Specialized training in US colleges is bad business strategy

Lauren Williams's picture

I have been teaching at Swarthmore College, one of the most distinguished liberal arts colleges in the world, for 42 years. Throughout that time, Swarthmore has attracted the very best (brightest, most committed) students that high schools have to offer. Though it has provided significant specialized training in the various scholarly disciplines, it has also insisted that such training be embedded in a broad general education. This is, after all, what “liberal arts education” is about.

Now, this model of liberal arts education is under threat. Students come to college hell-bent on learning something that will make them employable. At a place like Swarthmore, which doesn’t offer any professional degrees, this mostly means training in natural science, math, computer science, and economics (which is the closest we come to “business.”) This is an understandable response to the economic uncertainties of our age, and to the extraordinary cost of an education at a place like Swarthmore (the “sticker price” for a four-year degree is over $200,000). Whether eighteen-year-olds are experiencing this economic anxiety themselves, or whether it is being hammered into them by their parents, I don’t know. What I do know is that the humanities are struggling for students while classes in all the sciences are bursting at the seams. And President Obama’s recent announcement that he wants colleges and universities to be “accountable,” by making public such statistics as graduation rate, student debt, and post-graduate employment results, only enhances the growing perception that you go to college to learn a trade, and that the safest trades to learn involve training in math and science.

Though the impetus for this change in American education is clear enough, I regard it as a tragedy.

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