Should Universities Move Away From a Liberal Arts Education?

Some governors have proposed prioritizing funding for high-demand degrees in science and technology fields.
April 29, 2013

The conventional wisdom these days is that the United States needs more people trained in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). In a future with global competition built around advanced manufacturing, the thinking goes, young Americans are going to need those skills to succeed.

How to translate that need into a revamped K-12 and higher education system, though, is an ongoing debate. President Obama wants to recruit and train 100,000 new teachers in the STEM subjects. The Common Core standards, which will be implemented in nearly every state starting next year, are tailored toward STEM. But a few conservative governors want to go a step farther. They've suggested it's time to stop spending money on a traditional liberal arts education and instead focus our resources on classes and degrees connected directly to those new jobs in advanced manufacturing.

North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory caused an uproar a few months ago when he claimed that an "educational elite" had created a college curriculum that doesn't benefit students and doesn't guarantee that they'll be employed when they enter the real world. "If you want to take a gender studies course, that's fine. Go to a private school, and take it," McCrory said in an interview with conservative talk show host Bill Bennett. "But I don't want to subsidize that if that's not going to get someone a job."

McCrory isn't the only one to voice that kind of sentiment. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker said at the end of last year that he wanted to target state funds in part based on whether the state's colleges and universities are enrolling students in high-demand majors, such as the STEM fields. "If you want money, we need you to perform," Walker said in a well-publicized speech. "In higher education, that means not only degrees, but are young people getting degrees in jobs that are open and needed today -- not just the jobs that the universities want to give us, or degrees that people want to give us."

In Florida, a state-appointed task force recommended in November some policies along those lines, suggesting that public colleges and universities charge students less for a degree in "high-skill, high-wage, high-demand" fields and more for degrees in other subjects, presumably those more associated with the traditional liberal arts education. That didn't quite come to fruition, but a bill signed by Gov. Rick Scott last week did provide financial incentives for higher education institutions to grow their high-tech degree programs.

Still, there is plenty of support for the more traditional liberal arts education. Earlier this month, the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) released a survey of 318 prospective employers arguing that its findings contradict this focus on putting students into specific degree programs. They point to one survey result in particular: 93 percent of employers said that a job candidate's ability to think critically, communicate clearly and solve complex programs was more important than their actual undergraduate major.

Those kinds of skills are exactly what a liberal arts education is supposed to equip students with, says Debra Humphreys, vice president for policy and public engagement at AAC&U.

"There's always been a certain amount of skepticism about the liberal arts, in the sense that people associate it with a certain elitism in higher education," Humphreys says. She notes that people often link liberal arts to the humanities, such as anthropology and sociology, but in reality, it also includes sciences like biology and chemistry. Colleges have to better educate the public about the benefits of the broad knowledge base that a liberal arts education provides, she says.

"The downturn in the economy and the rising cost of college has absolutely focused people's attention on the value question," Humphreys says. "When you do that, then I think this confusion makes it very difficult for people to understand what we're investing in."

Moreover, there's some new evidence that suggests the supposed dearth of STEM-educated Americans is a myth. The main takeaway from a study released last week by the Economic Policy Institute, a liberal think tank, was that there is "more than a sufficient supply of workers available to work in STEM occupations."

So if we already have enough STEM degree holders out there, why are governors like McCrory and Walker so keen on cracking down on the liberal arts?

It might be more about politics than policy, says Humphreys. "I think it's taking a cheap shot at something they perceive to be an easy target, to make themselves appear that they were serious about higher education," she says. "I think that's pretty dangerous as a social policy. It's telling students something that isn't true."

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