11/02/2012 01:18 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

Career Prep Connundrum

Today's traditional liberal arts colleges and universities are facing a dilemma: stick with the "learning for the sake of learning" model, or integrate career preparation elements into their curricula. I would argue the two are not mutually exclusive, and now that a degree comes with a hefty price tag, it's time for long-time academicians to wake up and join the mindset of today's students who are seeking a return on their investments.

The traditional liberal arts model certainly has its merits. The analytical skills that students obtain as a result are invaluable and can be applied to a variety of career fields, not to mention to personal growth. However, students do not always understand the connection between their curriculum and their careers. They do not recognize the outcomes that happen gradually over four (or more) years. And they leave college wondering why they are tens of thousands of dollars in debt and what they got out of it.

Thirty years ago, colleges and universities had no need to justify their value. It was a win-win proposition for students, who could afford to obtain a degree based on their salaries from minimum wage summer jobs alone. Many of the "old guard" institutional staff and faculty are stuck in this mindset. Why should they have to demonstrate the value of an education at their institution when the model has been working for so long? Because, quite simply: we're asking students and families for the largest investment of their lifetime.

Convincing colleges and univerisities that they owe it to their students to more strongly connect the university experience to their participation in the workforce is just the first step. Colleges and universities need then to act on that conviction in a practical way. I am not by any means suggesting a major overhaul to the liberal arts model. I am suggesting augmenting the curricula to demonstrate the link between skills learned in the classroom, and those needed on the job, whether through the coursework itself or through auxiliary workshops.

There is still a lot of work to be done helping colleges and universities connect liberal arts to real life, while also tackling life's big philosophical questions. One long-time academic in the vanguard of helping instituitons and staff achieve that balance is Paul Hettich, Professor Emeritus of DePaul University. He offers valuable, practical information to assist recent or soon-to-be college graduates with the transition to the workforce in Connect College to Career (Wadsworth, 2004), which he co-authored along with career counselor Camille Helkowski.

As Hettich points out, it's not only graduates but also employers who are disappointed by their job skill levels -- or lack thereof. He suggests greater collaboration between faculty and representatives of the business community. Students can benefit not only from career skills integrated into the curriculum, but also from internships that provide real work experience, and seminars and workshops that provide time management, money management, and stress management skills -- critical both on campus and in careers. In addition to career skills, internships also provide exposure to a variety of organizational cultures.

Such practices are even more needed for the population of low-income, first-generation students whose parents do not have the college-going background or career networks of their more affluent peers. Students of disadvantaged socioeconomic status who lack the level of academic preparation and college counseling afforded to higher-income students may not understand the reason for required core courses such as calculus. They don't always have access to the same level of information about the benefits of college heard around the dinner table among kids whose parents graduated from college, and they may not be as aware of the resulting analytical skills gained and potential applications to their personal and professional lives.

Academicians may be resistant to providing any practical career preparation because the liberal arts model has always worked, and students and their families have always been willing to pay. But what has changed are students' motivations for attending -- they are more likely than in the past to enroll as a way to improve job prospects, rather than out of the altruistic love of learning (according to the Higher Education Research Institute's annual Freshman norms survey).

Their outcomes have changed too. While a BA might be requirement for many jobs, it's no guarantee. Only half land full-time jobs after graduation, according to a recent Rutgers report .

Linking coursework to careers is not only the right thing to do, it's a wise investment by institutions on their future alumni: graduates better prepared for the workforce might be more willing to donate to their alma matters once employed. And that's one thing graduates can count on, in addition to debt: the nagging calls from their alma matters asking for more money.