Liberal arts and jobs: It is not an either/or situation

I’d like to put my position up front: there is NO schism between liberal arts education and jobs. None. So, when you hear the President of the United States, many governors, policy wonks, talking heads and Peter Thiel say that Liberal Arts are not a good career investment (although to be fair, Thiel argues against college entirely, not just Liberal Arts), they are misguided.

There is an irony in most of these statements, because many of those making them actually *have* Liberal Arts degrees. But, I’d like to argue that there’s more to it than irony and short-sightedness. It may not be explicit, but it is present.

I think there’s classism involved.

Remember our context — we live in a time where college degrees are still quite rare (the Census Bureau says we crossed over the 30% mark only in the past few years). But, even that low-ish number is still greatly expanded over even 20 years ago. And if you’ve studied your Pierre Bourdieu, you know the theory of education being a place that passes on social capital.

While I agree that college tuition costs are increasing rapidly and current costs for some institutions are too high, it seems to me that at least some of the argument we are hearing for “practical majors” is rooted in the idea that perhaps only the wealthy should be able to study humanities, arts and culture. Are these not things for the well-to-do? Shouldn’t the working class be studying something that just simply puts them to work?

No, of course not. And that’s why the irony of so many of these folks arguing for more “jobs ROI” from our colleges and universities, while simultaneously wielding power AND holding a Liberal Arts education, seems so thick.

To my opening point, there is no schism between Liberal Arts education and obtaining a first job or a successful professional life. I’m paraphrasing John Dewey (perhaps poorly) when I say it, but I do believe that an occupation is not the purpose of higher education, but it is a logical outcome. As a career center director, I know first hand that those with Liberal Arts degrees can have both short-term and long-term career success, while also studying arts, culture and humanities. I see it all the time (and the AAUC noted in a recent study that Liberal Arts majors actually make more than those from professional programs during their peak earning years).

We do not need to spend more time steering students into so-called “practical majors.” Students need to pursue academic areas that intrigue them and in which they can do good, hard academic work. We do need to spend more time helping students find contexts to which they can apply their Liberal Arts skills.

Yes, we know that the philosophy major is not going to find an organization to pay him or her to sit around and just think deeply. But, that’s a straw man argument. There are plenty of organizations who would like a student who can critically analyze situations; who can see varying perspectives; and who can write competently. Problem solved, philosophy student. Let’s take those highly desired skills and find a good fit for you!

Our challenge is to have our students tackle these post-college questions earlier. We need to make this a core expectation of the college experience from semester one. Students should not skip over the very important steps of academic exploration. However, they need to undertake this exploration in parallel with examination of potential industries and functional areas of interest. When done together, students have the agency to set a positive academic AND career trajectory for themselves.


Is “customer” still a bad word in higher education?

In a meeting earlier this week someone referred to our students as “customers,” but then, realizing what had been done, quickly walked the statement back by saying something like, “not that we think of our students as customers.”  That’s been a long-held student/academic affairs mentality — students are not customers.

There are certainly parts of this sentiment that I understand.  The implication is that a student has different responsibilities in the educational experience than a customer would in a commercial experience.  And I believe that to be true.  But, I also believe that too often we lean on the idea that students aren’t customers as a way to comfort ourselves for providing less-than-stellar service.

Sometimes this less-than-stellar service is beyond our control.  We don’t make all the policies, and we don’t control the bureaucracy.  But, dang it, we say we’re here for the students.  So, when it makes sense to pick up a phone and make a call rather than send a student traipsing across campus, we should do that (as one of my colleagues did this afternoon, I’m happy to say).  That’s not hand-holding or coddling, that’s just good service, and our students deserve it.

Recently a person that I respect posted, jokingly, on Facebook the old adage “a lack of planning on your part does not constitute an emergency on my part.”  We know students put things off, and we know they don’t always take action when they should.  But, the very tone of that statement belies our often-stated mantra that we’re here to help students.  Does that mean we shouldn’t discuss consequences and better planning and better decision making?  Of course not.  But, we shouldn’t be afraid of “service” just because we think it is for customers and not for students.

We should be focusing on how to give the best service we can, and we should be learning from those commercial sectors to which we don’t like to be compared.  Whether you like it or not, those are the standards to which we are being held.  The experiences students have with us are contextualized not against other university offices or offices similar to ours on other campuses (which is why benchmarking is such a flawed concept sometimes), but rather against service in all settings.

What are you doing to provide absolutely top-notch service to your students?  I’d love to hear about it.  I’m sure it’s happening!




