Op-Ed Liberal Arts Degree EDUKWEST

The Second Life of the Liberal Arts Degree

The modern economy has no real respect for degrees—other than demanding at least a Bachelors for every position and from every applicant.

Higher education in America has become confused with trade school: everything from four-year computer science degrees to Masters-level management schools are concerned with occupational education. They are advertised as the necessary link between academic life and employment: high schoolers take jobs; college graduates enter careers.

Yet, as every senior knows, some degrees are better than others. By the time college applications start going out, seniors need to start thinking seriously about what they want to do professionally, and avoid degrees—overwhelmingly in the liberal arts fields—that might sound interesting on a hobbyist level, but offer no competitive advantage when it comes to entering the workforce.

In reality, even the most heavily promoted degrees like engineering or business offer little more guarantee of employment than art history or philosophy. Academic advice and the associated ‘conventional wisdom’ surrounding college comes off much the same way as stock market trend-watching: make an investment now in hot industries like technology and or business, and reap the benefits as their value soars in the future!

As anyone (like the vast majority of students) paying off student loan debt can attest, college degrees are most assuredly an investment, for better or worse. But the flipside of the Wall Street wisdom on chasing the hot commodities of the moment is twofold: first, an influx of interest in a single field (or property) changes the game, and dilutes the competitiveness of each new degree-holder entering that field professionally; and second, trends change in a flash, and what seems like a good investment now may not continue paying dividends down the line.

American universities are not trade schools, and degrees do not qualify students to do any particular job, perhaps with the exception of intensive programs like medicine and law (which also tend to take more than the four years of a Bachelors program). But at base, current assumptions about college are wrong, and are being increasingly challenged.

In a mobile age, where facts are constantly changing, the skills in demand ever-shifting, and the world itself undergoing more rapid and dramatic shifts in culture, economy, and social order, spending years in what amounts to a glorified training program end up making less sense than simply learning to adapt.

Despite popular rumor that such liberal arts programs offer little more than deferred poverty and unemployment, the rules for landing a job out of college are roughly the same without respect for the specific degree program:

Network extensively: it matters who you know, not what you know

Get an Internship: networking meets on-the-job learning, before you even graduate

Location: even in a digital world, where you graduate still matters for your recruitment prospects

Adapting and growing is at the heart of the liberal arts experience. Learning to learn is the only real life skill that warrants pursuit, when everything from technical prowess to medical knowledge are prone to being rendered irrelevant in less than a decade. Rather than purchasing an education that expects the world to reward students and the knowledge they (hopefully) acquired, a liberal arts-oriented education expects to prepare students to adapt to an uncertain world, and engage situations where roles and demands are evolving.

So if the value of specific degrees is no sure bet, what about specific campuses—or even campuses themselves?

The outdated notion that simply being among academics and student peers justifies college is being challenged by both technology, and economics. Rutgers professor Sharon Stoerger has researched and written extensively to audiences of students and teachers on how to utilize everything from mobile devices to virtual platform Second Life to enrich online learning experiences.

By pushing the limits of technology, online education not only provides for engagement intellectually, it helps instill some of the skills and technical savvy that will ultimately serve workers better in a globalized economy. Leveraging technology to connect with partners around the world has more lasting value than chatting up coeds across the dormitory hall, however memorable the conversation.

To extract lasting value from the college experience, students are better served to ignore any advice that resembles a weight-loss product commercial: guarantees, testimonials, and wild claims of lasting benefits are fertilizer. Broad skills, flexibility, and social networks are the resources needed to survive and thrive in the modern world. Likewise, the notion that the only place to meet like-minded peers and be intellectually challenged is the same place that offers mandatory cafeteria meal plans and Greek life under devastating national scrutiny is fundamentally flawed. The internet has created plenty of alternatives for the lonely, the curious, and the community-minded.

Even in STEM programs, there is wiggle-room for incorporating liberal elements, and those are the skills that can withstand the whims and fluctuations of a dynamic world. The liberal arts are online and well in the 21st century.

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Edgar Wilson is an Oregon native with a passion for cooking, trivia, and politics. He studied conflict resolution and international relations and has worked in industries ranging from international marketing to broadcast journalism. He is currently working as an independent analytical consultant.