Sunday, November 10, 2013

Should Everyone Graduate With a Liberal Arts Degree?

In October The Savvy Reader Book Club read Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus's book Higher Education?: How Colleges Are Wasting Our Money and Failing Our Kids---and What We Can Do About It. An interesting albeit controversial statement the authors make in an interview about their book on NPR is:
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)

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)
I’ve heard this statement before. In this report on higher education by Anya Kamenetz she writes:
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? 

Femme Frugality


  1. Does 'liberal arts' include the sciences? I'm not familiar with the US terminology! It sounds like they might be using 'liberal arts' as a catch-all term for academic, non-vocational courses.

    I do tend to think that a lot of universities have become too focused on offering practical courses. Not that such courses shouldn't be available - they're wonderful things - but that I'm not sure what 'a degree' means any more in this context. I always thought the purpose of a degree (in whatever subject) was to learn to challenge and think for yourself, which is not necessarily what you want in vocational training... There's been a big push in the UK to get "everyone" into university who wants to go, but to my mind, that just undermines very valuable vocational training by saying it isn't important if it isn't a degree. And similarly, a degree is always 3 or 4 years, and not all jobs need *that* much training before you start, surely?

  2. Absolutely. People need rounding and breadth of knowledge for the long term. So many people today start a career and in three years are doing something totally different. I think a lot of that is "training" for something and then not being happy with the reality. Obviously there needs to be some specialization, but a core curriculum of liberal arts is key to living a full life. I'm very thankful that I got that opportunity.

  3. I think everyone should have a liberal arts education but not necessarily a liberal arts degree. The job prospects for philosophy majors, for example, are certainly not better than they are for business majors. The thing I'm most grateful for from my college education, that felt tedious at the time, were my required writing classes. Two semesters, freshman year. Knowing how to write, think critically, and express yourself clearly are invaluable tools in any field and in life.

  4. first and foremost, students should pick classes that they're passionate about. if they're not passionate about business or econ or computer science, don't take those classes because you will fail them...even if you feel like you want a career in those fields.

    i was a liberal arts major so i can relate to the premise of this book, but at the same time, i learned a lot from people who majored in other more concrete majors. so we're all actually teaching each other throughout our careers.

    but again, it really boils down to taking classes that interest you. and colleges also ought to have breadth requirements which mean students have to take certain core classes (i.e., liberal arts if they're science majors) so that they can be a more well-rounded graduate.

  5. "The funny thing is after I graduated I didn’t feel as if I knew how to do anything." I felt the same exact way when I graduated with a BS in Business. If I had it to do over again I would follow the authors advice.

  6. Not sure. College has become big business and quite a mess. My son is pursuing an accounting degree at a very reputable school with community college tuitions...which I like. Thanks for sharing my SITS Day today!

  7. Very interesting! I have a liberal arts degree, and I've found that the only jobs open to me are in retail. However, I think this is changing because I now see more talk about liberal arts over business and specialization. I think a liberal arts degree is important because people need to be exposed to a wide range of ideas and not be locked into one field.

  8. Holy cow, can I just say, this quote made me so happy:

    "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)"

    In college I wound up with degrees in three things: literature, theater production and theology. Arguably, theater production was a "vocational" degree with practical classes like how to use tools and build sets, how electricity works, how to organize a production, etc. Nonetheless, I don't regret all the time I put into literature and theology. I loved those subjects and I really don't think there's every going to be another time in my life to really explore them. Both also taught me how to be a critical thinker and strengthened my writing skills (which have since seriously depleted).

    When you just teach people how instead of why, you wind up with a lot of very uncreative, stymied thinkers. Not someone I would want in my corporation... if I had one.

  9. I'm with Stefanie on this one. Most universities require a core of liberal arts courses. I don't think it's a bad thing to have job-specific training as classes. If you're managing a hotel, those are thing you're going to need to know. If you wanted to do something less vo-tech, maybe consider another degree? Maybe there's a bunch of schools I don't know about that don't require that core. I definitely think it's important. But so are those major specific classes. (I agree about the business degrees...getting specialized is always a good move.)

  10. No, I think everyone should have the opportunity to pursue their own interest, vocations, etc, and they should be practical about it. More important to use common sense when picking their choice of study. They should research it to be certain there's a viable career path attached to it. I have a niece who majored in dance. Well guess what she's not doing now? Instead she's working temp jobs. My daughter studied economics and is working in a job alligned with that. But not everyone is prepared to go to college. They need to follow their own course, one that gives them the training to take on a job in any number of vocations.

  11. Rachel,
    No liberal arts does not include the sciences. You've pretty much summed up my next two posts. All I can say is the way we currently educate our students has become too expensive and in some cases ineffective. How to fix it is another question.

  12. Webb,
    Thanks for the comment. I am becoming convinced we need to rethink our degree requirements to include more liberal arts or a 3yr liberal arts degree before become specialized.

  13. I have a degree in Political Science and am getting my Master's in Public Policy, so for what I want to do I absolutely need higher education. In one of my classes recently we were talking about higher education (from a policy standpoint in regard to student loans and increased tuition costs) and one of the options on the table as a proposal was to offer skills based certifications in things so that employers will start seeking QUALIFIED candidates, not just someone with a degree. It was a fun discussion :)

  14. Catherine,
    Hmm.. I wonder how many business majors we would have if students took classes that interested them? I would have been a history major. Combine that with a finance or econ minor and I would have probably been alright. And yes we do learn from everyone.

  15. Stefanie,
    When I was still in high school I told a former English I planned to major in history. He advised me against it. He told me I wouldn't be able to do anything except teach and that I wouldn't make very much money. I remember taking those two required English classes too. I wish I would have taken a couple more.

  16. Kyle,
    Interesting to learn I wasn't the only one.

  17. Laurie,
    Sounds like your son is doing it right.

  18. Midnight Cowgirl,
    That is disappointing, but good to know.

  19. Mel,
    I see on your blog you have a full-time job. Would love to know what you do?

  20. femme,
    Thanks for sharing your insights. All excellent points.

  21. Monica,
    Such common sense advice. I just talked to someone yesterday who majored in Art. She works at a grocery store and designs tattoos on the side. The more I learn, the more I think we need to be more like Germany and give our children more career guidance at the high school level.

  22. The Book Wheel,
    Very interesting. I think I will include your comment in a future post.