Rethinking Careers and Higher Ed

I’ve been pondering a paradox with college students and careers lately.  Much of this falls into a “thinking outloud” category, with no real intent or outcome in mind.  So, bear with me.

Gerald Bracey once wrote that the debates on the purpose of higher education have been “overwhelmed by a recent shift to a single-minded view about education: Education is about jobs.”  Although somewhat fatalistic, there is at minimum a kernel of truth behind it — People speak about college in ROI terms and nearly universally that return is defined as employment.

I don’t think that’s an entirely-positive thing, and if you catch me at the right time, I will become a higher education traditionalist who spouts platitudes about an educated democracy, knowledge creation and so forth.

But, if jobs are even among the top three reasons a student comes to college, does it not stand to reason that said student would go to great lengths to participate in career-related activities?  If so, why is low student attendance at career events (like fairs, networking nights, workshops, panels, etc.) an issue at so many universities?

Here on a campus of 25,000+ students, why should our office have to worry about how many students are going to show up for a networking night focused on a particular industry.   Even if one captures only one-tenth of one percent of the student population, it’s a sizable turnout.  So, why do we struggle sometimes to capture .002%?

Is it the wrong programming?  Is it a student engagement issue?  A marketing issue? Are students given too options for events on college campuses? Are students not career-centered in the way that Bracey posits?

Interesting questions all around.

College graduates be proud, even if unemployed

I just posted a comment on another blog regarding the “value” of a college education and associated frustration felt by college graduates who were jobless.  I wanted to port that conversation here and expand on it a bit.


A fascinating statistic that many don’t realize:  As of 2008, only 29.5% of our nation aged 25 and higher held a college degree.  All college graduates should be proud to be among the best educated in our society.

But, to paraphrase (hopefully not mis-characterize) John Dewey, while it’s not unreasonable to expect a career to result from an education, it is not the reason for that education.

An educated democracy is a better democracy.  The better educated tend to live longer and have higher levels of community involvement.  They also tend to have children who are in better health and have higher educational outcome potential.  They have better critical thinking skills and tend to be more resilient.

The ability to parlay one’s education into a career doesn’t have to be intrinsically linked with the perceived value of that education.  As today’s graduates are finding out, there are too many variables involved to lay either all the blame or all the credit for their career on their education.

As something of a higher education fuddy-duddy, I cringe that we’ve come to define higher education as being equal to job training.  I recognize there is a convoluted history of higher education that involves not only items like knowledge creation, student development and an educated democracy on the positive side, but also segregation and elitism on the negative side.  So, I try to walk the balance between pining for “the good old days” of higher education and recognizing that said “good old days” probably never existed, at least not in a fair and equitable manner.

But, with all that acknowledged, I’d like to push for us to recognize that simply being better educated is a reward in and of itself, and it does come with “perks” that aren’t specific to finding a job, and those perks also have value.  We simply haven’t decided as a society to give as much attention to ROI that isn’t directly related to employment and income.

For the unemployed out there, I do feel for you, and it is my hope that you find not only employment but a satisfying career.  I understand why you’re frustrated.  You bought into the idea that if you work hard and do well, you’ll be rewarded with a career.  And I’m sure you still will be.  But, until then, know you carry with you many tools and have had experiences that have shaped your thinking in ways that may not even be revealed for a few years.  There’s value to be had there, even if it’s not immediately obvious to your current situation.

Gary Alan Miller

Cross posted on The Student Affairs Collaborate Blog

What’s in a name?

I posted the following as a comment on The Student Affairs Collaborative Blog.  But, it ended up being so lengthy that I wanted to transport it here, as well.  The original post was about “the ones that got away,” and focused on lessons learned from less-than-positive experiences.


In a previous position I was an academic advisor in Georgia. It was an incredibly high-volume office, charged with advising 5,500 students with an advising staff of 5! I had been in the position for a few years and had really hit my professional stride, or so I thought. But, I had also gotten formulaic and rote in my conversations and had probably stopped focusing on the individual students as much as I should have.

As the fall semester of 2001 kicked off, I was cruising along with my advising activities, seeing about 10 students a day and helping them plan their upcoming semesters toward graduation. Then the tragedy of 9/11 struck and we all had our worlds shifted in one way or another. But, I had an interaction with a particular student whose experience helped change me, professionally.

He was an international student from Turkey. He had never been to America before, and the fall semester of 2001 was his first in the States. Having never done it, I can only imagine how hard it is to leave one’s family and life behind to study in a country you’ve never visited. No doubt this is a difficult transition for any student.

