By Jon McGee

I studied political science and history in college. One of my brothers studied English. Another studied art history. The current conversation about degrees earned in liberal arts fields suggests that while we may be well-educated, maybe even interesting people, we also must be mostly unemployable in a contemporary economy. Social commentators today are quick to suggest that the future belongs to those with highly specialized skills and knowledge. A recent Star Tribune editorial applauding the rapprochement of MnSCU leadership and faculty asserted that “employers…need workers with technical and professional competencies as well as the ‘soft skills’ that liberal arts study imparts.”

 

We do students a grave disservice when we relegate the liberal arts, typically code for study in the humanities and social sciences, to afterthought. The idea that college ought to focus on the development of specialized and technical skills, and that the skills imparted by study of the liberal arts are just “soft skills” is simply wrong.

The liberal arts often are described as the opposite of a “practically oriented” education. The sentiment typically is expressed through the question, “What can you do with that degree?” Art history, political science, English. Dead ends, all. Only my own experience suggests that nothing could be further from the truth.

 

The best definition of the value of a liberal arts experience I have ever come across came from MnSCU Chancellor, Steve Rosenstone, when he was dean of the College of Liberal Arts at the University of Minnesota. In a 2001 essay entitled The Idea of a University, he described a liberal education as one that enables students to think critically and creatively, provides them with an understanding of the core ideas that shape the world in which they live, empowers them to see the connections among seemingly … Read the rest

In “Reinventing College for a New Kind of Student,” Jon McGee talks with host Steven Smith about the major demographic, economic, and cultural forces pressing on higher education and their prospective impact on colleges and universities. He cites the imperative for meaningful differentiation in an increasingly crowded, changing, and competitive marketplace.

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According to the Western Interstate Commission on Higher Education (WICHE) the number of graduates nationally began to decline slowly after 2010-2011. WICHE’s projections indicate that the number of graduates will continue to fall through 2013-2014, a reflection of the small decline in the number of births in the U.S. in the mid-1990s. Though not a particularly steep drop—the number of graduates is expected to decline by just 5.6 percent between 2010-2011 and 2013-2014 before slowly beginning to rise again—the recovery period will take years. The total number of high school graduates in the U.S. is not expected to reach 2010-2011 levels again until 2023-2024.

What this means for institutions is that a shift has occurred in the higher education market from one that is seller-centric to one that is tailored to the buyer. This changing marketplace clearly presents students and their families with new college opportunities. Oft-repeated tales of students who receive college rejection letters in spite of 4.0 grade point averages, high board scores and extraordinary high school vitaes are more myth than reality, generally true only at a small number of extraordinarily selective private and public colleges and universities. Most institutions have neither widespread brand recognition nor the luxury of excess demand. Questions about whether they make their class most often trump questions of who is in the class.… Read the rest