report on the current state of higher education entitled 'Degrees for What Jobs? Raising Expectations for Universities and Colleges in a Global Economy.' Unfortunately, the CBP might have some bad news for students of the liberal arts. They believe that priority should be given to degree programs designed explicitly for the labor market, which means ceasing 'emphasis on broad liberal-arts education.'

By Eric Garneau

work

Focus!

The CBP surely has the best interest of the global economy at heart. Their recommendations for schools - train for jobs, cut the excess - seem to draw a straight line between a perceived problem (labor shortage which hurts the economy) and a simple solution (produce graduates to fill those shortages). If the Governors Association provides incentives to schools that train explicitly for job market needs (as determined by employer satisfaction and market indices), universities should have an easier time correcting the problems of our labor force.

Critics have correctly pointed out, however, the relative shortsightedness of that solution. Indeed, issues with the CBP's report speak to the heart of higher education in America. Here we ought to consider what it means to prize a 'liberal arts' education in the first place.

Liberal arts educations generally emphasize critical thinking in cross-disciplinary studies. Rather than focusing on any one subject exclusively, students of the liberal arts receive a smattering of information in subjects like history, the sciences and literature. Often in a modern college setting, that liberal arts core is represented by 'general education' classes that every student's required to take. They're then free to specialize in areas that appeal to them or to their future career prospects; generally, that becomes their major.

What Do Employers Want?

Once can see where the CBP's coming from in their report. In theory, streamlining a college's teaching practices would create more efficiency, and efficiency is a thing to be prized, especially in the business world.

Yet from actually talking to employers themselves, it seems that a narrow focus on career-specific skills isn't really all that desired. A recent New York Times article reported on a survey of employers that concluded they want workers who 'can write coherently, think creatively and analyze quantitative data, and they're perfectly happy to hire English or biology majors.' Apparently specific skill sets don't matter as much to the national workforce as the general skills gleaned from a liberal arts education.

It could be the CBP just thinks employers are mistaken, and that college graduates who intensely focus on a single field really would better suit their needs, whether they know it or not. However, there's another matter to consider: specific job skills change all the time. In an ever-shrinking world constantly transformed by technology, knowledge in fields from business to engineering to economics shift constantly. Despite those changes, it's a liberal arts education which bestows a strong educational foundation on college graduates. Ideally that foundation prepares them to adapt to whatever changes the job market throws at them. To deny students of that is pure folly.

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