A case for applied liberal arts


May 6, 2014

This article was originally published on The EvoLLLution.


When the pursuit of higher education does not necessarily lead to a job and the costs of that education become prohibitively expensive, we have a problem. Moreover, with rising student loan debt, freezes and reductions of state subsidies, and a widening skills gap in the U.S. workforce, pressures are mounting on all institutions of higher education to be clear about the value of a college degree.

As tuition costs continue to soar, students will likely become savvier shoppers of education. They will want to know whether their investment in higher education will pay off over time. Some will have to decide whether to pursue a degree at all. Unfortunately, there is a shocking dearth of data around institutional performance outcomes. Calls for transparency, such as President Obama’s college ratings plan, have most institutions up in arms and resisting the notion that performance can and should be quantified.

But something’s got to give. We are now faced with a massive surge in demand of skillsets for the workforce, millions of jobs that are going unfilled, and a large contingent of bachelor’s-degree candidates unemployed upon graduation. With no obvious bridge between graduation and employment, it is no wonder that policymakers are emphasizing job attainment and the need for colleges and universities to be more responsive to workforce needs. Traditional liberal arts institutions in particular find themselves under attack for somehow not adapting their curricula to these major environmental shifts.

This is neither another defense of the liberal arts nor another piece that pits the liberal arts against vocational training. We’ve all grown weary of op-eds that ennoble without question the ideal of the liberal arts while denigrating vocation as factory work or corporate training. In lieu of these tired tropes, I would suggest the notion of applied liberal arts. It is time that we shed vocation of its connotations of career education, corporate training, and utility. Vocation does not preclude the liberal arts but can fuse a liberal education with the application of knowledge, effective citizenship, well roundedness, and even artistry.

There is an enormous opportunity here to make the transfer of knowledge clearer from learning to know to learning to do. “Ours is a society based on work,” as the authors of “An Avalanche Is Coming” put it: “Learning and work are becoming inseparable. Indeed one could argue that this is precisely what it means to have a knowledge economy or a learning society. It follows that if work is becoming learning, then learning needs to become work—and universities need to become alive to the possibilities.”

Right now, there are thousands of institutions in the U.S. that are all relatively expensive and undifferentiated from one another. Some institutions, therefore, simply in order to survive, will have to consider carefully the importance of this missing linkage to utility and jobs.

Scholars tend to resist the notion that college should be tied directly to “training” students for economy. This sentiment has its roots in our collegiate model from the 1870s, when Charles Eliot, the president of Harvard, insisted that students pursue their passions in college and then learn what they really needed to know in graduate school.

In the face of mounting external pressures and financial exigencies, institutions that wish to uphold the liberal arts must make a case for economic relevance. Arguing that critical thinking, communication, and problem-solving skills are inherently built into a liberal arts education is not enough. The transfer of knowledge into identifiable skills for the workforce needs to be clearer for students as well as for employers. If not, employers will lose faith (and this is already happening) in the signaling factor of a college credential.

Applied liberal arts can only become a reality if it is valued both by students and employers and is delivered at a lower price point. Despite the fact that liberal arts institutions might find the idea of collaborating with employers unattractive or incongruous with their strategic missions, our research predicts that if institutions do not bridge the skills gap, alternative learning providers will. We call this asymmetric motivation, as disruptive entrants find their footholds by inhabiting a space deemed undesirable by the established leaders in an industry. In this particular case, as the gap between learning and the workforce continues to widen, disruptive innovations will target directly the growing population of students seeking direct pathways to jobs.

Take coding bootcamps as an example: Students pay anywhere from $10,000 to $20,000 for a six to 12-week immersive experience in which they spend up to 12 hours per day learning to code. By the end of the session, they are proficient enough in programming to be hired as a developer, earning a six-figure salary at places like Google and Adobe.  These kinds of innovative learning hubs will only proliferate over time. We therefore can neither dismiss online education providers as non-competitors with established institutions nor assume that brand-name recognition will forever be a strong signaling mechanism to employers.

The instinct for some institutions might be to give into the “threat rigidity,” or to cease being flexible in the face of such major systemic shifts. If, however, traditional institutions double down on a static curriculum, then how will they compete with these lower-cost, briefer, and targeted programs that lead directly to high-skills opportunities at desirable companies? The oncoming disruption must be viewed as an opportunity to tie education to economic relevance—to offer more than a trajectory, but a well-defined pathway to employment.


Michelle R. Weise, PhD

Michelle is the executive director of Sandbox ColLABorative, the R&D lab of strategy and innovation at Southern New Hampshire University. Michelle’s work in fostering innovation is an extension of her prior work as the senior research fellow in higher education at the Christensen Institute.

