The Market-Driven Education: The Shift From Liberal Arts Emphasis to Career Readiness in Higher Education

The Market-Driven Education: The Shift From Liberal Arts Emphasis to Career Readiness in Higher Education

Mike Chanslor, Janet Buzzard
Copyright: © 2020 |Pages: 16
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-7998-2410-7.ch002
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This chapter explores the current demographic and political/economic landscape of higher education and offers possible responses to challenges of retaining a useful, modern liberal arts perspective that addresses the needs of a career readiness emphasis. These responses include the possible compression of higher education through more efficient curricula design and delivery, partnerships with high schools to help build career pathways for traditional students, and the offering of alternative micro-credentials, such as certificate programs. The importance of aligning higher education with workforce needs is also addressed.
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Postsecondary enrollment has been slowly declining since 2010 with 29.5 million students down to 26.4 million in 2018, although up from 23 million in 2001. (National Center for Education Statistics [NCES], n.d.-a). According to the NCES (n.d.-b), the fields with the most conferred degrees in 2015-16 were:

  • Business

  • Health Professions and related programs

  • Social Science and History

  • Psychology

  • Biological and Biomedical Sciences

  • Engineering

  • Visual and Performing Arts

  • Communication, Journalism and related programs

NCES (n.d.-b) data show that the majors with the largest increases were in business fields and health professions and the fields showing decreases were in humanities and social sciences. The higher education landscape has been affected by Baby Boomers retiring, declining birth rates, increased diversity and increased use of technology, all of which have also had a big impact on workforce needs.

More broadly across the entire scope of higher education, the need to consider career readiness as important as a general liberal arts emphasis is a legitimate one. And it may be one that deserves even more consideration. According to a recent survey of chief academic officers only 40% of public university provosts surveyed thought their institutions were “very effective” at student preparation for the work world (Jaschik, 2020). In that same survey 83% of public-school provosts agreed with the statement, “a liberal arts education is central to undergraduate education—even in professional programs.” Over 80% of public and private school provosts surveyed also believed that what is meant by a liberal arts education is misunderstood in the United States.

Findings such as these support the idea that a quality undergraduate education should respect the need for a liberal arts foundation supporting an emphasis on career readiness. What is meant by career readiness? For the purposes of this work, a career readiness higher education is one that provides enough specialized applied training that upon graduation, students are qualified to fill entry level positions in their chosen field. Dorman and Brown (2018) dismiss any supposed tension between intellectual development and applied considerations:

Should higher education only be about enriching the mind and future growth or that higher education should only be about getting a job and/or a future career. In fact, higher education does not have to be about one to the exclusion of the other. (p. 58)

The historical development of what is meant by “liberal arts” and contemporary careers requiring a college degree show the necessity of the linkage between the theoretical and practical. Brighouse (2019) notes that the term liberal arts was originally utilized by Ancient Greeks to describe disciplines thought necessary for work in public life and that even into the 20th century knowledge of Latin and Greek was necessary to gain admission at some elite schools. Instructive to the effort of this chapter, Brighouse offers that one modern way of defining a liberal arts perspective is from an “aims and objectives” approach. He cites several sources that have listed characteristics of this perspective that include critical thinking skills, ability to communicate in written and oral forms, civic engagement, teamwork skills, and ability to deal with a global society. Clearly, a modern view of liberal arts reveals a fairly direct tie to career readiness. In the 21st century career readiness demands not only direct vocational training, but also the modern liberal arts skills necessary for professionals to navigate an employment landscape that will involve multiple jobs at various organizations that are operating in global business and political environments.

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