THE BLOG
10/04/2015 11:26 pm ET Updated Oct 04, 2016

What an Insurance Executive Taught Me About Liberal Arts Colleges

You'll never believe what's going on with insurance these days, we've got all the health care reform mandates coming down, and...

I was flying across country last week to do some consulting with my alma mater, Haverford College, to help them think about how they might expand the ways they support off-campus learning opportunities for their students. After almost four hours of silence, my seatmate launched into a mini-tutorial about his long career and how his industry is shifting so quickly now because of new laws, regulations, technologies, and market pressures. I wasn't sure where he was headed and listened carefully as he described the complicated landscape he had to navigate.

"Hey, I saw on your computer that you work at Whitman. That's a good college. I went to a liberal arts college, back in Marietta, Ohio. You know..." He paused for a moment, and then said, "we're always going to need schools like those."

Intrigued, I asked what he meant.

All those stories about liberal arts education being 'useless.' I don't know who is writing those but I can tell you that after a career in business I'm thankful I went to a school that made me think hard and challenged me all the time because that's what my work's been like since I graduated. A lot of days I almost feel like I'm back in school, asking questions, trying to figure out what's coming up, trying to analyze industry trends. It's like being in class but I get paid!

I laughed and understood his point that the intellectual skill set, curiosity and persistence that he developed as a college student was the foundation for a lot of what he was able to accomplish later, in several different industries, in highly voluble environments.

You know, not too long ago I read that a third of Fortune 500 CEOs were liberal arts students as undergraduates...

We spent about 20 minutes on our laptops searching for the source of this frequently quoted figure. In the process we learned that nine percent of these CEOs went to private liberal arts colleges, like his and mine, despite the fact that graduates of those schools constitute only four percent of all undergraduates (the others are from public colleges and universities). I asked him why he thought that businesses bring in so many graduates from this tiny number of institutions. He did not hesitate:

You know why they do so well in business? Because they can get along with other people! They don't just go around showing how smart they are, like some people who have only studied one topic in school. They are smart, and they also know they have to work well with everyone around them and keep learning all the time.

I laughed again and thought about my trip. In a recent list, Whitman and Haverford were ranked #1 and #2 for offering "collaborative environments." It's not just those two schools, though. So much of what happens at liberal arts colleges, especially those with residential campuses, involves an enormous amount of collaboration with other students, faculty, administrators, off-campus partners, alumni, and others.

"Nope," he wrapped up, as we started our descent, "these places are never going away. I can't stand reading those stories"

While it is likely true that some colleges and universities may not endure, the teaching of a broad non-professional curriculum will always be needed. All across the country, small liberal arts colleges like Marietta and Haverford and Whitman and dozens of others are doing excellent work supporting our students so they can achieve their post-graduation goals. As my seatmate reminded me, the dynamic and shifting 21st century needs those smart, creative, collaborative and tenacious young people with whom we get to work for four extraordinary years.