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Education is for long term, not just your first job

Editorial in the Austin Business Journal, Jan. 15, 2010

A recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education detailed how China has opened its first liberal arts college. The reason? The Chinese have figured out that liberal arts colleges produce graduates who are more creative – a skill they want if they are to be competitive in the 21st century. Rather than being forced to select a major before they even set foot on a college campus, students attending this college now have the ability to take more than one-third of their courses outside their major and to participate in extracurricular experiences such as a four-week mountaineering and service trip to Tibet.

Chinese officials hope colleges such as this will turn out a new generation of graduates who can think for themselves, and bring them more patents, new inventions and Nobel Prizes – something China has always lacked.

Ironically, this trend comes at the same time fewer students in the United States are choosing to study the liberal arts. This is because in this difficult economy, students are feeling pressured to study fields that they think are more likely to lead to jobs after graduation.

A recent article in the New York Times detailed how many colleges in the United States today are choosing to eliminate majors with small enrollments such as philosophy and classics, while at the same time adding majors such as Chinese and Arabic.

Unfortunately, this thinking is very short-sighted. Students should pursue education for the long term, not the short term. One’s major isn’t nearly as important as the lifelong learning abilities one develops at a liberal arts college.

Even employers say they don’t want students specializing too soon. The Association of American Colleges and Universities recently asked employers what they wanted colleges to teach. Eighty-nine percent said they wanted more emphasis on written and oral communication, 81 percent asked for better critical thinking and analytical reasoning skills, 71 percent wanted teamwork skills and 70 percent wanted colleges to place more emphasis on creativity and innovation.

All these are the hallmarks of a liberal arts education. Unfortunately, the benefits of such skills may not be apparent to students when they are 18 to 22 years old. But they will be in the long run.

Still unconvinced? A comprehensive survey of our 2008 graduating class found that 91 percent had either found jobs or been accepted to graduate school. And that number has been as high as 96 percent.

Jake B. Schrum is president of Southwestern University, a private liberal arts college in Georgetown, Texas.