The Liberal Arts and Career Pathways: Creating Resources for Faculty and Students
Many faculty and academic leaders feel under siege today, as the media and other public discourse recurrently question the value of a college education in general and the wisdom of majoring in the liberal arts in particular. The seemingly relentless attack arises from a context of rising costs and increasing levels of student debt, decreases in family discretionary income and related declines in access to home equity loans, and general anxiety about the economic context and near-term prospects for new graduates.
Not surprisingly then, there are noticeable shifts among first-time and transfer students toward enrolling in professional schools such as business, engineering, and health care at comprehensive universities (U.S. Department of Education, 2013). Articles such as “Liberal Arts Majors Are Screwed” encourage students in the humanities and other areas to “switch to a major with more job prospects” (Schawbel, 2014). Given that up to 50 percent of college students enter as undecided, and as many as 50 to 70 percent of students change majors (and career goals) at least once while in college (Gordon and Steel, 2003), the challenges to liberal arts faculty, department chairs, and deans are significant. We ignore them at our peril.
For many years, initiatives such as AAC&U’s LEAP (Liberal Education and America’s Promise) have sought to identify and articulate the practical, transferable, and marketable skills that are cultivated by the liberal arts. More recently, the AAC&U has been on the front lines of responding to public and political pressure by sponsoring studies and reports such as “How Liberal Arts and Science Majors Fare in Employment” (Humphreys and Kelly, 2014) and “It Takes More Than a Major: Employer Priorities for College Learning and Student Success” (Hart Research Associates, 2013). These studies provide compelling data about the value of a college education to first-time employment; document the initial, peak, and long-term earnings of college graduates across disciplines; and monitor advanced degree attainment for liberal arts graduates. Importantly, these reports highlight that the learning outcomes associated with the liberal arts consistently map to individual career success and other substantial social and economic contributions.
In the current context, especially for those of us in liberal arts colleges, it is our duty to steadfastly promote and defend the inherent and enduring value of the liberal arts. However, we are increasingly cognizant of the need to articulate and reinforce the practical value of a liberal arts education, and we must prepare faculty and students as partners.
Despite the staff and ample services that support career planning at our institutions, few students take advantage of these resources until late in their college years (Novakovic, Kantamneni, Guillen, Fouad, Terry, Harris-Hodge, & Henry, 2006). Liberal arts students consistently (though naively) complain that those services do not support their majors. This situation at our university inspired us to integrate professional discernment activities into the academic programs and to support career-related teaching and advising—without becoming narrowly careerist or vocational.
The Classroom to Career (C2C) initiative at Fairfield University illustrates one strategy for creating resources and structuring routine academic encounters that foreground career discernment and preparation for mapping liberal arts majors. The goal is to guide students throughout their four years in considering how their disciplinary learning and their general learning, in and out of the classroom, prepare them for a variety of career paths.
In operationalizing the Classroom to Career program, we first wanted to map what we were already doing. In summer 2012, we asked each department to prepare a one-page document that listed the activities sponsored annually by the department to help students think about life after graduation. These included alumni panels, career nights, grad school information sessions, internship courses, capstone courses, and mentored research. The “one sheets” were then peppered with a range of activities sponsored annually by the Career Planning Center (individual assessment, career fairs, and resume- and cover-letter-writing workshops), Alumni Relations (job shadowing and networking events), and student clubs (community service, leadership, and peer mentor programs).
We organized this information by year, with early years featuring exploratory activities and later years focusing on in-depth and experiential activities such as internships and resume development. Given that faculty often see career planning as “not my job,” developing these one sheets helped them see the degree to which they were already actively and routinely involved in assisting students’ career planning while also guiding them toward greater intentionality and cross-divisional collaboration.
The department lists were then elaborated upon and individualized, adapted for the Web, and featured on each department’s home page. Under the guidance of department chairs, departments added hyperlinks to discipline-specific tips and resources (e.g., cultivating faculty mentors, lining up professors as references, wise use of the required capstone experience); professional organizations related to the discipline; and university-level activities that cut across departments (e.g., job fairs, resume workshops, leadership development opportunities, alumni job shadowing). Departments added references to academic experiences and activities such as study abroad and how to leverage these activities to develop marketable skills; a link to a video introduction by the dean that provides general advice for first-years, sophomores, juniors, and seniors; videos in each of the four years of college featuring peer advice from students at each stage; and testimonials from graduates in each major that affirm the longer-range value of the liberal arts and illustrate the application of the majors to myriad jobs and career paths.
We set up table tents in the dining halls and hung posters around campus to promote these home pages. We also asked departments to incorporate the system into the two academic advising periods each year. We sent out an advising checklist to all 1,800 students in the College of Arts and Sciences and asked them to complete it before meeting with their advisor in order to get students to do some homework ahead of time—not only about the courses they still needed to progress toward graduation, but also to reflect upon their career aspirations and to guide them to link their choice of electives (and potential minors, study abroad sites, research projects, cocurricular activities, etc.) to their career preparation. All faculty advisors were given the same checklist, along with their department’s C2C materials, inviting them to facilitate more substantive conversations with students beyond merely providing a signature and PIN for registration.
