Rachel Bennett, a senior at UCF studying Spanish and Speech Therapy recognizes the bias that exists for liberal arts degrees. She says, “I do not think there’s an ounce of fairness in expecting liberal arts majors to have that kind of exposure. The opportunities simply aren’t available. One can volunteer, sure, but as you mentioned, one would be hard-pressed to find anything beyond that customary teaching, tutoring, or volunteering jobs.”
However, she goes on to make suggestions that may be mutually beneficial to both the student and prospective employer: “I think international experiences, a portfolio (whether it be of research projects, essays, what have you) or something of that nature would give a much better picture of where a student’s capabilities lie. I think employers should take more risks and they might be surprised.”
As a result, a certain but distinct emphasis has been placed on vocational studies. That is, those with real-life practicality. Is this where we want the emphasis placed in education? Vocational studies such as welding, mechanics and nursing are invaluable to society as a whole, but what will become of the traditional liberal arts degrees like English, communications and history that are undervalued in today’s workforce?
Chris Magierski, a welder who works at Mitsubishi Power Systems, attended Mid Florida Tech where he gained experience in Tig welding. After graduating from Winter Park High School in 2007, he waited three months before landing a job at the Fortune-500 company.
Today, he says, “I knew going to college wouldn’t be for me because I had a lot of experience working with my hands and doing jobs like welding sets for Paradise Show and Design.”
Chris adds, “having a trade in this economy is invaluable because I can do things that a lot of other people don’t know how to do.” He continues, “Since I got hired when I was only 18, I now have almost 4 years of experience.”
A degree has long since been a form of currency in the work force. Job candidates could use it to barter, exchange and promote their status. At the most basic level was the high school diploma, followed by the Associate’s degree and the Bachelor’s degree. Today, the job market is such that the degree has depreciated in value; so much so that the former currency of degrees has been converted to the currency of relevant experience. The exchange rate is high since the degree has diminished so much in value that it takes several of them to equal just one year of work experience.
This is a metaphor for the evolution of education. Recent graduates have found that despite their elevated degrees, it has become increasingly difficult to find a career within their respective fields. No longer can students rely on their diplomas, GPAs and extracurricular activities that they worked to cultivate in college. Instead, employers are combing resumes for the magic word: “experience.”
Although not an unusual expectation for a potential job candidate, students, especially within the liberal arts domain, may not have had the opportunity for internships and work experience like other, more technical programs offer. So, although they were working toward a degree, they were unknowingly missing a fundamental part of their education. There is the possibility, however, that they did work, but, since there were limited opportunities within their field, they worked at an unrelated venue, which may contribute to their income, but does nothing for their resume.
In an article on the topic, Roger Bennett et al. says:
Changes in the profile and employment backgrounds of today’s students … raise the question of whether work placements on vocational degrees develop occupational competences and enhance employability to significantly greater extents than experiences gained from ‘normal’ term-time paid employment and/or from jobs completed before entry to university and during vacations. (p. 108)
It is this emphasis on employability that makes just earning a degree not enough. For the first time, students are being forced to question whether they should go to university for something they are passionate about or, instead, go for something that will make them more employable.
On this note, Bennett comments, “I think that the pressure [to gain experience] definitely affects some people, but I know others who are steadfast in their passions and won’t succumb to societal leanings… In my case, for example, I wanted to be a teacher or a linguist. After researching the job market, I realized speech-language pathologists were in short supply and decided that I could do that and not have to give up anything. But it’s definitely tougher than it used to be to follow your dreams. There’s much more opposition now.”
But, at what price does employability come? Should the students who do opt to go to college base their decisions on prestige, proximity or curriculum? Or, like most students today, should they base it on price. The rising cost of education makes the predicament of students even more difficult to swallow. Some people, like Magierski, see it as a sign to skip school all together while others see it as a sign of prestige, and take out loans in hopes that they will reap the benefits when they land their dream job after graduation.
According to an article in the International Business Times, “For-profit schools default rates higher–US Ed Dept” by Diane Bartz, “Students who attended for-profit schools and began repaying their loans in fiscal 2009 have defaulted at a rate of 15.2 percent, the government said. That compared with 7.3 percent for former public school students and 4.7 percent for private schools.”
And yet, according to a blog from the New York Times, some students attend school based on their potential income, which is generated by figures and interactive graphics such as this:
According to the blog, “Calculating the Potential Return on your Major,” “The top majors as ranked by highest median earnings include petroleum engineer ($120,000), pharmacy/pharmaceutical sciences ($105,000) and mathematics and computer sciences ($98,000). The lowest? Counseling/psychology ($29,000), early childhood education ($36,000) and theology/religious vocations ($38,000.)”
When displayed like this, student can see the power of persuasion that money possesses. Likewise, students like Bennett offer validation in sentiments like this one: “I definitely think there’s a negative stigma. If you’re not majoring in medicine, law, or business, you’re definitely looked down upon. Which is ironic, because there are fewer law jobs than ever!”
At what point do students stop paying the elevated price of tuition? Does the present suggest that only experience will matter in the future? And, if so, what does that mean for higher education as a whole?
Perhaps like the value of dollar, the concern for higher education in the liberal arts will continue on its downward trend, but in the meanwhile, should students consider going to the nearest currency exchange center and trading in their depreciating degrees for the revered currency of relevant experience?
For more reading on the topic, read this New York Times article that poses the same questions from a different perspective.
Bartz, D. (2011). For-profit schools default rates higher—US Ed Dept. International Business Times.
Retrieved from http://hken.ibtimes.com/articles/149848/20110523/for-profit-schools-default-rates-higher-us-ed-dept.htm
Bennett, R., Eagle, L., Mousley, W. & Ali Choudrey, R. (2008). Reassessing the value of work experience placementsin the context of widening participation in higher education. Journal of Vocational Education and Training, 60(2), 108. doi: 10.1080/13636820802042339
Retrieved from Academic Search Complete
Steinberg, J. (2011). Calculating the potential return on your investment. New York Times.