College Grads Need Skills, Not Liberal Arts

Parents should encourage their children to specialize in undergraduate degrees rather than going the liberal arts route. Pro or con?

Pro: Engineering Economy Growth

I can almost hear the exchange. First, Alex Trebek quizzing Jeopardy! contestants: "This will enable a bright future for students while improving national competitiveness." Then, Watson’s response: "What are ‘specialized courses of study, particularly in science and technology’?"

Correct indeed. The U.S. economy has always been driven by innovation, with high-tech research, development, and commercialization spurring economic growth. We have relied largely on our universities as the training grounds for the high-tech workforce.

But to compete—and succeed—in today’s global economy, our universities must do more than simply impart knowledge. They need to offer specialized courses of study that teach students how to create knowledge, innovate, and blend multiple disciplines to forge new pathways in science and technology.

A prime example of students capitalizing on specialized degrees is in the field of nanotechnology. The National Science Foundation projects that the U.S. will require at least 2 million nanotech-savvy scientists, researchers, engineers, and others by 2014.

One such public undergraduate program exists at University at Albany’s College of Nanoscale Science & Engineering. With $7 billion in public and private investment, it gives students a unique opportunity to study and drive innovation and technology transfer—and to obtain employment with more than 250 global corporate partners, both before and after graduating. In the process, CNSE has helped create and retain thousands of high-tech jobs, with an average annual salary of $81,000.

As the saying goes, "Opportunity only knocks once." The specialized undergraduate degree gives students the key to unlock that door—and our nation’s economic future.

Con: Encouraging Expansive Thinking

In an attempt to address the nation’s need for a ready workforce, some argue that early specialization, preferably in a professional discipline, is key. What experience and research are showing us, however, is that such an agenda would likely work against us.

In a recent Harvard Business Review item, writer Tony Golsby-Smith points to the limitations of an education focusing more on skills that prepare us to "control, predict, verify, guarantee, and test data" and less on the aptitudes necessary to "navigate the ‘what if’ questions" the real world presents.

In addition, New York Times columnist David Brooks writes in the "The New Humanism" that talents like the "ability to enter other minds and learn what they have to offer" and the ability to "see patterns in the world and derive a gist from complex situations" are critical to our future success. Such abilities, of course, are honed by the study of such things as literature, history, philosophy, and art.

The role the humanities, arts, and social sciences plays in developing the "whole persons" we need to become—to live rich and meaningful lives and address complex problems—are all factors students should be encouraged to explore throughout their education.

This debate really needn’t be about one or the other: It’s the cooperation and interplay of the liberal arts with vocation-specific training, as it turns out, that holds the most promise.

Opinions and conclusions expressed in the Debate Room do not necessarily reflect the views of Bloomberg Businessweek, Businessweek.com, or Bloomberg LP.

Reader Comments

batles

More socialized skills should be tightened with the high-tech ones. At the same time as the more fierce global competition occurs, grads have to redevelop their unexplored sub-capacities (intellectual, psychological, etc) in order to reach self-actualization.

normanmichaelcanter

There are critical shortages in the professions of nursing, pharmacy, and medicine, among others, that have encouraged importing people to compensate for these needs. The college student must be more cognizant of national professional staffing shortages to achieve financial security.

Stephanie Wald

A proper set of general course requirements together with a well-thought out major is the way to go, in my opinion. Any person should have a solid background in such areas as language (one foreign language, clear writing in your own language), history, math, at least one science (for those choosing non-science majors), etc. There are lots of universities and colleges that require the combination and we should support them. I regret not having taken science courses, but my broad liberal arts background made my career in technology possible.

cod

The cooperation and interplay of the liberal arts with vocation-specific training would be more productive if the technology skills were provided prior to the liberal arts component. Technology enables one to act constructively on one's philosophical beliefs rather than to merely write about them in 500-word essays. The manipulation of plant DNA can help feed more of the starving in the long term than a published article critical of a political party or leader.

VG

A student's natural tendency to fall for engineering/science or liberal arts speaks of two things. First of course is the love for the subject and second ability to succeed in a chosen field. While there is no hard and fast silo of either categories (people switch careers all the time), the initial training leaves a lasting impact on subsequent life.