Now imagine if your name happens to be Osama. In fall of 2001. In the U.S.

Yes, my Turkish student, who was already quite nervous and struggling with his new adventure, had the bad timing of landing in our country in 2001 with the name Osama, and he was absolutely terrified. I saw him a handful of times that first semester, not because he had academic or career planning to do, but because he needed to talk to a friendly face. I could only imagine his feelings, as he shared with me his struggles to retain his name — a big part of anyone’s identity — in a place where that particular name felt malignant.

As the 2001-2002 academic year ended I lost track of him. In the rush of helping the other 5,499 students, he faded from my memory. It was only later that I realized I had let him slip away. I don’t know if he remained at the university or in the United States at all. But, it taught me a lesson — these relationship that we form as student affairs professionals, even in the most high-volume of environments, have meaning only if we allow them to have meaning. And I want them to have meaning.

Gary Alan Miller

A Case For Introspection

“You should withdraw inwardly and search for the ground upon which you stand, thereby you will find out what truth is.”  Yun-Men Wen-yen

Like many in the career advice field, over the past year I’ve been researching and incorporating the concepts of personal branding and the use of social media in the job search.  Those two concepts have been joined at the hip by many, since often the focus of personal branding is on the communication of that brand, especially through the use of new media.

As I have probed, explored, and, in fact, become a voice for proactive use of them, I have simultaneously felt the need to make the case that personal branding still begins with thorough and on-going exploration of the self.  Digital natives and even those somewhat-more technologically challenged are drawn to the relative ease with which one can begin reaping benefits from the use of social media.  It’s easy to just roll up your sleeves, create some accounts and begin projecting oneself out into the world.

What seems to be undervalued, or at least under-discussed, in this wave of personal branding coverage is the process of introspection that should be the genesis of any person’s “brand.”  That isn’t to say that there is no value to be had simply by, for example, setting up a Twitter account and having conversations with people of interest.  Indeed, those conversations can be a valuable part of the exploration process. But, I think it’s important that we, as student affairs professionals, make sure we’re helping students to learn and utilize the tools of the day without skipping over the processes of contemplation that should drive so much of their decision making about jobs, careers and life.

What tools are you using to help students be both introspective and extrospective?

(cross posted on The Student Affairs Blog)

Gary Alan Miller

Choas and structure

I’m currently reading Nation of Wimps: The High Cost of Invasive Parenting, and  I find myself considering interesting convergence of issues between invasive parenting and the chaos theory of counseling.   In an article titled Counseling Chaos:  Techniques for Practitioners, Pryor and Bright state, “the complex array of potential influences, the limitations of one’s knowledge of others or oneself, and the historical uniqueness of every event will always thwart accurate predictability.”

If one takes a chaos view of the career choice process and add to it a narrow-in-scope upbringing, that student is even less prepared for the decision making processes that accompany (or at least should accompany) higher education.  We all experience some of that first-hand vis-a-vis “helicopter parents.”  But, these issues also make me curious about their connections to retention in the first career path upon graduation.

It stands to reason that a student who is less able or less willing to (or simply doesn’t) go through a process of personal discovery is more likely to land in a first career that is not a good fit for their strengths, values or interests, since that student may not really discover those qualities until they are in that first job.

There is more to ponder and research here…

Commentary: Graduates, don’t go home

There are plenty of news stories about the poor job market for new college graduates (see this one as an example), and the job market is, in fact, the worst one for those newly-minted bachelor’s holders as there has been in a while.  But, I have a word of advice for those grads:  don’t move back in with mom and/or dad.

The temptation will be great to do so — it’s free, it’s convenient, it’s comfortable.  But, I would like to argue with you for a moment that being uncomfortable may be the best thing for you right now.

We read about “hellicopter parents” and “teacup kids” nearly as much as we read about the job market. Today  I’m recommending that you buck that stereotype.  There is great value in blazing your own trail and making your own way, even if it means just scraping by temporarily with a job that is less-than-ideal.

We know that students often have transformational experiences when they study abroad.  Study abroad can really test the mettle of the average college student, as that individual finds their path, navigates a new culture, a new language and generally operates on their own.   In 2009, not returning home after graduation is the new study abroad.  Only now that “new culture” is adult life, and that “new language” is one of independence.  While it may be the harder path and seem a bit scary to you, the new graduate, it’s a path that will be more rewarding for you in the long run.

Jobs are fleeting, healthy independent lives are not.

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