How Liberal Arts Colleges are Saving America

Not all bachelor’s degrees are created equal.  This is certainly true by marketplace measures.  The starting salaries of accountants and engineers are significantly greater that those of educators and athletic trainers.  Job placement measures for finding employment directly related to any number of liberal arts degrees would indicate that those degrees are of less value than those in just about all business disciplines.  So why do students and their parents continue to invest hundreds of thousands of dollars on bachelor’s degrees and coursework that appear to be undervalued in the marketplace?

The answer lies in the wisdom of knowing who is right; the marketplace or the liberal arts colleges.  The gap between American students in math and science versus the world is well documented.  America continues to fall behind in the race for talent in these areas while jobs follow the talent to countries where the people with these skills reside.  It would be difficult to argue that America’s schools and colleges are producing competitive talent in volume enough to compete in technical math and science education.  This must be fixed.

Those outside of the liberal arts college bubble might argue that courses not offered in technical education in favor of liberal arts courses places graduating students from liberal arts colleges at a disadvantage.  A glimpse at the curriculum differences in a public university might reveal a significant number of courses not offered in a liberal arts college.  This could be interpreted as a competitive advantage for public universities if, in fact, course offerings and curriculum are a zero-sum game.  Certainly the hours to graduate are zero-sum, but must curriculum and coverage be?  Does a third course on the time-value of money make that concept more valuable to a student who got it the first time?

I would argue the first mistake made by those who think liberal arts colleges are failing America is that of assuming curriculum and coverage are a zero-sum game. I would also argue that repetition vs. application, evaluation, and creation is a false advantage.  Curriculum taught well can be every bit as effective as a third course covering the same topic.  Besides, it is highly likely that specific application of concepts will follow in one’s first job after graduation.  No set of courses could have given me the education I received my first six months of full-time employment.

There are two fundamental truths that must be offered here.  The first is that one’s technical competency must be sufficient enough upon graduation to provide an employer value if the student hopes to be working in his or her chosen field.  Technical education is critical.  Liberal arts colleges must acknowledge this and take a position of, ‘yes and.’  Yes, our technical education is as good or better than at a public university, and there is more . . . this is where the second fundamental truth comes into play.  One’s cooperative competency must also be sufficient enough to leverage the strength and power of others at work.  Somewhere beyond their first few years of employment, good technically-competent people will be asked to lead other technically-competent people.  The skill gap between technical competency and cooperative competency is often large, and this is where liberal arts colleges offer a significant advantage.

The practice of wanting to and promoting those with the best technical skills is commonplace in American business.  How have our management and leadership practices changed in the last several decades with this practice?   Despite thousands of books written on the subject of leadership, our ability to lead others continues to be woefully inadequate.  From where do technically-competent people, willing and able to lead others well enough to generate a whole that is greater than the sum of the parts come?  They come from liberal arts colleges.

One might argue that smaller class sizes common at liberal arts colleges and more individual attention generate a higher level of technical competency than at larger public universities.  This is borderline heresy, but logical, nevertheless.  But what do liberal arts colleges offer and require in their curriculum that public universities offer as only electives or to just a small few who wish to consider the development of the whole person and his or her place in the universe?

At Benedictine College, in Atchison, Kansas, an excellent liberal arts college in the heart of America, they require all of their students, regardless of major to take nine hours of Theology, and nine hours of Philosophy among other formative courses in their core and major-specific areas of study.  How might this coverage enhance or detract from the education of its students?  There is certainly a risk that one’s technical education might suffer due to fewer technical classes required, detracting from one’s education.  On the other hand, the critical thinking capacity, broader world view, concern for other human beings, and the development and maturity of one’s way of thinking and belief system fosters in students the ability to lead with integrity and humility, insuring that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.  In this ability lies true and lasting competitive advantage.

Graduate business programs continue to fill-up with technically-competent and highly successful business people from fields like engineering, architecture, healthcare, accounting, and law, among others.  Many an entrepreneur has had to surrender his or her enterprise to an executive team for lack of ability to sustain a business once it achieves critical mass.  This is evidence of the gap in skill set being experienced as competent professionals are promoted to ever-higher levels of responsibility in their enterprises.

Over the next 20 years, America will experience the largest transfer of wealth and leadership as the Baby Boomers retire.  Who is going to fill the leadership vacuum left by the retiring Boomers?  If success is a desired outcome, I’d put my money on those who have learned to optimize cooperation and who have the belief, value, and thinking foundations forged at liberal arts colleges.

It is true that not all bachelor’s degrees are created equal.  Degrees earned by students at liberal arts colleges are meant to change the world and save America.

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