11/18/2013 05:18 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

The Relevance of Discussion on Liberal Arts Relevance

In January, I will serve as a panelist for the Council of Independent Colleges Presidents Institute on the theme of "Building Value--Linking Classroom to Career." The seminar is designed to illustrate ways in which the kind of education offered by Bethany College and other national liberal arts colleges can translate into real value for our graduates.

It's a conversation that I welcome having with veteran and newcomer college presidents alike. After all, we work hard to ensure the continued vitality of our institutions. We devote many hours to student recruitment and retention, fundraising, the formation of parents' associations, alumni engagement, career counseling and much more. And when we talk about "real value" for our grads, we're really referencing successful career placement in those first critical jobs that bring with them healthy starting salaries and abundant opportunities for rapid advancement.

Given the cost of college these days and the growing sense of entitlement that students and parents have about the value of their tuition dollars, we as educators need to think and plan strategically to position our colleges for success beyond the current career climate. That climate, like that of the Earth, is volatile and not always predictable. There are things we need to do as institutions to prepare.

A recent article in the Leadership Exchange publication of NASPA, the National Association of Student Personnel Administrators, puts it bluntly: "In the minds of many critics and supporters of higher education, getting a job has become the ultimate measure of both student and institutional success in today's turbulent economic and employment climate." The authors of the article conclude that "the highest quality liberal arts education" is the way to go for achieving lifetime, as well as career, success.

I couldn't agree more. The challenge, of course, is to match students' career plans and expectations with relevant experiential learning. Although a workable and desirable concept, it can be labor-intensive. But it often offers the best formula for matching liberal arts skills of communication, research and synthesis of information with practical career applications. Think study-abroad opportunities that enrich students' understanding of the global community they will join as career professionals. Our students at Bethany College consistently rank international, academically oriented travel as the single best learning experience of their four years with us.

Yet apart from the obvious excitement of hiking through the Amazon or strolling in the world's greatest museums, defining exactly how a liberal arts background can be useful to career-focused graduates is more than an exercise in college marketing. It's the key to our survival as institutions.

This means that many colleges and universities -- especially those embracing traditional liberal arts missions -- will not only have to rebrand themselves in a promotional sense; they'll have to redefine their operational model.

The new calculus for such institutions will rely on career-enhancing skills of information gathering and synthesis of data; analysis and problem solving; team dynamics in non-traditional work environments; networking and career-centered communication and social interaction; a working knowledge of languages, and a practical understanding of world cultures within a business context. And guess what? All of these recommend a liberal arts approach.

Yet higher education can be slow to change and adapt, even when its survival is challenged. Moreover, college curricula can be confusing in providing the kind of foundation students need. Writing in Forbes (November 7, 2013), George Leef points out that "at many schools, the curriculum has become so unwieldy that it is possible for students to graduate without ever taking any of the courses that we would formerly have regarded as pillars of a college education." He suggests that useful general-education requirements that give students a broad, critical-thinking foundation may be absent or compromised by what is more fashionable or appealing to students.

I believe that the classical, liberal arts genre of education should survive, that it deserves the best kind of critical and creative thinking that can save it (perhaps even releasing it from embedded tradition and practice) and that having a radical discussion on its future possibilities should go forward -- urgently. The residential, personalized, professor-intensive model has unlimited value, as well as diverse implications for our society and the demands that confront our next generation of leaders.

If we do not act to save the liberal arts, if we do not employ the most sophisticated tools at hand to broaden our students' intellectual experience which should also be enriched by a secure foundation of the liberal arts, we will pay heavily as a society. We may have a hardworking, talented, enthusiastic but one-dimensional workforce to whom the most complex issues of our time, and theirs, will be deeply, and perhaps unnecessarily, frustrating. They will miss out on the life pleasures of general knowledge. We will miss out because of their unrealized intellectual capacity to solve problems.

We deserve better than that and, frankly, so do our students whom we are entrusted to teach.

Dr. Scott D. Miller is president of Bethany College and M.M. Cochran Professor of Leadership Studies. Now in his 23rd year as a college president, he serves as a consultant to college presidents and boards.