Shreveport Times
July 26, 2008

Despite Focus on Work Force, Liberal Arts Programs Thrive

Education advisers judge colleges on ability to turn out potential employees.

By Icess Fernandez
(reprinted courtesy of the Shreveport Times)

College sophomore Salil Joshi is majoring in two subjects — neuroscience/behavior biology and music. Although he's science oriented, his music major is what the Emery College student and native Sheveporter says helps him focus on his studies.

He's played the violin for 10 years and the piano for eight. Joshi started taking music classes his second semester.

"I was more keen on studying. I had the interest, and I continued to improve as a person."

Joshi's experience is what some in academic circles fear is in danger in American higher education students expanding their perspective through a liberal arts education. As more communities nationwide try to build a local work force through specialized programs, academicians warn against having a too narrow focus.

But Shreveport is bucking a national concern. While local universities and colleges have created certificate programs that will train someone in a matter of months, students continue to opt for a liberal arts education. Both Centenary College and LSU-Shreveport are seeing an upward swing in liberal arts degrees awarded.

In 2008, both schools saw an increase in the number of liberal arts degrees. LSUS granted 205 degrees, up from 155 last year. Centenary awarded 195 degrees, up from 161 last year.

The fear steams from cues from the U.S. Education Department, most specifically the resignation of Diane Auer Jones, former assistant secretary for postsecondary education. In an article in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Jones says advisers in the government agency do not regard liberal arts well and instead want to focus more on judging colleges on their ability to churn out potential employees for businesses.

"There is a lot of turmoil and fermentation in the Department of Education," said Darrel Colson, provost and dean of Centenary College. "(Education Secretary Margaret) Spellings wants accountability, and it's difficult to do accountability. The fear is that once you measure in a quantitative way, then you narrow to the lower common denominator."

Debra Humphreys, vice president for communications and public affairs for the Association of American Colleges and Universities, says employers want graduates from liberal arts programs. Humphreys is also a liberal education advocate and has conducted nationwide research on liberal arts education and business. She also helps with the organization's Liberal Education and America's Promise: Excellence for Everyone as a Nation Goes To College campaign.

"People don't understand the term 'liberal arts education.' We are talking about the outcomes, critical thinking, context — they are important for whatever career you go into."

There has been a nationwide decline of students in traditional liberal arts majors, Humphreys said. Although month-long programs teach skills needed to enter the work force quickly, students are limited in their career options, she said.

"It's a quick fix for students and for policy makers. It's a shortsighted strategy," Humphreys said. "I do think that students should be cautioned about the value of these programs given a lot of evidence that today's workplace demands a different kind of preparation — and one that really requires a broader education rather than a narrow one — even for very technical professions."

The research conducted by the national organization included a poll of businesses leaders. Among the conclusions are:

  • Nearly two-thirds of business leaders believe "too many recent college graduates do not have the skills they need to succeed in the global economy."
  • Seventy-six percent of business leaders would recommend a liberal education to a young person they know.
  • More than 70 percent of employers want colleges to place more emphasis on global learning, written and oral communication and teamwork skills in diverse groups.
  • Only about a quarter of employers surveyed rate college graduates as "very well prepared" in the area of writing.
  • One-third of graduates recruited by Goldman Sachs in 2007 for full-time analyst positions were liberal arts majors, compared to 24 percent who were technology majors.

Colson agrees with the outcome of the organization's study.

"It's not what I think. The verdict is in that if we want a dynamic work force, you need a liberal arts education. When you look at surveys, large and small employers want what the liberal arts provides — critical thinking and writing well."

Larry Anderson, dean of LSU-Shreveport's College of Liberal Arts, said although he agrees with some of his colleagues, not everyone wants a liberal arts education.

"If a person wants to be a dental hygienist, they need the courses to get there. They don't need the credits they would need for a bachelor's or master's degree."

But some of the skills academics tout as special to students of the college should have been learned before they stepped on campus, Anderson said. Skills like critical thinking should have been taught and practiced in high school, he said.

"I think people at that age are capable of it. I think the consequences of the current structure are negative."

Students like Joshi think everyone should partake in some sort of liberal arts education no matter how minor.

"By entering the work force at such a young age you're limiting yourself. What I say is explore your options, especially with the economy and the middle class struggling. That's the main flaw in joining these things."

"People don't understand the term 'liberal arts education.' We are talking about the outcomes, critical thinking, context; they are important for whatever career you go into."...Debra Humphreys, vice president for communications and public affairs for the Association of American Colleges and Universities.

Read the original story as seen on the Shreveport Times.