Liberal Arts Schools Address Skills Gap With Experiential Learning

By Rebecca Strong
Posted July 20, 2014 01:00 PM

Liberal arts schools address skills gap with experiential learning.
Liberal arts schools address skills gap with experiential learning.

While most college students grapple with concerns about their potential employment following graduation, liberal arts majors often face particularly worrisome odds. Fortunately, a recent study by the National Association of Colleges and Employers found that conditions have certainly improved, with more graduates holding a bachelor's degree in communications, visual and performing arts or related disciplines receiving job offers this year than in 2013.

However, in an ultra-competitive job market, the pressure is still on for students to acquire the skills that companies demand - and for schools to provide them.

Gaining an Employable Edge

This urgency is especially evident from a new Northeastern University report, which revealed that a staggering 90% of executives believe college grads lack the most important skills required for success.

So in which areas is competence key? A 2013 survey by technology staffing firm Burning Glass Technologies found that liberal arts students can boost their employability and starting salary by adding social media, marketing, computer programming, sales, business, graphic design, data analysis or IT networking to their resumes.

"Despite the high unemployment rate for liberal arts graduates, we are seeing that the skills they possess are in-demand when coupled with specific technical skills," said Burning Glass CEO Matthew Sigelman in a press release. "Employers report a strong need for recent graduates who possess skills such as writing, adaptability, and problem solving. When combining these skills with workforce-specific competencies, a liberal arts education becomes highly valuable."

Giving Graduates Greater Educational Value

Already, forward-thinking schools are eagerly looking for ways to close this gap by adding experiential learning initiatives, which offer students the kind of practical knowledge that makes them more attractive to hiring managers. Time magazine reported that both Northeastern University and Mount Holyoke College allow students to gain hands-on experience with employers in their fields before graduating, while Bowdoin College implemented a lecture series called "A Crash Course on Practical Skills," which was headlined by the school's president.

Muhlenberg College has also been attempting to boost the employability of liberal arts majors by offering a two-week program on accounting, marketing, analytics, human resources and communications through simulated business situations, The Morning Call reports. The crash course includes interviewing and networking tips.

Meanwhile, other institutions are leveraging the help of outside technology companies like Fullbridge, which Time explained conducts on-campus workshops on finance, business analysis, sales and other subjects. Georgetown University, Brown University, the University of Southern California and a multitude of other institutions have partnered with the startup Koru to provide students with a chance to train under executive coaches and work to address real-world problems.

Some institutions are taking this issue to a new level of consideration. Two years ago, Wake Forest University held a national conference called "Rethinking Success," which was aimed at reassessing the value of a liberal arts degree in today's world. In her keynote address at the conference, former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice emphasized that schools need to rethink their educational standards.

"Sometimes the most successful institutions are the last ones to adapt to new realities," said Rice, as quoted by The Morning Call, "and so our challenge is to adapt to the new challenges without losing the core of who we are."

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