If we had it our way, everybody would graduate with a liberal arts degree. Of the three million freshmen who arrive on campuses each September, over half of them - have already chosen vocational majors, like fashion merchandising or sports management. This is a real misuse of what could be four precious, rewarding years.Take New Mexico’s State University for instance. You will find students majoring in hotel, motel and resort management. Classes for this major include Quantity Food Production, Gaming Operations and Beverage Management. Hacker and Dreifus write:
It isn’t education. It is training. At best, it should be a sequence in a community college or in a professional program at post graduate level. Nor is beverage management an exotic example. Most campuses now devote more resources to vocational concentrations, since their majors now outnumber those in liberal arts fields. In 2008, the most recent figures as we write, degrees in the “hospitality” sphere surpassed those awarded in philosophy. (Pg. 99)Then there is the business major:
Business is currently the most popular of all undergraduate majors. Regardless of the author’s opinions about whether it rates as higher or even as education, it has gained a prominent place on our campuses, not least by displacing less practical majors. Hacker and Dreifus then looked at what is being taught and learned it its classes. Here is what they found:
On the one hand, half a million freshmen enroll in business programs each year, hoping that what they will learn will give them an extra edge in their subsequent careers. On the other hand, professors are needed if there are to be classes. But it was soon evident to us that it wasn’t completely clear to either professors or students exactly what the students should be learning. Curriculums are filled with lists and locations along with quasi-theories from their field’s academic journals. Professors ask students to play being senior management, and plan corporate strategy ranging from outsourcing sneakers to selling sunglasses. (Pg. 104)What should business programs be doing instead?
We’ll start by saying that what is presented in their classes has no relation to what they’ll be doing in their first job. Whether from Wharton or Gulf Coast, when undergraduates emerge with a degree, if the Bank of America hires them, it won’t seat them in boardrooms to plan global strategies. More likely, they will be sent to a Fresno suburb, where their job will be crunching numbers on mortgage applications. Then the newbie will listen while senior colleagues explain how and why they make their decisions. We’d like to think that liberal arts students can just as quickly pick up what will be expected in their first years on the job. (Pg. 104)I’ve heard this statement before. In this report on higher education by Anya Kamenetz she writes:
We wish we could persuade undergraduates contemplating business majors to choose the liberal arts route. But this won’t be easy so long as anxieties about the future infuse their decisions. A more effective step would be for colleges, whether freestanding or within universities, to simply state that they don’t and won’t offer vocational majors. (Pg. 105)
She would abolish the major of “business,” the single most popular undergraduate major, but perhaps also the least rigorous, and which produces relatively poor-achieving students. Instead, she’d fold practical business classes into the economics major.I find all of this very interesting, since my undergraduate major was general business. I choose this major thinking I would have more flexibility with my career upon graduation than if I majored in accounting. I didn’t want to end up sitting at a desk all day making journal entries. The funny thing is after I graduated I didn’t feel as if I knew how to do anything. To find a job I emphasized my high school bookkeeping classes and my typing skills until I talked myself into a job in an accounting department – where I would end up sitting in a desk all day making journal entries.
No one bothered to tell me what Sheryl Sandberg also points out in her book Lean-in that the majority of job skills needed are acquired on the job. I would soon learn many of my co-workers at the brokerage firm where I was newly employed had degrees entirely unrelated to their job. This firm wanted employees with a degree, but they didn’t care what that degree was.
Would I have been better off with a liberal arts degree?
Personally, it would have been more rewarding. In the book the authors write:
We’ve met former business majors, now nearing middle age who say they regret not having studied philosophy while at college. We have yet to meet a philosophy major who felt he or she should have chosen business. (Pg. 108)When the authors describe the two business lectures they attended I cringed at the memory of sitting through similar classes covering growth strategies, product life cycle, etc. I was bored or as Seth Godin in his book Tribes: We Need You to Lead Us describes it - I was sleepwalking. I ultimately returned to college to take the accounting courses required for the CPA exam anyway. I do think I would have preferred and received a greater benefit from taking history courses than sitting through all those business management classes that seemed to cover the same material.
If I could have a do-over would I major in liberal arts?
It is very unlikely. I needed a career path that would guarantee I could support myself. Knowing what I know now instead of a general business degree I would have pursued forensic accounting - a degree that probably didn't exist when I was in college. Perhaps a double major of criminal justice and accounting would have sufficed. I would also try to incorporate more history, English and philosophy instead of just taking the required credits. Actually the current accounting major requires students do just that.
Should Everyone Graduate With a Liberal Arts Degree?
Should they? Maybe. Will they? No. I think most parents and many students feel the same way I did. They need to choose a major aligned with their interests and abilities that will also give them a decent standard of living and the ability to pay off their college loans. In many cases that will be some type of business degree. I also think many parents push their children into a university degree when they would be off pursuing a trade or vocational degree from a technical college.
I will continue to explore vocational degrees and college credit requirements in future posts.
What do you think? Should everyone graduate with a liberal arts degree?