We see the stories and portrayals on television and the internet nearly every day. Liberal arts professors in ivory towers teaching subjects that are more societal than practical. Woke culture pundits steering the youth of tomorrow toward ideals and beliefs that run contrary to capitalism and business. Often, these stories are braced by anecdotal evidence of often bizarre collegiate majors that could never be used in a practical way.
With tuition costs at an all-time high, it’s leading to a great new national education debate: Is a college education worth the investment? For many, it all depends on whether you get a job upon graduation.
“One of the aspects of the modern world that is difficult for individuals to grasp is that students will not have a single career,” says Stephen Stahl, provost of Baldwin Wallace University (BW). “The latest estimates are that the typical graduate will have between three and five careers.
“As daunting as that is, the projections are that two to three of these careers have not yet been invented. This is where the liberal arts become extremely important,” Stahl explains. “They instill the discipline in students to examine new areas, become comfortable with different world views and see issues from different vantage points. These skills provide the foundation for the liberal arts-trained individual to find meaning and relevance in frontier circumstances and move society forward.”
“One of the best ways students can ensure they are marketable is to participate in various types of experiential learning while in college that help develop transferable skills that are applicable to a broad set of employment opportunities,” says Laura Carey, director of career services at the University of Akron (UA).
“Experiential learning can help students evaluate companies, industries and prospective career paths while providing them with relevant work and learning experiences related to a major,” Carey adds. “Another way to impact marketability upon graduation is for students to seek jobs that are in-demand. If students are unsure of a major or career path, UA’s career services helps them explore the ‘hot jobs’ in Ohio or other regions.”
“Surveys of employers consistently rank skills such as problem-solving, analytical skills, ability to work in teams and communication skills as their most desired attributes in new college graduates,” adds Nikki Marzano, MA CPRW, director of career services at John Carroll University. (JCU) “John Carroll’s liberal arts core curriculum prepares students to make a difference in the workplace and in society with its focus on high-level transferable skills — including communication, evidence-based reasoning and problem solving.”
Those arguments fall on deaf ears when it comes to television and social media pundits on both sides of the aisle. They often argue that a college education is simply not worth the investment, especially if you have to go into debt to obtain it. That perception is having a negative impact on both enrollment and the nature of the programs finding their way into college curricula today. And the facts speak for themselves.
According to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center’s Overview of Spring 2022 Enrollment Estimates, collegiate enrollment is dropping at an alarming pace. Total postsecondary enrollment, which includes both undergraduate and graduate students, fell 4.1% nationwide, with undergraduate enrollment making up much of the decline down 662,000 students — or 4.75% in spring 2022 from spring 2021. This is only slightly less than the latter’s yearly loss of 4.9%. As a result, the undergraduate student body is now 9.4% lower than it was in 2020, or nearly 1.4 million students less than it was before the pandemic.
We can’t blame all of this on COVID-19. However, we may have the solution here in Ohio. It’s an elegant solution that has been touted by economic development organizations and businesses for decades: developing partnerships between academia and businesses to ensure graduation leads to a gainfully employed career.
Colleges in Northeast Ohio offer a variety of resources dedicated to the future employment of their students. Some offer programs that connect students to employers as soon as they graduate or even during enrollment. In Northeast Ohio, schools that have educational programs with the goal of getting students employed or connected to employers include the University of Akron (UA), Cuyahoga Community College (Tri-C), Cleveland State University (CSU) and Kent State University (KSU).
UA has a federal work-study program, a student aid program that provides part-time employment while its students are enrolled. This program is helpful to students that need income, but it also helps them build career relationships.
Employment rates at UA are a case in point. At six months post-graduation, 95% of spring 2021 graduates who earned an undergraduate degree were employed full time, part time or continuing their education, says Carey. And 85% of students who earned a bachelor’s degree participated in at least one experiential learning experience before graduation.
Tri-C’s Corporate Campus also provides employment opportunities right out of its trade programs. Its steel-working program offers “on-site paid training at ArcelorMittal,” according to the college. Tri-C’s IT department is also making an effort to give students career opportunities. The program offers paid internships, and the department has a plan to help employ more women specifically.
KSU has an employment program in partnership with Delta Air Lines. The university’s aeronautics program allows students to complete their required pilot training and then pursue a career with Delta Air Lines.
KSU is also playing a key role in education and workforce development through Intel’s Ohio Semiconductor Education and Research Program. KSU is one of eight collaborative programs being funded by the chipmaker, which has invested more than $20 billion in new manufacturing facilities in Ohio.
In Northeast Ohio, JCU is among 13 local collaborating colleges and universities whose semiconductor research and education will be part of KSU’s efforts. Other local colleges and universities under KSU’s umbrella include: BW, Tri-C, Hiram College, Lake Erie College, Lakeland Community College, Lorain County Community College, Malone University, Mount Vernon Nazarene University, Notre Dame College, Walsh University and Wilberforce University.
Each of these institutions will leverage existing research, curricular and experiential learning assets, capabilities and expertise within the region and grow the collective capacity to support the domestic growth of robust semiconductor and microelectronics innovation and supply chain ecosystems.
“What this opportunity brings to JCU primarily focuses on multiple student experiential learning opportunities related to semiconductor manufacturing via a summer institute, hybrid immersive experiences, internships and building virtual reality experiences to supplement and scale the work,” says Jeff Dyck, Ph.D., a professor in JCU’s department of physics. “The program aims to forge better curricular pathways and alignment between JCU and two-year technical programs at KSU and/or local community colleges.”
That is good news for those who are seeking to justify college education as an expense. People should never lose sight of what a true liberal arts education has to offer or become too dependent on workforce development initiatives to attract students to higher education.
“While we are involved in the Intel Workforce Initiative through our KSU partnership, manufacturing computer chips is not our strong suit,” says David Haney, president of Hiram College. “Everybody is interested in that workforce initiative, so we are peripherally involved.”
So how does a traditional liberal arts college like Hiram compete?
“We have found that what employers really want is students to know what they have been educated to pursue,” says Haney. “For example, they want students with accounting degrees to know accounting. However, they also want students who can think creatively in teams and students who can solve problems — those are the traditional things that you get from a liberal arts education.”
Approximately 95% of Hiram’s graduates get employed after graduation, “which is not that big of a deal when you have 3% unemployment,” Haney concedes.
“Students who receive a broad-based liberal arts education are prepared for the widest array of career opportunities,” says Mitchell McKinney, dean of the Buchtel College of Arts and Science at UA. “The skills obtained from a liberal arts degree — such as written and oral communication, analytic and critical thinking skills, creative expression and global understanding — are the top skills and knowledge that employers look for and the abilities that characterize those who achieve leadership positions in their chosen careers.”
A liberal arts education also contributes to establishing a common societal belief system, which is sorely lacking in today’s society. Still, traditional liberal arts schools and education continue to come under attack.
“One of the problems with the news these days is that a [negative perception] is convenient from an entertainment point of view,” says Haney. “People find it entertaining to get mad at other people. Another thing that makes it easier for us to be a target is that liberal arts education uses the word ‘liberal.’”
Many people equate that to left-wing politics. But the word ‘liberal’ in education actually goes back to the Greek and Roman days, says Haney.
“Back then, the word ‘liberal,’ meant ‘liberating,’ as in an education would actually set you free,” Haney says.
“Colleges like Hiram serve a wide variety of students. We have liberals, conservatives and students engaged in those kinds of dialogues. We make an effort to support and evaluate diverse points of view.
“We also realize that our values have to be based on research and faith in science. You won’t pass a political science class if you deny the facts of history.”