Are liberal arts colleges becoming irrelevant?

Should young people focus on STEM classes, in order to develop the technical skills required to secure gainful employment in today’s workplace; or do all “enlightened” people need to be well versed in the liberal arts?

The answer is “yes”.

We need both. But while STEM courses have evolved with the global economy and effectively prepare young people for emerging careers in robotics, artificial intelligence and data analytics, the liberal arts course lineup has become increasingly irrelevant. Take a moment to peruse the course catalogue of your favorite liberal arts school, and prepare to be shocked.

Stories of unfilled corporate positions are ubiquitous, as our universities churn out anthropology, gender studies, and psychology majors buried in debt who are waiting tables and seeking remedial training in disciplines where they might be employable. The largest consumers of college graduates, such as Facebook and Google, are beginning to disrupt higher learning by vertically integrating into education to assure a more reliable supply of trained workers than our universities produce.

States have cut billions from university funding, in large part because so many Americans feel colleges fail to prepare our youth for life. One in three people, up from one in ten a few years ago, believe that universities have a negative impact on our country.

It is dangerous, though, to assume STEM courses alone will suffice. Experts have found that the critical skills required to be successful in today’s economy evolve over one’s career. Increasingly, technical skills differentiate young people seeking jobs, as well as separate them from the pack in the early years. But unless a worker wants to remain at the lower levels of an organization in perpetuity, they need to develop an entirely different skill set to move up the corporate ladder.

Progressing in a career requires an ability to communicate without staring at a hand-held device or computer screen. One has to be able to articulate a vision, understand diverse viewpoints, build teams and motivate others. These capabilities are not taught in computer science, statistics, or data analytics classes. Unfortunately, they aren’t taught in most liberal arts courses either.

Instead of teaching conflict resolution and how to assimilate divergent viewpoints, colleges offer a four-year escape from people and ideas that make us uncomfortable, an illusory ecosystem that exists nowhere outside a college campus.

At UNC-Chapel Hill, where I will be adding a new course on the intersection of business, politics and public policy, we offer over 100 courses with “gender” in the title or course description. Universities are catering to more and more identity groups, and less and less to the masses who want to succeed in life and a career.

So how do we get public liberal arts universities to reinvent the curriculum to be more relevant, given the structural impediments that resist change? We all know the dysfunction that accompanies tenure. It makes it very hard to reallocate resources. And as long as every department selects its own members and course offerings, we will continue to have group-think, rather than thought diversity, in the modern university.

One would hope the growing movement to disrupt higher education would light a fire under academics to self-police and develop more courses that teach skills needed to be successful in life, but university governance and culture make that unlikely.

We need disruptors–more university leaders who have succeeded in the real world. And governing boards with more members who understand the university structure and culture, so the parties could collaborate to make liberal arts more relevant.

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