'Degrees for What Jobs?' Wrong Question, Wrong Answers

Michael Morgenstern for The Chronicle

May 01, 2011

Last month the National Governors Association Center for Best Practices published "Degrees for What Jobs? Raising Expectations for Universities and Colleges in a Global Economy." Unhappily, the governors have been ill served by the report. Its shortsighted policy recommendations would do nothing to meet the nation's long-term needs for intellectual capital and could well deplete the learning this country needs, for individual students and for the global economy.

The report begins where all higher-education policy pronouncements begin these days—with an urgent call to get students into college and get them out with a credential. It goes on to note, however, that at least "some governors and state policy makers are beginning to move beyond their focus on getting more students to get 'degrees' to asking: 'Degrees for what jobs?' "

It would have been wonderful for a group serving the nation's governors to have paused right there to give a nod to democracy. Even in a report focused exclusively on jobs and the economy, the report might at least acknowledge that governors are elected by citizens and that higher education plays a vital role in building civic capacity. But no, democracy is off the table these days, as are so many of the academic fields that build rich democratic capital—fields such as history, literature, social sciences, philosophy, cross-cultural studies, and the arts. Instead, the governors association sets forth in "Degrees for What Jobs?" a narrow call to give priority to degree programs that are tied directly to labor-market needs and business investment. Governors should insist that educators make labor-market indices and employer satisfaction their primary metrics for higher education "success," according to the report.

It proposes that "preparing a state's work force for 21st-century jobs" will require the governors to wean colleges and universities from their "emphasis on broad liberal-arts education." One thinks with alarm of the root meaning of "liberal arts": the studies appropriate to a free people, the studies that sustain democracy. Even in the report's homo economicus terms, however, it is just plain wrong to pit the liberal arts against preparation for work. The authors of the report should take their own advice and listen to what employers say about college learning.

As the report of the governors group observes, the deep economic trends are "rapid globalization, accelerating innovation, and relentless competition." This is precisely why employers, in survey after survey, including those referenced in the report, express their desire for colleges and universities to place more emphasis on cross-disciplinary intellectual skills and on providing students with the broad knowledge base necessary to understand the complex contexts in which they will work. What new employees too often lack, business leaders complain, are the skills and abilities that enable them to continue learning on the job.

Given these data, the governors association is looking backward rather than forward when it urges priority for degree programs that are directly linked to specific "high-demand jobs." The report seems stuck in an obsolete mind-set that sees learning in a job-related major as the only goal that matters. Its authors miss the point that American higher education rose to world-class standing precisely because educators have never let students focus just on a single field, but have instead insisted on multidisciplinary learning with a rich arts and sciences core. Ironically, just as myopic policy advisers are urging a narrowing of American higher education, Asian countries are hastening to adapt our signature designs for liberal and general education.

Smart business leaders see what Asian leaders see. They do not want employees whose knowledge is restricted to a single field; they recognize that innovation requires employees to engage in continuous learning across new fields of endeavor.

To stay ahead of the curve, employers seek new hires with breadth as well as depth, and a demonstrated capacity for applying their knowledge to new challenges and contexts. Nearly two-thirds of the employers surveyed by Hart Research for the Association of American Colleges and Universities said that the best preparation for long-term professional success was a blend of broad knowledge and skills coupled with field-specific knowledge. Seventy-six percent would recommend this kind of college study to the young people they advise personally.

To ensure that higher education effectively serves both the economy and democracy, the nation's governors should seek assurance that all degree programs—including those tied to new economic opportunities—provide rich learning in the arts and sciences and a strong emphasis on such things as inquiry and analysis; critical and creative thinking; integrative learning; and written and oral communication.

To achieve these outcomes, students need more liberal education, not less. The recently released analysis of students' learning gains in college, Academically Adrift, shows that students with a strong liberal-arts and sciences emphasis do better in analytical reasoning and communication than those in narrower programs. Because employers prize these capacities above all others, this research indicates that narrowly focused degree programs will limit graduates' economic opportunities rather than expand them.

Colleges and universities have an obligation to scan and assess the economic environment for which they prepare students. But students' long-term success does not depend on short-term business cycles or the technical demands of the latest "hot" industry. It would be a serious mistake for governors or other state leaders to use this report to justify cutting the very kinds of integrative liberal-education programs that will equip students for long-term success.

It is the graduates with a full portfolio of skills, knowledge, and experience who will succeed not only in getting good jobs, but in helping create new jobs, new industries, and innovative products. Steve Jobs understands this well. "It's in Apple's DNA that technology alone is not enough," he recently noted. "It's technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields us the result that makes our heart sing."

This country owes its greatness to precisely this rich mix of liberal and practical education, leavened with a strong recognition that education's first duty is to democracy. As they make prescriptions for the future, the governors' advisers would do well to read some history—while it's still being taught.

Carol Geary Schneider is president of the Association of American Colleges and Universities.