Choosing a College: Liberal Arts vs. Professional Training

This is the third of an exclusive daily series that takes a look at the college experience, from how to choose what school and course of study is right for you to finding innovative ways to pay the bills.

When Arpie McQueen, a New Jersey mother of two, was helping her oldest daughter Valerie last year choose among five colleges that offered a wide range of liberal arts and pre-professional degree programs, she steered her in the direction of Boston University — a school that offered both.

“I wanted my daughter to have a marketable skill when she graduated,” McQueen said.

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Valerie, who aspires to be a sports writer, is now a sophomore undergraduate journalism student at Boston University’s College of Communication, completing a major that enables her to combine a solid liberal arts background with pre-professional education to prepare for a career as a writer. Arpie hopes her daughter’s professional journalism training will give her an edge when competing for a job after graduation.

With some annual tuition costs topping $40,000 a year, McQueen is not the only parent concerned with her child landing the right job after college. Many college officials are responding by looking for ways to bolster the career prospects of their liberal arts students.

Matthew Santirocco, dean of the College of Arts and Science at New York University in New York City, recently began helping undergraduate liberal arts students prepare for the job market by allowing them to sign up for vocational courses at N.Y.U.’s School of Continuing and Professional Studies.

Santirocco characterizes the program, called “Professional Edge,” as an applied liberal arts program that does not take the place of a liberal arts education, but instead allows students to add on non-credit professional training courses to their existing liberal arts schedule. An English student, for example, might take courses in how to become a publisher, while a Spanish major could learn to become a translator.

“We’re providing a different kind of liberal arts education for the 21st century and the world we live in,” Santirocco said.

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Colgate University, another New York state institution, adopted a philosophy that works on the belief that co-curricular professional and/or vocational courses should complement the liberal arts education. The school offers its students the opportunity to take several non-credit professional courses and workshops plus off-campus career training programs.

“Professional classes can help students translate their education through hands on learning to the world of work,” said Barbara Moore, Colgate's director of career services. “They can also enhance and enrich a student’s overall experience and act as a bridge from college to career.”

Many college officials from more traditional liberal arts colleges fear that taking vocational courses and/or receiving professional training in college is premature.

“If you use your undergraduate years to prepare for a profession, you risk preparing for what you think is your lifelong career and miss out on learning how to think,” said Anthony Marx, president of Amherst College in Massachusetts. “That seems like a bad deal.”

Bowdoin College Dean of Admissions William M. Shain agrees that a student’s first four years of college should prepare them for a lifetime of learning instead of a particular career track.

“Careers change rapidly in our society and unlike past generations, few of us remain in the same field throughout our professional lives,” Shain said.

“So rather than focus on a specific professional or vocational skill, we believe students are better off gaining exposure to a range of ideas, disciplines, and cultures so that they can respond in creative and sophisticated ways to their changing environments, both for their own benefit and the benefit of society,” he added.

Ironically, Bowdoin's own president boasts a career path that serves as an example of a liberal arts education at work in the real world. After graduating from Bowdoin in the early 1970s with a double major in biology and government, President Barry Mills earned a Ph.D. in biology, but later decided to pursue a completely different career. He earned a law degree and practiced law in New York for 20 years before switching careers again when he returned to Maine and became president of Bowdoin in 2001.

But a recent survey of 1,000 adults done by the Center for Survey Research and Analysis at the University of Connecticut showed 64 percent felt the purpose of a college education was to prepare students for specific careers, 16 percent said it was to prepare students for work in general, and only 19 percent said it was to provide students with general knowledge.

This mentality, as well as other factors, are putting pressure on colleges to produce graduates that are not only educated, but also well prepared and even specifically trained to enter the workforce.

Richard Mandel, associate dean of the Undergraduate School at Babson College — one of the nation’s top ranked business schools for undergraduates — feels that the specific professional training in business and managerial decision-making that his students’ receive enables them to add significant value to an organization immediately after graduation.

“Babson students are employable immediately after they graduate, which gives them an early advantage,” Mandel said.

Mandel has the utmost respect for a liberal arts education, and agrees that it is a major commitment for a child at 17 to decide exactly what they want to do for the rest of their lives. He believes, however, that there are a number of different tracks that students can choose for a profession and that it is a personal decision.

“If you go strictly liberal arts for undergraduate, you are most likely making a commitment to attend graduate school for professional training later on, while employers know that our students are ready right out of the gate,” Mandel said.

In contrast, many liberal arts officials feel that the best way to prepare students for work and careers is to give them the more general intellectual resources necessary to succeed after college. Almost every profession requires employees to write, solve problems, adapt to new situations, analyze information, and interact with a wide variety of people, which are all skills that can be obtained from a liberal arts education.

“We are educating people for the rest of their lives at Wellesley, not just for the work place,” said Andy Shennan, dean at Wellesley College, a women's institution in Massachusetts.

While Dean Shennan understands parents’ concerns about large tuition bills, and what their child is receiving out of their education, he urges them to think about how quickly society and technology is changing, and the fact that it has become the norm to have multiple jobs within a lifetime.

“It is simply implausible today to give students a narrow occupational education,” Shennan said.

Whether students choose to attend college to be trained for a particular career, or to receive a diverse liberal arts background, or both, Dean Shain of Bowdoin suggests that “they should never stop learning and should always take advantage of whatever educational opportunities come their way.”

“Most important is the need to gain a lifelong love for learning and to venture beyond one’s comfort zone by taking courses and conducting research in new subjects and disciplines,” Shain concluded. “In doing so, all students will gain an invaluable confidence in their ability to meet new challenges throughout their lives.”

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