What Does Growing Emphasis on “Real World Experience” Mean for Liberal Arts Education?

K-12-Blog

By Brent Latta

Furman University recently launched its new strategic vision, called The Furman Advantage. As stated by the University, The Furman Advantage is a new strategic vision that will guarantee every incoming student the opportunity for an engaged learning experience that is tracked and integrated with their academic and professional goals.

As a graduate of Furman University, I received an alumnae email with the announcement about the “new” Furman Advantage. For those of us who attended Furman in the 1990’s, that clarification was needed because there was a major internship and engaged learning initiative rolled out at the time and the catchphrase “Furman Advantage” was used to described this as well. The preview email  contained some basic information about more engaged learning, more internships and all students having more access to real world experience. The email asked me to stay tuned for a major announcement later in the day.

Without knowing much else, I had some initial thoughts: first, I wondered if money might be used to help students “afford” some of these internships/practical experiences. There are very real situations where students want to take excellent, but unpaid, internship/research opportunities for the summer but do not for financial reasons. Allowing them to apply for some type of stipend would mitigate that. Secondly, I wondered about the phrasing: are students guaranteed a specific “experience” or simply guaranteed access or guidance, and if the latter is so, why wasn’t that being done beforehand? That is fairly standard across higher education. Third, I wondered whatever happened to the Center for Engaged Learning  which was charged with this same type of responsibility along with the campus Career Center?

After work, I began reading the press stories about the “new” Furman Advantage. The more I’ve read about it, the more I’m convinced that this initiative was their QEP (Quality Enhancement Plan) for SACS accreditation with the bonus of actually finding outside funding for it. While I haven’t seen specifics of how the program will actually work (it sounds like no one there really has either), I believe this means Furman will use a large portion of that money for additional staffing. It is hard to see this level of staffing going beyond 5-7 years without some other funding source (code for tuition hikes!). It is very common for relatively new university presidents, as Furman’s Dr. Davis is,  to initiate major program ideas. A QEP for SACS accreditation is certainly a perfect opportunity to push a major shift or re-incarnation.

The focus on a true liberal arts education like the one that I received from Furman has been in decline, not only at Furman, but at many liberal arts institutions. The current perception of liberal arts education is that it is a worthless, non-marketable education that isolates its students from the real world. In reality, a good liberal arts education is one that educates students about the arts, the sciences, languages, history and philosophy giving the students a broad context in which to view world events. The students develop critical thinking and writing skills and are challenged to study, question, and understand the intersection of all of these things in public life. A background such as this is tremendously valuable to anyone whether he or she is an accountant, teacher, nurse or lawyer. Moving towards a culture where every classroom experience must be matched by an equal or better “real world experience” and where it is forced on students as soon as they step on campus could certainly backfire. Freshmen change their minds so often about majors; will their tracked 4-year plan change each time as well? Are they going to be assessed immediately and then strongly encouraged to pursue a certain path even when they aren’t sure? Part of growth in college is learning to make decisions on one’s own. How much of this will actually happen?

I am a firm believer in a liberal arts education. I believe that liberal arts majors can obtain gainful employment after graduation if they are prepared to market themselves well and have gained some meaningful work experience throughout their college experience, whether or not it’s directly related to their major. At the same time, most students and parents have no idea what a true liberal arts education is, much less why it’s important. Couple this with the President’s College Scorecard initiative where colleges must report all first destination data from graduation through 2 years, and we end up with college QEPs (or other initiatives) that tout this “employability” or other “experience guarantee.” As more colleges chase this elusive dream of guaranteeing employability to increase their enrollment, there is more pressure to stray from the liberal arts into more technical education. In addition, private universities such as Furman that charge $48,000+ per year for tuition alone before room and board expenses are finding that their market is shrinking. Fewer families can pay that for tuition; fewer can justify paying it for an education that is less robust and certainly not distinctive from public institutions, particularly those public institutions with Honors Colleges. Many private, liberal arts universities will have to re-examine their places in higher education and set themselves apart in a truly distinctive fashion or risk becoming completely irrelevant (or maybe out of business) in the next 25 years.

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