Florida Governor Rick Scott (R) thinks that students who go into fields of study that are not “job-friendly” should pay more tuition at state schools than those students who go into science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields. He said, “I am issuing a challenge to our state colleges to find innovative ways to offer a bachelor’s degree at a cost of just $10,000 in fields that will provide graduates with the best opportunity for employment.”
To most education experts, this is a crazy idea. Professor Sherman Dorn of the University of South Florida took to his blog to argue that “There is too little evidence that differential tuition would drive many students to consider STEM [science, technology, engineering, and math] careers … You cannot dramatically boost physics enrollment by stealing from philosophy. But you can ruin a philosophy program.” He further pointed out that “the problem is not that students are uninterested in STEM fields but that they are unprepared,” suggesting that the governor’s solution is based on a false premise and needs to take a more sophisticated look at the reasons why STEM fields are less popular with students.
However, both the governor and the professor neglect one major salient fact: employers want to hire graduates who have the skills that come from the liberal arts!
What Do Employers Want?
Amid all the screeds by panicked politicians and education reformers, who fear a global apocalypse if American students read poetry, there is mounting evidence from the past few years that the most sought-after qualities employers want in new hires are especially nurtured in liberal arts courses:
- A study by Millennial Branding and Experience, Inc. found that liberal arts graduates are “actually in more demand than those who are getting finance and accounting degrees” and “thirty percent of surveyed employers said they were recruiting liberal arts types, second only to the 34 percent who said they were going after engineering and computer information systems majors.”
- The Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) revealed that in its 2007, 2008, and 2010 surveys, “the vast majority of employers say they are less interested in specialized job proficiencies. Instead, they favor analytical thinking, teamwork, and communication skills – the broad intellectual and social competencies available through a liberal arts education.”
- The 2011 MetLife Survey of the American Teacher: Preparing Students for College and Career shows that “97 percent of executives rated strong writing skills as absolutely essential or very important. Another 65 percent of Fortune 1000 executives said, ‘knowledge of other cultures and international issues is absolutely essential or very important to be ready for a career.’”
Why Liberal Arts Majors are Valuable
Clearly, there are definite reasons why employers value liberal arts majors. Employment expert J.P. Hansen argues that “a liberal arts degree provides an inherent advantage in written and oral communication, interpersonal skills, problem solving, critical and analytical thinking, and adaptability to change … the ability to comprehend, communicate, and conquer problems is the name of the game and is implied with a liberal arts degree.”
That highlights the central problem with Governor Scott’s plan. Any assessment of the value of a particular academic degree or field of study needs to take a wide variety of data into consideration. It’s also shocking that the governor seems to be unfamiliar with the definition of the liberal arts from the National Center for Education Statistics, which includes general mathematics and the sciences with social sciences, economics, and humanities as part of the liberal arts.
Edwin Koc of the National Association of Colleges and Employers says that “there is no longer a single college hiring market but two broad markets … one market is focused on the career-oriented majors such as business administration, accounting, engineering and computer science. The other deals with more broadly academically oriented disciplines such as English, history, the language arts, and the social and physical sciences.”
In addition, there’s a great dishonesty inherent in applying different valuations to different areas of knowledge on arbitrary terms. It’s also possible that there is an inequality in requiring students to pay different tuition rates depending on their majors. Most students today receive some form of financial aid, including federal funds, the distribution of which may be subject to equal protection laws.
Finally, a plan that privileges one degree over others is also short-sighted because the employment world is broad, and a well-balanced society needs writers, teachers, artists, musicians, and other contributors to the general welfare of the human spirit. There is truth that exists beyond the dollar, and the world needs liberal arts majors to keep us honest. As Salman Rushdie reminds us,
A poet’s work is to name the unnameable, to point at frauds, to take sides, start arguments, shape the world, and stop it going to sleep.