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Professional Opinion

Proposing a liberal arts and technical education armistice

Merging the best attributes of two education models helps grads find employment
University Business, December 2016
Bill Path is president of Oklahoma State University Institute of Technology
Bill Path is president of Oklahoma State University Institute of Technology

It may be time to rethink some of our established models of higher education. Let’s consider two classic paradigms.

By most definitions, liberal arts education refers to those college studies related to areas such as literature, languages, philosophy, humanities, history, mathematics, psychology and science. These instructional elements are among the most time-honored part of a traditional college education.

The aim of these studies is to produce a virtuous, knowledgeable and articulate person—an individual able to assume an active role in civic life. A liberal arts education relies heavily on theoretical learning models and culminates in a Bachelor of Arts degree.

Career and technical education (CTE), on the other hand, references the type of hands-on training that prepares students for specific trades, careers or professions. The chief objective with this type of training is to equip students with a marketable set of skills and to make it easier for them to meet their employment goals. These students most often earn an associate of applied science degree.

Conflicting messages

The main challenge for liberal arts graduates is difficulty finding suitable employment after graduation. It’s not uncommon for a liberal arts graduate to be engaged in an ongoing job search for many years. These graduates are frequently told they lack the requisite skill sets or experience for the jobs they seek.

Consequently, they often settle for low-paying jobs that don’t require a college degree or they enroll in graduate school in hopes of picking up some more marketable skills.

Yet the problem facing CTE graduates is exactly the opposite. They have little difficulty finding employment in their chosen field after graduation because many employers are eager to hire people with technical skills even when they have little or no experience.

But when these CTE graduates want to advance their careers—and need a higher-level degree to do so—they are often shut out by the higher education system. They are told that the courses on their transcript are nontransferable, and they will have to essentially start their college education all over again.

In both cases, these liberal arts graduates and CTE graduates become frustrated and discouraged. Both groups deserve better answers for the problems they face.

I believe both problems can be resolved but will require rethinking some of our most commonly held beliefs and basic traditions within higher education.

Two sides of the same coin

These graduates face two distinct sets of challenges, but their problems emerge from one source. One problem involves a lack of work-related training, and the other involves a lack of academic preparation. Both problems reflect a curricular deficit.

Faculty in these contrasting disciplines share few things in common and rarely communicate with one another. But if they are to find solutions for the problems their graduates face, maybe they need each other more than they would like to admit.

Why does higher education have to be either heads or tails? Why can it not be both heads and tails? Why does instruction have to be offered in either a theoretical learning model or in an applied learning model? Why can’t the instructional learning model be both theoretical and applied at the same time?

Liberal arts programs need certain elements of hands-on training to better equip their students for specific trades, careers or professions. Likewise, CTE programs could benefit from the inclusion of instructional elements designed to produce more virtuous, knowledgeable and articulate graduates.

As iron sharpens iron, discipline sharpens discipline. The solution is not one or the other—the solution is both.

Despite its sometimes rigid conventions and customs, higher education is still very good at finding innovative solutions to problems that face students. Today’s college graduates are struggling. They need the technical skills to enter the modern workforce and the ability to advance their careers—not one or the other.

Bill Path is president of Oklahoma State University Institute of Technology

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