Rhetoric versus reality in college major choices

Higher Education has come under fire recently for many issues, including costs, political bias, value, and transgressions of a few for-profit colleges. Ironically, the information and data are so vast and contrasting on these issues that interpretation of it all takes, well, a college education and solid information literacy skills.

Two bits of information I read this week demonstrate this need for analysis. The first is an article on chronicle.com, The Chronicle of Higher Education, which explains how two retired CEOs, Sam Palmisano of IBM and A.G. Lafley of P&G both advocate the hiring of liberal arts majors (@ http://chronicle.com/blogs/next/2012/09/12/skills-gap-employers-and-colleges-point-fingers-at-each-other/). Each CEO explains how his background in both an academic subject and the humanities has helped him become a better leader.

The other bit of information is a list from Kiplinger on the “worst” college majors. Scrolling through this slide show reveals the majors that pay the least and have the highest unemployment rate. Within this list of ten are English, Film and Photography, Drama and Theater, Religion and Philosophy, and Liberal Arts. Each of these liberal arts majors contribute the kinds of knowledge that Palmisano and Lafley consider valuable (ostensibly).

Another set of related information with interpretable meaning factors into this discussion. We are coming out or have come out of a recession where unemployment is still high. Stories abound of educated workers who cannot find work and college and high school graduates who have no opportunities beyond working retail. Certain industries or geographic locations have unemployment over 10%. But many companies are hiring. The need for CNC machinists, for example, is robust. Small and large machine shops across the country are hiring and cannot find enough employees. Recruiters for IT, technology, and specialized positions in things like SEO, programming, and cloud cannot find enough candidates to fill open positions. How do these two facts reconcile?

As a student or parent it is important to be informed but not too reactive. Music education majors at my college plummeted due to the perception that these were the programs being cut in school districts. While concerns are valid, who knows the level of music educators in four years? The arts have a way of clawing themselves back into schools when teachers, school boards, and parents reconsider their value.

The best hedge for any student is to be a “T”. The letter “T” serves as an iconographic for a balance between breadth and depth. The horizontal part across the top of the the letter “T” shows breadth of many disciplines and the vertical part of the letter “T” indicates deep education in one area. The easiest way to achieve this type of education is to get a degree with practical application in a liberal arts oriented school. At LVC you can major in Business, Digital Communications, English Communications, Actuarial Science, or Chemistry (and many more). Each of these sample majors features connections to employment, internship, and graduate school opportunities. The difference between our majors and similar majors at large schools is the liberal arts approach. Students get academic depth in an applied area while receiving valuable knowledge in liberal arts areas such as Literature, Philosophy and Religion, Art, History and Languages. This liberal arts knowledge makes them better thinkers, writers, and collaborators – exactly the skills that employers demand from recent graduates. Ironically, these skills are not often produced by deep knowledge in one area.

The critical thing for getting a job is to have a categorized skill which snags your first job. After some experience and networking, finding work becomes easier. While there are still a lot of people out-of-work who would disagree with that statement, there are thousands of positions for graduates with skills in creativity, project management, technology, and communications.

Liberal arts prepares you for a career, not a job. I often tell students and parents that the value of broad study will begin to appear in the second and third job, not the first one. Knowledge from the liberal arts become critical when students become team leaders, managers, or take-on decision making roles within their organizations. This is when an understanding about people, cultures, and critical thinking about decisions really benefit students.

I tell my students that companies will pay them for doing something, but pay them well for thinking about how something should be done and making a decision on how to do it. Building a “T” shaped KSA repertoire will help any student with a career, job, and pathway to lifelong job satisfaction.

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