With the New York Times observing that the unemployment rate for liberal arts graduates exceeds the national average for all workers and the Chronicle of Higher Education reporting a sluggish job market for next spring's graduates, the challenge of finding meaningful work continues for all college students, and especially for those majoring in the arts and sciences.
As a liberal arts college president, I submit that colleges like mine can and should do more to ready students for their professional lives. While our students at Albion College have done well in spite of these difficult economic times -- over 90 percent of our students secure employment or admission to graduate/professional school within six months of graduation -- today even first-rate academic preparation is often not sufficient for liberal arts students to advance after earning their degrees.
The core strengths of a liberal arts education -- the development of skills in critical thinking and analysis, communication, and problem-solving, along with rigorous preparation in an academic discipline -- are more important than ever. However, we must ensure that our students have a broad range of opportunities to apply that learning throughout their college experience, and for their part, students should aggressively pursue those opportunities. Preparation for the ever-evolving world of work should be a partnership between colleges and the students they serve.
What Liberal Arts Colleges Must Do
Pursue curricular innovation. We must take a critical look at our course offerings and find ways to blend professional preparation with a solid liberal arts foundation. For instance, Albion College's modern languages program now includes a specialized track preparing students for international careers by developing their knowledge of a foreign language and culture as well as by requiring them to learn and practice professional skills in a global work setting.
Incorporate advanced technology. While today's students are highly competent in learning new technologies, we must also show them how technology can serve as an important tool for the creation, sharing, and analysis of information in the workplace. At Albion College, we are currently piloting courses with universities in Europe that use videoconferencing, social media, cloud sites, and other technology to give students experience working in virtual teams, simulating the work environment they likely will encounter in the future.
Offer excellent career counseling. We must ensure that our career services offices support students throughout their four years on campus with focused programming and practical advice on how best to achieve one's academic and professional goals. Rather than waiting for students to come to them, at Albion our career services staff is proactive in reaching out to students and encouraging them to start mapping their career path even in the first year of college.
What Liberal Arts Students Must Do
Start early. In their first year, students should begin to develop a four-year academic and career plan detailing how they will achieve their goals. In addition to completing self-assessment exercises, students should research potential careers online and with career services staff, and engage in job-shadowing and other experiences that will help clarify their goals.
Find a mentor. Students should identify a faculty member and/or a professional in their intended career field, seek their advice, and cultivate this relationship over time. Networking with college alumni and participating in informational interviews with potential employers are both invaluable in developing contacts for the future.
Get relevant experience. Gaining real-world experience through independent research projects, internships, off-campus study, volunteer work, and on-campus or summer employment enables students to build their portfolio of skills. This experience will give them an edge when seeking full-time employment after graduation.
Pursue leadership opportunities. A leadership role in a student organization or on an athletic team develops students' communication, teamwork, and problem-solving capabilities. They learn to set goals and motivate themselves and others to achieve them. They can then translate these experiences into skills employers will value.
Do the research. Students planning post-baccalaureate study should explore graduate/professional school possibilities and check out scholarship and fellowship opportunities. Those seeking immediate employment should learn about those companies and organizations that most closely match their goals and participate in career fairs to further build their network of contacts and find out more about particular industries.
Formulate a strategy. Those students heading to graduate or professional school should create a timeline for their junior and senior years, noting important application deadlines and preparing well in advance for those all-important entrance examinations. Students who will begin their careers right after graduation will need to create a job search strategy and use all resources available -- from on-campus interviews to professional networking websites to online job listings -- to carry it out. Students must be consistently organized, focused, and persistent to have the best chance for success.
Given the cost of higher education today, we must assure students that the outcomes they will achieve are well worth the significant investment of time and financial resources required. The integration of academic and professional experiences, and an active partnership between the college and student over four years, will lead not only to career success but to a meaningful and productive life.