April 23, 2013

Survey, Cornell Administrators Defend Education in Liberal Arts

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Despite facing seemingly limited job prospects, students graduating with a broad academic background and a variety of skills may be more appealing to employers than students with a narrower academic focus, according to a recent survey by the Association of American Colleges and Universities.

The AAC&U surveyed 318 employers in the U.S. last January about college graduates with either two or four-year degrees. 74 percent of business and nonprofit leaders said they would recommend that students obtain a 21st-century liberal arts education “in order to prepare for long-term professional success in today’s global economy,” according to the study.

Echoing the AAC&U survey’s message, Rebecca Sparrow, director of Cornell Career Services, said the specificity of a student’s course of study is not as important as a student’s professional skill set.

“With my experience of talking to employers, they are looking for people with a range of skills and a solid academic background,” Sparrow said. “It is all about finding the right mix between your academic training –– where you learn how to learn –– and the other skills that you will develop and take into the workplace.”

While some careers require applicants to have a more specific academic background, such as computer science or mechanical engineering, those options “not the bulk of jobs by any means,” Sparrow said.

Still, students in more specialized majors at the University — such as those in the School of Hotel Administration or the College of Engineering — should not be concerned about being overshadowed by students with broader majors in the job market if they concentrate on honing their skills, she said.

“In certain specialties, there are a lot of job opportunities right now, such as in computer science. Those Cornell students should feel pretty good about their job prospects,” Sparrow said. “At the same time, though, they have to be concerned about developing these other skills. Even if you are a great computer scientist, if you don’t have great communications skills, you’re not going to be of value to your employer.”

Like Sparrow, Mark S. Savage, director of Cooperative Education and Career Services for the College of Engineering, said students in more specialized fields, such as engineering, should not make their educational focus too narrow.

“Overall, I think well rounded[ness] is probably good and attractive to most employers,” Savage said. “In most cases, even in engineering roles, most employers would prefer someone who is well-rounded rather than someone who just wants to sit at a computer screen and crunch numbers.”

By obtaining both professional skills and a balanced education, students in more specific fields of study to broaden their career search and enhance their job prospects, Savage said.

“I think professional skills are some of the reasons why our engineering students are sought after in positions outside of technology because they can bring skills related to analyzing and solving problems, while offering some facility with numbers and in using technology tools. Most employers view those as useful within their organizations,” he said.

Some Cornell students, such as Brian Harwitt ’15, an applied economics and management major and an East Asian studies minor, argued that, despite the survey’s findings, a liberal arts education is not the most important factor to an employer.

“I believe that a recruiter will hire someone who they believe is smart and has good perspective,” he said. “That doesn’t necessarily mean that I have to be a liberal arts major or in the College of Arts and Sciences.”

Other students agreed with Harwitt, saying the usefulness and quality of a Cornell student’s academic background — rather than a liberal arts education — is what is most appealing to an employer.

“Depending on the industry, I think the ideal graduate has a range of relevant academic interests and experiences. The key is relevance,” said Evan McElwain ’14, an economics and Asian studies double major. “With rising tuition costs and stagnant employment rates, I am not sure a dual degree in art history and communication will make a graduate very employable, no matter how diverse their interests may be.”

Some students, however, disagreed, saying the intensive curriculum within other colleges at Cornell makes pursuing a liberal-arts education as outlined in the survey extremely challenging.

“In my opinion, it is incredibly hard to get a diverse engineering background in the College of Engineering because there are only six allotted spaces for liberal arts classes in your schedule to graduate. That’s essentially all the space you have, so it is really hard to branch out,” Karen Martin ’15, a mechanical engineering major, said.

Despite some students’ concerns about requirements inhibiting them gaining a broad education, Cornell Career Services administrators said students with more specific majors should not be more concerned about their job search because other components of their job application, such as extracurricular activities, can show employers that they have a wide range of interests.

“Often times, employers love students from Cornell because they see them as being more well-rounded than those from some of our peer institutions, regardless of their major. Our engineering students, for example, are able to do the hard engineering stuff, but are also active in activities on campus and downtown. They are often well-rounded even if their major is specific,” Savage said.

Original Author: Lauren Avery