We used a variety of measures to evaluate the impact of these efforts. The first time around, nearly 1,500 hits on the C2C website were logged during the advising and registration period. Our Google analytics showed that students spent up to two minutes on some pages, well above the average time spent on a Web page (less than one minute). In order to maintain momentum beyond the initial advising period, we implemented a Facebook ad campaign during the following two semesters. Close to 500 students clicked on those ads. Students surveyed reported that the advising checklist helped them develop more personal relationships with their advisors. Faculty reported more in-depth conversations with their advisees, and that they appreciated having resources to support their own effectiveness as an advisor.
Current students have not been the only audience. Admissions staff members are hungry for ways to promote the liberal arts with prospective students. The admissions counselors bring postcards about C2C on high school visits. The C2C initiative is promoted during annual meetings with high school guidance counselors visiting campus. In the current economic context, high school students and, even more so, their parents, seek confidence that college choice will map to career readiness. Alumni too are pleased to see the university respond to the economic context and challenges for college students that they read about every day in the Wall Street Journal and New York Times.
While the Classroom to Career initiative was conceptualized in the arts and sciences dean’s office, it was developed in collaboration with colleagues in career planning, student affairs, student government, seniors and recent graduates, and the faculty chairs in each of the arts and sciences disciplines. Student leaders were helpful during the planning process, giving feedback on the idea and providing quotations to integrate into the C2C Web pages. Student leaders and staff mentors in the First Year Experience program promoted C2C to their students. The college advisory board members, mostly alumni, provided feedback as the initiative was being developed, and many offered their own stories to illustrate the value of their liberal arts education to their successful career journeys. Thus, the process lowered some of the silos that often undermine or complicate collegial work between offices and across constituencies.
Classroom to Career at Fairfield University (www.fairfield.edu/c2c) has been largely successful, but it has not been without challenges. Over 70,000 words of copy were generated for the Web pages, along with graphic branding elements, videos, and a variety of promotional print materials. The time and costs associated with these efforts were substantial. A year later, a comprehensive Web rebranding at the university disrupted the look of and some of the links in C2C, requiring further time and effort to adapt it to the new Web templates. Keeping the Web pages fresh and current will be an ongoing challenge, as will driving each new class of students to use the resource. Nevertheless, after more than two years, C2C has emerged as a comprehensive and well-liked approach to connect liberal arts majors and professional preparation and as one way to integrate career conversations into routine academic advising—with a higher degree of faculty enthusiasm too. Building greater collaboration across campus, particularly across academic and student affairs, has been another positive by-product of this initiative.
Greater attention to the practical value of the liberal arts and the development of programs such as Classroom to Career will go a long way toward increasing student readiness, and perhaps even parental comfort with a student’s choice of a humanities major. But we must not abate our defense of the inherent and enduring value of a liberal arts education for individuals and for society. Each successive news story about the rising costs of higher education, mounting student debt, or the questionable employment prospects of new college graduates chips away at public confidence, not to mention our own political capital as educators. Yet the received narrative rarely delves into the decades-long deterioration of public funding for education, the disproportional concentration of student debt in the for-profit sector, the escalating demands for comprehensive services and high-end facilities, and the costs associated with increased accountability, all of which contribute to the rising costs of a college education. These are also the parts of the story we must continue to tell as we tenaciously defend and promote the liberal arts.
Gordon, V.N. & Steele, G.E. (2003). Undecided first-year students: A 25-year longitudinal study. Journal of the First-Year Experience & Students in Transition, 15(1), 19-38.
Hart Research Associates. (2013). It takes more than a major: Employers’ views on college learning in the wake of the economic downturn. Washington, D.C.: Association of American Colleges and Universities.
Humphreys, D., & Kelly, P. (2014). How liberal arts and sciences majors fare in employment: A report on earnings and long-term career paths. Washington, D.C.: Association of American Colleges and Universities.
Novakovic, A., Kantamneni, N., Guillen, A., Fouad, N.A., Terry, S., Harris-Hodge, E., & Henry, C. (2006). Need, awareness, and use of career services for college students. Journal of Career Assessment, 14: 4, 407-420. doi:10.1177/1069072706288928.
Schawbel, Dan. (2014, May 20). Liberal Arts Majors Are Screwed [Blog post]. Retrieved 9-26-2014 from www.businessinsider.com/liberal-arts-majors-are-screwed-2014-5.
U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics. (2013). Digest of Education Statistics, 2012 (NCES 2014-015). Retrieved 9-24-2014 from http://nces.ed.gov/programs/digest/d12/ch_3.asp.
Robbin D. Crabtree serves as dean of the Bellarmine College of Liberal Arts at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. She was dean of the College of Arts & Sciences at Fairfield University from 2008 to 2014, when this initiative was developed. James Simon serves as interim dean of the College of Arts & Sciences at Fairfield University, where he was formerly associate dean, chair of the English department, and director of the journalism program. Both have directed internship programs in their respective academic departments.
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