In the loud and contentious debate about the ultimate purpose of a college education, two philosophies often get pitted against one another: the "vocational"€ perspective, which emphasizes preparing graduates for jobs, and the "€œliberal arts"€ perspective, which strives to produce well-rounded critical thinkers through exposure to a variety of subjects.

Like most either/or debates, the "vocational vs. liberal arts" argument tends to lack nuance and to reduce both sides to caricature (the vocational approach as mere job training and the liberal arts approach as professionally useless). In fact, we at VisionPoint Marketing know from working with clients across the higher education spectrum that neither caricature is true, and that both perspectives offer great value, especially when combined together. There is no one-size-fits-all educational approach.

Still, while I have no interest in fueling a false dichotomy, I feel compelled to share that I’m worried about the implications of the current debate for the liberal arts educational model. It’s not that I’m concerned about the prevalence of the vocational perspective (for which proponents as divergent as President Obama and N.C. Governor Pat McCrory have advocated). On the contrary, I think there is much liberal arts institutions can gain from focusing more intentionally on helping graduates get good jobs. Rather, what bothers me is that the tone of the conversation tends to:

  1. Stigmatize the liberal arts as a reckless choice for career-minded students, and;

  2. Place too much emphasis on graduates’ first jobs instead of on what sort of educational experience will equip them to thrive professionally throughout their careers.

Mothers Know Best

To be candid, I can relate to the vocational perspective. My oldest son is heading off to college this fall. I was thrilled when he chose Hampden-Sydney College, not least because of their impressive track record of preparing graduates to thrive professionally–and their knack for demonstrating that record with verifiable data and compelling alumni success stories.

Still, what excites me most about Hunter’s choice of Hampden-Sydney is about more than whether he’ll graduate with the technical competence to land his first job. What excites me, as silly as this may sound, is that he’ll have to write persuasively in every single one of his classes.

Hampden-Sydney is going to give my son a chance to become the type of employee I look to hire: people who are critical thinkers, who can communicate effectively, write persuasively, build a compelling argument, and make good decisions. I want people with an appreciation for diverse perspectives, an aptitude for learning, and a willingness to accept a variety of challenges. I want people who have a global awareness, a sense of empathy, and a sense of ethical conviction.

To put it simply, as an employer, I want exactly what the traditional liberal arts model strives to offer–and I’m not alone. 

A Value Proposition That’s as Strong as Ever

Conversations with my peers in industries across the Triangle area of North Carolina inevitably turn toward the challenge we face in finding college graduates qualified to join our teams.

"€œOutsiders would probably assume that our industry is highly technical,” says Jennifer Terry, senior vice president and client development officer for Paragon Bank. “Actually, though, most of banking revolves around whether people are good communicators, whether they’re creative, innovative, whether they know how to solve problems."

"€œI’ve found that the best hires have actually been people with a liberal arts background,” Terry says. “I just think that broad exposure to a variety of different subjects gives people a more global perspective and helps them relate better to others."€

Raleigh’s Mayor Nancy McFarlane, who launched the highly successful pharmaceutical company MedPro Rx, Inc. before embarking on her political career, shares Terry’s perspective.

"I think the single most important quality, no matter the industry, is a sense of empathy,” McFarlane says. “Obviously, education isn’t a one-size-fits-all process. People’s ideal paths will look different. But regardless of what paths students choose, I always encourage them to get as much exposure to as many different subjects, different people, different perspectives as possible. Complete internships. Join clubs and volunteer in support of causes. Make friends with a variety of different people. That’s all part of a dynamic, varied educational experience."

Sylvia Hackett, Vice President for Human Resources at Rex Healthcare, says "€œsoft skills"€ are even more important than "technical competence"€ in landing a job in her industry, let alone thriving once the job is landed.

"€œObviously, in healthcare, candidates have to be technically qualified for the jobs they’re pursuing,” Hackett says. “But these days, the hiring process at Rex and other healthcare systems is a relational process. Candidates have to meet and interact with a variety of stakeholders across multiple departments, so their ability to communicate effectively and to convey how their values fit with our culture is crucial."

The emergent theme: employers want well-rounded graduates, so the more diverse and varied an educational and extracurricular experience schools can offer, the better.

Marketing Liberal Arts Value

In a climate where questions about the value of a liberal arts degree abound, the responsibility falls to liberal arts institutions themselves (and partners like VisionPoint) to help turn the tide in the national conversation. The fact that employers are hungry for what the liberal arts have to offer gives us a place to start. 

Now, the challenge--or rather, the opportunity--is twofold. First, institutions must deliver on the value proposition by producing more graduates who are capable of thriving as young professionals. Second, schools must do a better job of communicating compelling stories that show how, through coursework and hands-on experience, they position graduates for long-term success.

Whatever the unique stories may be, institutions enjoy a tremendous opportunity to reimagine the brand promise, so to speak, for the liberal arts in the twenty-first century.

No one school can change the conversation alone. Together, though, we can build a compelling argument for the enduring value of an investment in the liberal arts for our students, our industries, and our future.