Jonathan Timm considers himself lucky. A 2011 college graduate, he landed a job
not long ago that both pays the bills and makes use of his education.
"Basically, I got hired for my abilities to think and write analytically, cut through complex issues and communicate effectively -- exactly the skills liberal arts education should teach," says Timm, 24, of Oakland. An investigator for a state agency, Habeas Corpus Resource Center, he gathers evidence to help indigent inmates on death row get a new trial, get off death row or both.
The job search took about a year, during which he waited tables, took an unpaid internship and had periods of "doubt and regret." But if he had to do it over again, Timm says, he would again go to Shimer College, a liberal arts school in Chicago whose coursework is based on classic texts by authors such as Plato and Homer that are widely regarded as essential to Western culture.
There was a time when college was a place where young adults could expand their horizons. But as tuitions increase, student debt mounts and job prospects for recent grads remain uncertain, Timm and his alma mater represent increasing rarities in higher education: students and schools whose primary goals center on a broad-based education in the arts and sciences. Today, many students and parents say college should prepare students for a good job.
A record 87.9% of freshmen this year say an important reason to go to college is "to be able to get a better job," according to an annual survey by UCLA's Cooperative Institutional Research Program. Parents are more likely to strongly agree that vocational school -- or no college at all -- provides a better pathway to a good job than a liberal arts education, says a survey published in March by Inside Higher Ed, a trade publication.
Virginia, Arkansas, Tennessee and Colorado are among a growing number of states publishing databases comparing the earning power of degrees for recent graduates based on their majors and where they went to school. Governors of Texas, Florida, Wisconsin and, most recently, North Carolina, argue that public universities should focus on majors, especially in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math, that will meet their state's workforce needs. President Obama has made jobs central to his higher-education agenda.
Proponents of the liberal arts say criticisms are based on outdated stereotypes. Many liberal arts colleges, including Shimer, have beefed up opportunities for internships. North Carolina's Davidson College will start a program this summer to connect graduating seniors with paid fellowships at non-profits. Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C., posts data so students can see where graduates in their major fields have landed jobs -- including art history majors at Sotheby's, Deloitte Consulting and Kate Spade.
More than 35 business schools last month met to talk about how to incorporate the liberal arts into their courses. "There's ... a sense that business education has become too narrow and isn't preparing graduates adequately -- for career success, certainly -- but also more broadly for lives as engaged citizens," says Judith Samuelson, of the non-profit Aspen Institute's Business and Society program, which organized the meeting.
The tally of schools awarding more than half of their bachelor's degrees in liberal-arts disciplines such as history, literature and philosophy dwindled from 212 in 1990 to 130 last year, research by Vicki Baker, a professor Albion College in Michigan, shows.
Liberal arts colleges have acknowledged a need to better justify their often-hefty price tag.
At Occidental College, a liberal arts school in Los Angeles, a course this spring challenges freshmen to consider the purpose of college. "To me, education is not a means of creating workers or even creating citizens but of building the capacity to analyze, create and collaborate," says Carey Sargent, who is teaching the course, called "Liberal Arts at the Brink? Navigating the Crisis in Higher Education."
Daniel Stigall, 18, who is taking the course, says he chose Occidental over a larger public university because he liked its "intimacy and communal values." His parents, Cheryl and Gary Stigall of San Diego, worry.
"We have very strong concerns that Daniel's education is too expensive and that at graduation he won't have a career, like so many these days that end up as part of the underpaid service economy, living with their parents," Cheryl Stigall says.
However, Daniel Stigall, who is considering entrepreneurship as a career, says Sargent's course has made him appreciate Occidental's approach all the more. "With a well-rounded education," he says, "I think I'll be better prepared to start a company than most business students."
Daniel Stigall, 18, is a freshman at Occidental College, a liberal arts school in Los Angeles. He is considering entrepreneurship as a career and argues that "a well-rounded education" is his ticket to success.
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