Symposium Entry

Mind the gap: How to close the distance between liberal arts and employment

March 11th, 2015

Why better measurement and applied experiences will help, not hurt, liberal arts.

“The transition from education to employment used to be a bunny hop. Now, it’s a running leap—and the gap is only getting bigger.” That was the message delivered by Phil Gardner of Michigan State University at the Innovation and Disruption Symposium hosted by Colgate University last year. This growing chasm between education and employment is serving to magnify another chasm—the chasm between the liberal arts and STEM or other “vocational” education. Proponents of the liberal arts— of which we proudly count ourselves—can be forgiven for feeling defensive in the face of declining majors across departments, rising student loans, and pressure on post-college outcomes. However, the balkanized “either/or” debates of liberal arts versus STEM are not helping our students, our economy, or our society.

We would offer two bridges across the chasm that have historically been anathema in the liberal arts: better measurement and applied experiences.

Before we jump into the solutions, it’s worth spending a moment to agree on the problem. According to a 2013 study by AOL Jobs, the ten lowest paying and highest unemployment majors are all liberal arts majors. Additionally, liberal arts grads are much more likely to work in a job outside their field of study, so it’s particularly difficult to translate a graduate’s academic experience into the world of work.

We get it. Why would you want to take a chance on a recent anthropology major grad if you weren’t able to assess what he/she could do for your organization? Employers typically know what they are getting out of grads with technical/STEM backgrounds— a quicker return. They feel it’s riskier to take a chance on a liberal arts grad, especially because the value of a liberal arts grad usually results in a slower return, as it takes time to learn the direct skills necessary for the job. As one liberal arts college president quietly told us, “We’re doing a great job educating our students for the job they’ll have in 20 years. However, we’re not doing a great job educating our students for the job they’ll have next year.”

So how do we make sure we’re preparing students for the jobs they’ll have next year as well as the jobs they’ll have in the next decade? The first solution is better measurement of the competencies that really drive success and fulfillment in the 21st century economy and society. While surveys of senior executives espouse the importance of abstract competencies like critical thinking and collaboration, the reality is that HR teams and hiring managers default to the skills they can easily infer from resume keywords and high level educational data (e.g., college, major, GPA). The result is a bias—intentional or not—against hiring liberal arts grads. As one hiring manager recently told us, “I can’t tell any of the 3.5 [GPA] history majors apart so, unfortunately, I don’t interview any of them.”

Employers need a better way to “see” the skills of liberal arts grads and level the playing field. Next generation assessments such as the CLA+ are increasingly allowing us to affirm and measure the higher-order thinking and communication skills of college grads.

(Next page: Aligning employers wants with liberal arts data)