Marrying the Liberal Arts to the Workforce

Photo by Esther Tuttle on Unsplash

In our latest book, How to Run a College: A Practical Guide for Trustees, Faculty, Administrators and Policymakers, Dr. Joey King and I argue that colleges project themselves to fail should they continue to use their current operating models.

There is a point where the lines cross for net tuition revenue and tuition discounting. At that point, net tuition revenue can no longer support the academic enterprise, no matter how much revenue the college receives from other sources (e.g. fundraising or auxiliary enterprises).

Some characterize the crisis as though it were narrowly driven by a failing tuition-driven operating model. But as Dr. King and I argue, the hard fact is that society is changing — and with it, a shift in the workforce. Some projections suggest that new technologies will displace up to 30% of the workers over the next decade.

For Colleges Too Slow to Adapt, Employers Will Seek New Credentials

While most colleges are adapting their program to the shifting employment picture, there is little about it that is strategic. And the danger is that employers will seek alternatives to a college degree as they explore new strategic partnerships.

Employers will effectively credential skills needed in the workforce without relying on a college degree as the way to do it.

Changing workforce needs present both an opportunity and a challenge for American higher education. The efforts often play out when state government officials, reading the data on a changing workforce, move to support STEM-related degrees to the exclusion of the arts, humanities, and some social sciences.

Higher Education Needs Strategic Changes, Not Local Tweaks

There is an amateurish, politicized misunderstanding of what it means as a matter of national economic and social policy. The trend toward a technologically-based work environment will march inexorably toward a predictable future. Higher education must have a clear national strategy to deal with these workforce changes. It requires more than adding new programs because of a perceived local market need.

Colleges must avoid moving willy-nilly toward online programs where the competition with larger, better financed players, long-established providers, and the for-profit community can make the going hard.

The competing forces of consumers who are now moving away from four-year colleges or community colleges — where 42% of the first-time college-going population lands — the use of credentialing for narrow types of technical training, and saturated adult and continuing education markets suggests that the solution is not more programs.

To compete successfully, a college must come together as a community around a common mission. It’s the shared sense of identity that is the most important pillar upon which to build toward sustainability.

Commitment to Liberal Arts is Foundation for Many Institutions

For most institutions, the glue that holds the foundation together is the commitment to the liberal arts. Indeed, rather than downplay the liberal arts by turning tactically to professional programs, American higher education in general must develop and articulate a clear, unequivocal statement of unqualified support for a liberal arts education. It must remain the foundation upon which higher education programming rests.

Liberal Arts are Neither Liberal Nor Just About the Arts

Specifically, colleges and universities must stop speaking only to one another. They must address the crisis caused by the failure to espouse the value of the liberal arts. The liberal arts are neither liberal nor narrowly about the arts. And they do produce educated citizens.

But what the liberal arts do best is to train students how to think. The best-defined programs, linked to the mission and purpose of an institution, teach students to articulate, write, apply quantitative methods, use technology, and work in a collaborative setting.

If the workforce is to undergo the significant technological transformations that results in the displacement of a large number of workers, the current technical skills may not prepare workers for these changes.

Workforce Disruption, Innovation Require Liberal Arts Skills

Instead, workers in the new American economy must have the ability to adapt and be nimble enough to navigate through the disruptions in the workforce. Today’s “hot” technical skills may not be tomorrow’s workforce demands. But the basic foundational skills provided by the liberal arts tradition that have historically shaped American higher education will define the creative class of new generations of workers.

America must retain its standing as an entrepreneurial and imaginative society that leads and shapes the global economy.

The danger is that America’s colleges and universities will abandon the liberal arts, succumbing to contemporary political, cultural, and economic pressure exacerbated by unsustainable operating models that predict their own obsolescence.

Higher education leaders must challenge the current enthusiasm for narrowly-trained professionals meeting technical needs in a shifting workforce by rededicating their institutions to the liberal arts — if only because, in the end, they educate for the public good.

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Academic Innovators partners with colleges and universities to find creative, sustainable solutions, turning challenges into opportunities.

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Brian C. Mitchell

Brian C. Mitchell

Founding partner of Academic Innovators, a solutions company. Author of How to Run a College. Former president of Bucknell University.

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