Instead of a policy that aims to fill in jobs in the economy we should encourage a policy of exposure to different life activities in early development of a child. The exposure should balance both puritan as well as pragmatic aspect of a career choice. Puritan to develop love for the subject and pragmatic to know if other lifes' objectives can be met with a career choice.

For instance, as much as one would love to dive into history, there are practical limitations on how much money you can make being a history professional (professor). On the other hand as much as you like finance (think Wall Street job) and can make unlimited amount of money, you don't have much personal time in your life.

Of course for those with entreprenueral bent it doesn't matter as most successful entreprenuers are little influenced by formal education. We hear stories of college drop out billioners all the time.

We don't know the exact jobs of tomorrow just like we did not know in the 90s that there would be a huge requirement for software programmers in C++. What we do know is we can prepare the next generation to adapt. And that's where early childhood development will play a crucial part.

K Harrison Fuller

Anything in a vacuum will eventually have the air sucked out. Most successful entrepreneurs have had a well balanced educational experience, and I fear that in the haste to jump on the STEM bandwagon, schools will forgot about interpersonal skills to create human "Watsons," and I'm not talking about the cool guy that hung out with Sherlock Holmes! Preparing future citizens will require education that will afford them them the ability to be inquisitive, intellectual, and interactive persons with integrity and courage to ask the big questions like, "Just because we can--should we?"

Allyn

I agree with the last point made under "Con." The best engineer I have ever met went to Harvey-Mudd, which is a small liberal arts college with an excellent engineering school. He is great with the technical knowledge and also great at working with difficult people and on new and unfamiliar problems.

G F Mueden

The debate is the same now as it was in 1955 when I started my thirteen years in college placement. It is pointless because what an individual does to prepare for life should depend on the individual's interests, aptitudes, resources, and personality.

Educators should provide a mix of liberal arts and the sciences and somewhere in there should be a way to pay for it all.

What he does when he gets out will depend on his accomplishments, personality, specialty, and luck.

One size does not fit all. Without an overwhelming sense of direction, supported by talent, early specialization would seem to be a mistake as would failure to have a salable skill; mid-course changes in direction tend to be difficult and expensive.

Thus the institutions should have a mix of studies availble, tech and liberal arts.

Ted

You want to build a strong country?

There's a 3rd way to the debate: How about both?

How about having undergraduates who are in "STEM" programs (science, technology, engineering, math) have half of their courses in STEM, one quarter their courses in business (every STEM person should know what finance concepts such as "cost of capital" mean), and one quarter in the humanities.

Once they get to STEM grad school, then drop the business/humanities requirement--they can take 100% STEM courses.

JAY BECKER

David brooks is a journalist who never had a creative idea in his life. He makes nothing--he simply repeats what others say and think and judges people by the crease in their pants.

Blake Southwood

When I started college I focused on computer science, and I hated debugging and long compile times and how frustrating it was to write code. So I switched my major to psychology, which is what I got my degree in. My parents wanted me to major in business.

After graduation I worked in sales and finally at a mutual fund company answering calls from brokers and customers. I automated software that I wrote off the clock to do all of the financial calculations and wrote a database for all of their mutual fund data. With that experience I got hired as a programmer at Charles Schwab and worked in Tokyo, Japan, and in San Francisco till the 9/11 layoffs.

Only after getting laid off I did start to think about a better way to write code. I was out of work and caring for my parents and had time to think. In my spare time I started a startup to compete with Tivo and we had a three-month bug and disagreement amongst the programmers about some code, and that sparked the idea of changing how code works.

Ten years later I have a startup company (still trying to raise funding) and I've developed technology to build software in months instead of years. But I attribute it to my liberal arts degree and thinking outside the box and thinking in an unorthodox way to solve impossible problems.

But every job I've ever had I've tenaciously solved hard problems within days of starting to streamline operations since I see patterns and am a born problem solver.

Jack Allen Harrington

College grads need job skills, and social skills...period.

bill gates

Liberal arts is important, but all the material is free, free, free at internet/web/library. How anyone beat free?

jimc

The problem with this posting is that its premise is outdated. I attended a liberal arts university in the late 80s, but its geography department included a curriculum for urban & regional planning, while in and of itself would still be considered a critical thinking curriculum, this school was launching a new GIS program using computer science (also within the liberal arts dept). The skills required to operate this software go beyond critical thinking.

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