DAYTON, Ohio — When Kevin Sims pitches his school’s new liberal arts major to prospective students, parents typically ask him, “What is my son or daughter going to do for a career?”
The fear – that their graduates will end up as nothing more than highly credentialed baristas serving coffee – is a common one among parents who, along with lawmakers, are demanding that colleges and universities prepare graduates for specific careers and meet workforce demands.
But Sims, a professor at Cedarville University in Cedarville, Ohio, says exposing students to an educational menu that includes languages, literature, humanities, history, government, math, science and the arts helps prepare graduates for the world they are about to enter.
“This is a great major for the 21st century college student,” he said. “We are preparing people who want to learn how to critically think. Someone who knows how to think critically and write well and speak well, and knows how to relate to people, I believe strongly they will have an easier time adjusting to the changing careers in their working lives.”
The merits of a liberal arts degree have come under scrutiny as college costs continue to skyrocket and economic experts stress the need for continuing education to prepare for the jobs of the future.
Recent liberal arts majors have a higher unemployment rate (9.2 percent) than graduates from technical fields, such as health care and education (5.4 percent), though a Georgetown University study says that is partly because the graduates are spread broadly across occupations and industries.
Companies today are looking for college graduates who can step into jobs with a minimum of on-the-job training. As more students pursue technical degrees, some liberal arts colleges have struggled to stay afloat.
But there are risks for students who adhere to one specific occupation, the Georgetown study found. A downturn in the construction business, for example, left 13.9 percent of recent architecture majors unemployed.
“Having technical skills or professional skills to do something right now is a good first step, but it’s not for the long run going to be sufficient,” said David Hodge, president of Miami University, where every student must complete core liberal arts courses.
“Remember that most people are not only going to have multiple jobs, they’re going to have multiple careers,” Hodge said. “We believe that having exposure to a broad range of topics and themes and disciplines is really important to developing a really versatile mind.”
Liberal arts colleges have to fight the fear among students and parents that a degree from the schools will lead to big debts and small career prospects.
“Liberal arts is critical to the educational experience, but the perception of liberal arts schools, it’s suffering and enrollment has been a challenge for those institutions not only here but across the nation,” said Sean Creighton, executive direction of the Southwestern Ohio Council for Higher Education.
As much as anything else, the schools market their versatility. “If you think about what the liberal arts education is meant to do, it’s meant to prepare the student for their life, as opposed to just preparing them for a particular job or career,” said Wittenberg University Provost Chris Duncan. “You learn how to learn. You are capable of adapting and changing as the economy changes.”
Liberal arts schools such as Wittenberg are facing financial challenges. Wittenberg is working to address a $7 million deficit and is adding new majors to attract new students. The university also is freezing tuition, room and board costs for students in the upcoming academic year.
The university hopes to add to its pool of nontraditional students with a new nursing completion program and is considering adding a criminal justice completion program, Duncan said. Wittenberg also recently added majors in environmental science and accounting, and is considering a new sports management major.
Urbana University is another small, private liberal arts school that is reaching out to students who want a total college experience. The school froze tuition this year and will do so again in 2013-14. The administration attributes this fall’s enrollment bump to the tuition freeze and the school’s recent move to NCAA Division II athletics. The university is also looking to expand its program offerings.
“We have our own struggles, but I’ll tell you, we have some great things happening,” said Kirk Peterson, senior vice president of academic affairs and dean of the faculty.
Antioch College President Mark Roosevelt rejects the view that a liberal arts education doesn’t prepare students for the workforce.
Antioch, which shuttered in 2007 due to financial turmoil, is coming back from the grave with students who are receiving full-tuition fellowships for their entire four-year stay. At Antioch, students are required to work in their field while they pursue their degrees.
“When you graduate from here, you have a resume, you have work experience, you have references,” he said. “You have a healthy respect for an alarm clock.”
A national campaign to promote the value of a liberal arts education and dispel myths is being led by Ohio’s S. Georgia Nugent, president of a top liberal arts school, Kenyon College. The initiative was announced by the Council for Independent Colleges, which last fall released a myth-busting study about student loan debt.
Liberal arts graduates typically do not amass $100,000 in debt, the study found, but borrow on average $22,390, compared with $17,700 for public university graduates.
One point of pride: The schools boast a disproportionate number of national leaders. Though they enroll only about 2 percent of college students, they account for 12 United States presidents, according to the book, “Liberal Arts at the Brink.”
Jen Waller, a librarian at Miami University who earned a bachelor’s degree in English from Tufts University in 1984, said her liberal arts education background helped her navigate countless career changes – from starting as a prep cook to eventually earning her master of library and information science degree.
“I’m really glad that I went to a liberal arts school just because I think that they tend to help you think more broadly and more creatively,” she said.
About 75 percent of liberal arts graduates go ahead to graduate school.
Wright State University alumnus Megan Dooley Smallwood, who graduated in June with a fine arts degree in sculpture, said she considered a more technical field such as veterinary science but decided she had to pursue her passion. Now she is working on making a living selling her own works.
“You do get a lot of discouragement for wanting to become an artist because a lot of people think it’s a lost cause,” she said. “I decided to focus on the one thing I love the most.”