08/14/2013 11:16 am ET | Updated Oct 14, 2013

Even Better Than STEM

Parents sending their children off to college these days have a right to worry: unemployment rates seem intractably high, college costs more and more, and students are graduating with unprecedented debt. As the president of a public liberal arts institution, I am especially sensitive to the "return-on-investment" question. And it is no surprise when high school students and their parents ask our admissions counselors, "Do you offer STEM?"

Without question, STEM is the new buzzword for those anxious about post-graduation employment. STEM is an acronym for science, technology, engineering and mathematics - all disciplines in which America must excel if it is to retain its industrial and economic strength. Some would even widen the list of STEM professions to include educators, technicians, managers, social scientists and health-care professionals. Indeed, the talk these days in my state of Virginia is about STEM-H (for healthcare).

The STEM job sector is growing at twice the rate of non-STEM occupations, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce, but we should note some caveats. First, let's remember that STEM workers, as identified by the Commerce Department, comprise only 5.5 percent of the workforce. Second, while STEM workers overall may earn 26 percent more than their counterparts, the greatest differential is seen in the lowest-level jobs; the higher the terminal degree, the less the earnings difference.

Moreover, it is not a given that that the only path to STEM job success is the STEM degree: About one-third of college-educated workers in STEM professions do not hold degrees in STEM. Two-thirds of people holding STEM undergraduate degrees work in non-STEM jobs. One-fifth of math majors, for instance, end up working in education. Nearly 40 percent of STEM managers hold non-stem degrees.

This points up one of the realities of college and career: that the workplace is flexible and vibrant and often unpredictable - a moving target, if you will. It is a place where, over a lifetime, a college graduate will hold multiple jobs and may even see multiple careers.

So to those high school students and parents who anxiously ask, "Do you offer STEM?", I have a couple of things to say: First, please don't forget that we are a college of the liberal arts and sciences. Far too often in casual writing and conversation the "sciences" part is left off of that phrase. Yes, the University of Mary Washington teaches STEM. We offer degrees in math, and science, including biology, chemistry, computer science, geographic information systems, environmental science, geology, physics, and the "social sciences," as well as business and education (teaching.) We are pre-law and we are pre-med.

But "Better yet," I would tell them, "we offer STEM-Plus."

Our STEM is built on a broad foundation that exposes our students to arts, humanities, and social sciences. Our pure and applied science and math disciplines are all built upon our core liberal arts foundation. That's the plus part.

We all know that the liberal arts and sciences prepare us to be better citizens, to help us understand ourselves and others. But they also prepare us for business and careers. And if our graduates pursue careers in science or technology, they will possess the ability - and I am quoting from our academic catalog here -- to "understand, evaluate, articulate and advance their ideas and the ideas of others."

The CEOs of Dell, JP Morgan, Chase, Walt Disney, IBM and FedEX all had liberal arts educations. It has been reported that Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Harold Varmus, the director of the National Cancer Institute, both were English majors. Interestingly, North Carolina's Governor McCrory, lately a critic of the liberal arts, studied education and political science at Catawba, a liberal arts college.

The noted New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman recently updated his book, The World is Flat. "I added a whole section on why liberal arts are more important than ever," he said. "It's not that I don't think math and science are important. They still are. But more than ever our secret sauce comes from our ability to integrate art, science, music and literature with the hard sciences. That's what produces an iPod revolution or a Google."

Friedman could have quoted the late Steve Jobs, perhaps the ultimate techno-geek. Here's what Jobs told us when he rolled out the iPad 2: "It is in Apple's DNA that technology alone is not enough. It's technology married with liberal arts, married with humanities, that yields the results that make our hearts sing." Jobs even designed his workplaces so that people with diverse intellects would be forced to rub shoulders. "One of the greatest achievements at Pixar was that we brought these two cultures together and got them working side by side," Jobs said in 2003.

So, who brings together the scientists, the engineers, the designers, and humanists? I think you know by now what I believe. Not every one of our graduates will go on to be a Steve Jobs. But we hope that they will be broad thinkers, big thinkers, creative and fearless thinkers. And that's what makes my heart sing. (Condensed from the author's article in the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation's Business Horizon Quarterly.)