As students put on their best business attire and hurry between booths at this week’s Career Fair, “employability” seems to be a ubiquitous goal on campus. However, this mindset is not only visible in Barton Hall — Cornell students value career-specific skills over an education in the liberal arts more than students at many of the University’s peer institutions, according to Marin Clarkberg, director of institutional research and planning department.
Only 22 percent of new students said a liberal arts background is “essential” to their University experience, according to data from the 2012 Freshman Survey, which was given to the Class of 2016 this summer.
“What we typically see is that Cornell students are less interested in liberal arts education than students at many of our peer institutions,” Clarkberg said.
Clarkberg said that data from some of Cornell’s peer institutions over the last few years has revealed similarly low rates of students who considered the liberal arts essential.
Still, she said, Cornell’s figures for students who consider a broad education an essential component of their education are decidedly lower than those of other top universities, a fact she attributed to the diverse colleges at the University, some of which include majors that are more narrowly tailored to pre-professional study.
A breakdown of the survey’s results by college reveals that while 38 percent of students in the College of Arts and Sciences reported that a broad liberal arts background is essential to their education, only 15 percent of College of Agriculture and Life Sciences students said the same.
“Cornell tends to get a different type of student. Everyone here is very career-focused,” said Christy Matthews ’15, an operations research engineering student.
Sixty-two percent of the Class of 2016 consider it essential to develop skills for the workforce during their time at Cornell, the survey results show.
“I am interested in gaining the skills that will make me competitive in the job market,” said Katherine Muller ’16, an applied economics and management major.
Claudia Steck ’16, a student in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations, added that, “with how expensive education is right now,” studying a major that does not confer career-oriented skills is not worth the investment.
The poor economic climate in the U.S. over the last several years may lead some students to choose a more pre-professional education, according to Prof. Mabel Berezin, chair of the sociology department.
“There is perhaps some skepticism amongst the undergraduate population of the value of a liberal arts degree. Students are worried about getting jobs,” Berezin said.
Berezin defended the value of liberal arts degrees, saying that they can still contribute to students’ employability in a variety of fields.
Nonetheless, some students noticed that the entire day of the Career Fair Wednesday was devoted exclusively to the technical professions.
“If you are studying English and not going to med school or something, there aren’t many options” at the Career Fair, Matthews said.
Other students said they find value in pursuing studies in the liberal arts — even if only through elective courses or in conjunction with other, more technical majors.
“Liberal arts has helped me diversify my resume,” said Alex Klug ’13, a mechanical engineer. “I actually took a creative writing class, and as an engineer, it stands out.”
Lauren Cué ’15, a pre-medical student majoring in chemistry and English, said she valued getting an education in both a humanities field and in a pre-professional discipline.
“I’m going to value both degrees because both were hard earned,” Cué said. “English is good because it’s going to teach me communication skills, but chemistry is more applicable to my career.”
Hillary Wool, a recruiter for Teach for America who was on campus this week to promote the organization, said Teach for America accepts students from all academic backgrounds, preferably those with “strong achievements in a variety of fields.”
“I fundamentally believe that liberal arts courses taught me to think and analyze problems and to develop innovative solutions,” she said.