Preparing our students for the workforce
We asked President Jay Coogan of the Minneapolis College of Art and Design and President Rebecca Bergman of Gustavus Adolphus College for their insights on how the liberal arts prepare students for today’s — and tomorrow’s — workforce. And while the pay-off may be less obvious than training for technical fields, everyone can benefit from a foundation of liberal arts study.
Liberal arts are for a lifetime
by President Jay Coogan, Minneapolis College of Art and Design
What is a liberal arts education and why would you choose it?
Since humans have had structured modes of learning we have used art, music, history, language, philosophy, literature and religion to understand, analyze, record and express our understanding of our world. By focusing on knowledge of our collective experience, we are able to connect to those who have preceded us, to our contemporaries, and to make informed choices about our future.
The liberal arts provide a broad base for personal and professional development. Opportunities for study usually include the humanities and often the social and natural sciences and the performing and visual arts. They are frequently, though perhaps erroneously, seen in contrast to a focus on professional, vocational or technical training.
I don’t believe it’s useful to see the liberal arts in opposition to professional training. The MPCC colleges are educational environments that offer both choices and allow students to balance their interests across a range of subjects. At MCAD, for example, students have a full array of the humanities and social sciences that enhance and enrich their more practical training as artists and designers.
A liberal arts education may or may not train you for a specific career but rather it prepares you for the workplace by providing you with an invaluable set of “soft” skills. These include the ability to do research, to analyze and synthesize information, interpret and communicate ideas in writing, orally or through other modes of artistic expression. These same skills give you the capacity to address change through an understanding of how to learn and how to value learning as a life-long process.
No one knows what the jobs of the future will be, but a liberal arts degree provides a great foundation for adjusting to new careers and further education.
Learning through the study of the liberal arts and the creation of works of art have a lot to impart about how to actively participate in the cultural and social issues of the world. In short, they teach you how to understand and innovate and give you the skills to make things and make things happen to transform the world in positive ways.
The study of the liberal arts is adaptable to evolving circumstances. A liberal arts education gives you an adaptable set of tools for facing the challenges and opportunities of life in the fullest ways. Whatever discipline you choose to study provides you a guide to help you make sense of the world. No one knows what the jobs of the future will be, but a liberal arts degree provides a great foundation for adjusting to new careers and further education.
Regardless of the economic sector, successful careers and lives require critical thinking, teamwork, empathy and understanding of varying cultural and societal differences and political perspectives. According to Forbes magazine, one third of all Fortune 500 CEOs have liberal arts degrees.
“Without the balance of historic value, practical education gives us that most absurd of standards: "relevance," based upon the suppositional needs of a theoretical future. But liberal education, divorced from practicality, gives something no less absurd…”
― Wendell Berry, The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture
Through college, we learn how to balance the theoretical and the practical — it’s part of preparing for our future. We all agree a good job and salary are important outcomes of a college education, but, it is also important to look beyond the starting block to see what liberal arts college graduates do to build fulfilling careers, have purposeful lives, and how they serve their communities.
Liberal arts outcomes
by President Rebecca M. Bergman, Gustavus Adolphus College
During my 26 years at Medtronic, Inc., I hired countless young professionals. Without a doubt, the college graduates who were best equipped to step into the “real world” were those who could think on their feet, build relationships, ask thoughtful questions, and solve problems. When hiring new college graduates, I not only looked for evidence of disciplinary expertise, but I favored job applicants who demonstrated excellent communication skills, strong values, a passion for learning, and an unfettered curiosity about the world. Since becoming president of Gustavus Adolphus College, I have discovered that these characteristics of successful young people are ones that are actively taught and mentored at liberal arts colleges.
In today’s competitive higher education marketplace, there is increasing pressure to prove that private liberal arts colleges are “worth it.” Fareed Zakaria, a columnist for the Washington Post and former editor of Time magazine, wrote a book called In Defense of a Liberal Education. In it, he argues that the three most important advantages of a liberal arts education are that it teaches you to write, to speak, and — perhaps most importantly — to learn how to learn. Though this seems simple, in practice it means that our graduates can read quickly with good comprehension, debate ideas, challenge assumptions, and continue to grow in intellect and capacity throughout life.
This uninhibited access to professors and the close relationships our students build with them translates to individual attention and personalized guidance from their first day on campus through commencement — and oftentimes even beyond.
How do we do it?
At liberal arts colleges, we build a campus environment that encourages deep connections between our students and the world-class faculty that serve them. Our professors focus on teaching and advising. Make no mistake, they conduct research and publish academic literature, but their primary focus is working directly with students. This uninhibited access to professors and the close relationships our students build with them translates to individual attention and personalized guidance from their first day on campus through commencement — and oftentimes even beyond. When we couple small class sizes and personal relationships with hands-on learning through internships, research, and study away options, the possibilities are boundless. And we must not forget the strong alumni networks that provide generous financial support, mentoring, and even jobs directly to our students.
The Association of American Colleges and Universities commissioned a study of 400 employers to learn what skills companies look for in job candidates. Ninety-one percent of those surveyed agreed that an applicant’s “demonstrated capacity to think critically, communicate clearly, and solve complex problems is more important than their undergraduate major.” Over eight out of 10 employers think it is important for new hires to work effectively in teams, demonstrate ethical judgment and decision-making, and apply their skills and knowledge to the real world.
What employers are describing, perhaps without even knowing it, is a liberal arts education. I have been that employer, and I know this is true.