By Pete Musto
25 January 2020
For generations, many colleges and universities in the United States have offered classes in a lot of different subjects.
Higher education officials believed that by learning about different subjects, students would be able to improve their understanding of the world around them.
But a new study suggests the current generation of college students may not value liberal arts study programs as much as earlier generations. It found many current students want programs that directly connect to specific career paths.
In November 2019, the social research company Gallup and the Strada Education Network reported on an opinion study of 340,000 Americans. Researchers asked the individuals about their educational experiences after high school. They wanted to know if these men and women felt whatever classes or study programs they attended were worth the cost.
Out of those who completed a vocational program, meaning training for a specific job or technical skill, 57 percent strongly agreed it was worth the cost. However, only 40 percent of people who completed four-year study programs at a traditional college or university said the same.
Dave Clayton is a senior vice president with Strada. He told VOA the study confirms earlier findings from his organization. He said it shows that Americans want higher education to relate to jobs.
In the past, many Americans thought of higher education as a means, or method, of self-improvement, Clayton says.
A college or university was traditionally a place for improving one's critical thinking and other skills by learning about different subjects. So while students would focus on one central subject, like economics, they might also take classes in literature or philosophy, for example.
But the cost of U.S. higher education has risen over the past 30 years, notes Clayton. And the labor market has changed a great deal. More than ever before, higher education has become a requirement for better paying jobs. Yet employees can no longer expect to work for the same company for many years, and may even need to change fields more than once.
So, Clayton argues, people want to gain demonstrable skills that have some kind of long-lasting value. This is especially important to many Americans with limited financial resources.
"We have expanded access to college over the generations, and so ... the upward social mobility ... that can provide ... becomes even more important for those communities who are trying to break through or advance their lives," Clayton said.
But this questioning of the value of a liberal arts education is nothing new, even if it feels like a modern concern, notes Timothy Burke. He is a co-director of the Aydelotte Foundation at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania. The foundation researches and provides support to liberal arts programs.
Burke notes that while America's first colleges were teaching students subjects like Latin and history, their students wanted to learn how to become doctors or engineers. However, even the biggest companies today are not just looking for students with one area of specialization.
In 2010, Steve Jobs, creator of Apple, stated that technology alone is not enough. "It's technology married with liberal arts ... that yields the results that make our hearts sing," he said.
Similarly, another technology company, Google, led a study of its own leadership team in 2008. The aim was to identify the top 10 qualities possessed by its most successful and effective executives. It listed strong communication and leadership abilities well above technical skills.
Many people around the world still see the U.S. liberal arts approach to higher education as among the best in the world, Burke says. In fact, the number of colleges and universities following this model has grown in Asia and Europe in recent years.
Still, Burke argues, the problem remains that liberal arts programs do not do a good job of explaining to the public where their value lies.
"Even if ... there's actually a lot of evidence ... it's not anything that relieves anybody's anxiety, especially in a time when a lot of Americans ... fear, with some good reason, that overall the next generation ... will not do better than their parents did financially, which is a new situation in American history," he said.