Career and job competencies of liberal arts graduates

Career and job competencies of liberal arts graduates was originally published on College Recruiter.


There is a public perception that liberal arts graduates are now somehow less valuable than their peers studying business or technology. Dr. Ascan Koerner with the College of Liberal Arts at the University of Minnesota will tell you why the opposite is true. College Recruiter connected Dr. Koerner with Todd Raphael of ERE Media to learn what his team is doing to make sure employers understand the relevancy of liberal arts students and graduates. A video of Todd Raphael’s and Dr. Koerner’s discussion is below. 

According to Dr. Koerner, we have seen more public discussion in the last 5-10 years about the value of higher education, generally speaking. The arguments for what is valuable have primarily focused on STEM education (science, technology, engineering and math.) Some believe that in order to be competitive in an international job market, one really has to be focused on STEM. At one end of the spectrum, he points out the Governor of Kentucky, who has questioned why universities even have liberal arts programs at all. This makes liberal arts students—and their parents—nervous. Dr. Koerner says that at the University of Minnesota, students are asking how liberal is helpful in their careers. He says their belief in the value of liberal arts has never wavered, “but the question hasn’t been posed to us in such stark terms.”

Employers already value liberal arts, but they don’t realize it

Liberal arts students don't know how to explain their valueOverall, employers already know the value of liberal arts. The problem is, they don’t recognize it as liberal arts. When you ask employers, for example, what they value, they cite competencies that are quintessential typical liberal arts. At the top of their lists are analytical/critical thinking, communication, leadership, ethical decision making, and engaging diversity. Employers know what they value, but the job candidates—the liberal arts students—aren’t always good at explaining their own value. So while colleges and universities bear some of the burden of convincing employers, students bear most of that responsibility. A philosophy major may embody the exact skills needed but when you ask him how his education prepared him for a career in corporate America, he has a hard time. That is why it is so important to engage and prepare students for answering those questions. When the students eloquently explain their own competencies, that is more convincing to an employer than if the institution were to explain the overall value of liberal arts grads.

“We are trying to change how we engage students in their discussion about their education,” says Dr. Koerner. Until recently, they always assumed students knew why they studied liberal arts. But now that these programs are being put into question, colleges and universities must be able to explain their worth. At the University of Minnesota, they aren’t changing what they teach. Instead, they are changing how they engage students and their understanding of their own education. That includes an increased understanding of the competencies they must develop. Rather than just developing content knowledge, they must also understand how this knowledge relates to the larger global world.

Liberal arts students and grads are uniquely prepared for leadership positions, according to Dr. Koerner. He writes the following in “How a liberal arts degree prepares students for managerial success”:

“Liberal arts programs uniquely prepare graduates for leadership and managerial roles in organizations. Liberal arts students are used to using their skills in various contexts, preparing them to better deal with uncertainty. Given the long-term unpredictability of today’s business climate, this adaptability is critical. Furthermore, liberal arts college are also committed to diversity and uniquely prepare students to learn and interact with students from a wide variety of backgrounds. It is no surprise that liberal arts graduates are disproportionately represented in the c-suites of the nation’s largest and most innovative corporations.”

Job and career competencies go beyond a specific major

Students understand value of education and are studying double majorsDr. Koerner says, “In Minnesota, we really take a comprehensive approach. It doesn’t just throw a couple career classes at students like some colleges that require career management classes that teach resume writing, interviewing and those important skills. But they don’t necessarily integrate the whole liberal arts education. So to that extent, we really make an effort to involve everybody in the college, and to talk about the value of liberal arts education holistically.”

Students are getting the message that more education is better, so in the last ten years, more students have double majors. “But the liberal arts is really much broader than any one major,” says Dr. Koerner. There are very few majors in the liberal arts that associate with a specific job title. There are some, such as journalism, where many students often end up as journalists. But students who study sociology, psychology or communication, for example, aren’t given a direct link to a job or even a certain industry. Therefore, it’s important to understand the whole value of liberal arts instead of just a major.

The University of Minnesota understands that career preparedness includes readiness for graduate school as well. Dr. Koerner adds that by focusing on competencies, students can be prepared for any career. When you define the competencies broadly enough, he says, they prepare students for “a future that is uncertain and dynamic. We don’t try to teach skills that have an expiration date.” Instead of learning coding, for example, liberal arts students build “more enduring skills.” The University of Minnesota’s College of Liberal Arts has two mottos. First, they understand education as going beyond the major. Second, they prepare students for the fourth or fifth job, not just the first. Even if liberal arts graduates need more initial training for a position that requires specific technical skills, they have all the attributes that will make them successful in the long run. Liberal arts prepares students for lifelong learning and to meet challenges that they will face in the long term.

How does artificial intelligence relate to this?

Dr. Koerner cited a recent study by Carl Frey and Michael Osboren of Oxford University that “suggested that 47% of all employment in the U.S. is at risk of being replaced by automation, including many mid-level technical and engineering positions.” Even in some creative work is taken over by machines. For example in journalism, many press releases are written by robots. After automation, what can humans do that machines can’t? Much of our thinking skills won’t be outsourced. By studying liberal arts, humans maintain their edge over robots by possessing the thinking qualities that machines do not.

Want more advice in college recruiting? Stay connected with College Recruiter on LinkedInTwitterFacebook, and YouTube.


By College Recruiter
College Recruiter believes that every student and recent grad deserves a great career.