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Nicholas R. Santilli, Ph.D
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The Relevance of an Independent College Education: Inclusive Professional Preparation

By Nicholas R. Santilli, Ph.D.

Reviews of today’s headlines in higher education journals have announced the slow death of traditional liberal arts majors, such as English and history, in favor of vocationally focused subject areas, like business and applied sciences. The ascendance of professional majors is a product of powerful forces affecting higher education in the 21st century including: economic conditions and the job market; funding for public and private higher education; the critical skills needed for employment in the future workplace; increased government regulation; changes in the delivery of academic content, specifically the rise of fully online degree programs or blended pedagogical strategies linking online work with the classroom; and the need to prepare students for citizenship in their local communities and in the global context.

In the past 30 years in higher education, why has the dialogue on the value of liberal education and preparation in professional fields still positioned these two tracks as mutually exclusive; either the liberal arts or professional studies, rather than the liberal arts and professional studies, each critical to form an educated person with the knowledge, dispositions and skills needed for a meaningful life? This either/or stance creates an unnecessary tension between these educational ends and diminishes each in preparing students, regardless of age, for a life of productive citizenship. Granted, this perspective could be considered self-serving, simply the opinion of an industry insider justifying the status quo. But the view is more widely shared by individuals outside of the academy than one would think.

Finding Common Ground: Liberal Education, Liberal Arts and Professional Studies

Recently, the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) crafted a bold statement setting a course for the scope of liberal education in the 21st century. Here AAC&U defines liberal education and the liberal arts. A personal description of professional studies completes the set:

  • LIBERAL EDUCATION: A philosophy of education that empowers individuals, liberates the mind from ignorance and cultivates social responsibility. Characterized by challenging encounters with important issues and more a way of studying than specific content, liberal education can occur at all types of colleges and universities.

  • LIBERAL ARTS: Specific disciplines associated with the humanities, social sciences and the sciences, including mathematics.

  • PROFESSIONAL STUDIES: Educational programs focused on preparation in fields often associated with specific vocational fields such as; business, education, engineering or communications.

In short, a liberal education cultivates the competencies necessary to live meaningful lives. These competencies include a capacity for critical thinking and problem-solving, well-formed oral and written communication skills, an ethical grounding in a value system, opportunities for critical learning experiences inside and outside of the classroom and the capacity for engaged citizenship in both local and global contexts. Liberal education exposes students to the traditional disciplines of the liberal arts and sciences with the disciplines comprising professional programs of study. The outcomes of an education of this type provides individuals the technical competencies needed for the 21st century workplace and cultivates the knowledge and dispositions needed to live an adult life marked by civic engagement and social responsibility.

Insights from Employers: Seeking Employees who are “More than a Major”

In January 2013, Hart Research Associates surveyed over 300 employers to ascertain “employers’ priorities for the kinds of learning today’s college students need to succeed in today’s economy.” The report indicates that employers are generally satisfied with the quality of college graduates but suggest educational institutions should spend more time sharpening students’ oral and written communication skills, critical thinking and problem solving skills; form students with a moral compass; and cultivate a capacity for innovation in their students. These results suggest that employers seek employees with an education that blends exposure to the liberal arts and sciences with professional studies that in turn, allows students to apply and refine their skills in authentic work settings.

The Independent College Experience: Inclusive Career Competency, Civic Engagement and Social Responsibility

Independent colleges are well-positioned to address the challenges faced by institutions of higher education. They remain committed to providing—typically four-year and often faith-based—educational experience firmly grounded in the liberal arts and sciences complemented by academic offerings in traditional majors and career-focused programs in nursing, business and professional education. Their offerings are not limited to the campus experience. Their mission has extended to be inclusive of the world of online education, pushing for a more international presence. Regardless of pedagogical modality, online or on campus, students prepared for the 21st century need to complete a rigorous academic program blending coursework in the liberal arts and sciences with professional studies. Complementary, not exclusionary, programs of study achieving the same end: career competency and civic engagement and social responsibility.

 

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