  • Jerrold

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  • Steven Clarke

    One of the challenges facing educators and students is the constantly changing set of skills required in the modern job market. Even if colleges and universities can make their curricula dynamic enough to target skill demands that vary rapidly with time, how will this serve their students in the long run? In five years those skills the student paid to learn will be obsolete and they will need to pay for another degree or a $10,000 bootcamp to remain competitive in the job market. Employers will have no incentive to pay for retraining, since they can always dump obsolete workers for fresh graduates with the latest skills. (Not coincidentally, these new employees will be paid entry-level wages.) Targeted programs may also serve the interests of education providers (colleges, bootcamps or others) who can easily market them to students based on their apparently lucrative short-term benefits. But for an increasing number of workers, such targeted training will become an expensive trap in the long run. Better to get a liberal arts education and use those “critical thinking, communication, and problem-solving skills” to gain — and keep current — marketable skills. The student with a liberal arts education who has “learned how to learn” can independently acquire new skills as needed and will be prepared for the unpredictable shifts of the employment landscape.This strategy can also have short-term benefits. For instance, a competent critical thinker and problem-solver can learn coding for free using sources easily found on the Internet. Instant savings of $10,000-$20000!

    • Michelle R. Weise, PhD

      Your comment is well taken, but it still conflates vocation with corporate training and doesn’t push liberal arts programs to make a case for how knowledge transfers into those broad, marketable skills that you uphold. We can say that learning how to learn is a significant skill, but even that (and I say this as someone who used to teach at a small liberal arts college) is not made clear as a competitive advantage to students engaged in liberal arts studies. The application gap is still there. Students need guidance as to how these skills that they’re developing will enable them to be more capable workers and citizens in their communities. This does not mean, however, that all schools must transform their programs into career training programs, but they need to be clearer about the economic relevance of the liberal arts.

      Your comment also presumes that four years of college experience will amply prepare students for a lifetime of work, and that’s simply not the case with the new and emerging jobs as well as the increasing number of skillsets required in this rapidly evolving knowledge economy. Targeted lifelong-learning programs that offer the opportunity to skill-up will prevent students from feeling pigeonholed into specific lines of work based on the expensive four years of school that they invested in when they were younger and/or perhaps less aware of the career opportunities available.

      • Steven Clarke

        Thanks for your response. I think we agree that four years of college does not prepare students for a lifetime of work. All the more reason that it *should* prepare them for a lifetime of independent learning and self-reinvention. It’s certainly true that if liberal arts institutions wish to attract students and remain relevant, they need to do a better job of selling the benefits of a liberal education. As a society, though, we might benefit greatly from spending more of students’ primary and secondary years helping them develop their talents for critical thinking, communication and problem solving. This might allow them to more efficiently spend their early adult years acquiring specific job skills and, if they desire, the more humanistic forms of thinking and understanding that liberal education attempts to cultivate.>

      • tom abeles

        pror to raising the bar, secondary schools provided the equivalent to a “liberal education” sufficient for employers to bring them into the workforce. Today, it is clear that with the advent of “early college” that many of the skills that are being pushed for college can now be brought into the primary/secondary public systems. Simultaneously, there have always been vocationally oriented public and private institutions. The motivation for college, particularly “elite” ones has always been more than the life of an academic. It’s like the scarecrow in the Wizard of Oz who wanted a brain. It’s more than the next “school” beyond secondary. There be politics and dragons here. To “vocationalize” is a simplistic and naive solution. The problem runs deeper.

        We live in a global society, knowledge is fungible and transferable across geopolitical boundaries. “coders”, for example, live in Bangalore, Djibouti and Guatemala City. There is evidence that there is no shortage in qualified STEM graduates. In fact, this is one of the pushes behind turning students into entrepreneurs to create employment for themselves.

        Yes, education has become expensive at all levels, not just post secondary and that is why there is movement to “competency” based and not seat-time certification and why the private for-profits can make a profit by shadow pricing their tuition against institutions loaded with persiflage, like the old auto industry with “tail fins”.

        Reasonably priced and focused liberal or applied programs are possible but not driven by simplistic shifts to “marketized” curricula.

  • Great article, Michelle. I run the Digital Professional Institute in Chicago where we offer professional educational courses geared toward digital skills training – Digital Marketing, Social Media and Video & Post-Production. A quote from one of our instructors: “I wanted to get a job in online marketing when I graduated college but they told me I needed experience or demonstrated learning. I couldn’t show learning because they don’t teach this in college. They don’t teach this in college because it changes too quickly.” When the politics of higher ed curriculum development get in the way of relevant course material, it creates a significant gap in the skill level of graduates. And, yet, demand for skills continues to skew digital – to have a degree of familiarity and competency (as we like to say, “digital literacy”) to navigate this fast changing landscape.