Despite the upturn in the job market, many recent graduates are unemployed or underemployed, and the cautionary tale of the liberal arts graduate turned barista has become a familiar and worrisome trope. So as high school seniors and their families make their way through the college application process this fall, many will wonder about the value of the liberal arts programs they’re considering.
But even as the liberal arts draw increasing skepticism, surveys find that employers hold in high esteem precisely those skills associated with a liberal arts education—critical thinking, communications, and problem-solving. Fully 93% of employers agreed that a job candidate’s aptitude in these areas was more important than his or her undergraduate major, and 80% believed that students needed to cultivate “broad knowledge in liberal arts and sciences.”
What’s causing this disparity? Perhaps it's because, in an ironic twist, a shrinking number of students in liberal arts programs actually receive the genuine article. The gradual weakening of core requirements at liberal arts colleges tells the story. Once, these schools staked their hard-earned reputations upon the rigor and breadth of their curricula, literally defining themselves by their liberal arts missions, to give students a substantive, broad-based general education. Today—at the vast majority of these elite liberal arts colleges—the curricular core is hollow.
The recently released 2016-17 edition of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni’s What Will They Learn? report reinforces just how much liberal arts colleges have softened their curricula, even as their selectivity and reputations have increased. Of the 1,100 schools reviewed, 34% earned a “D” or an “F,” including more than 57% of U.S. News & World Report top-ranked liberal arts colleges. At the majority of the nation’s most elite institutions, only two—at most—of the most essential foundational courses, like mathematics, natural science, expository writing, and literature, are required. Of the top 25 liberal arts colleges ranked by U.S. News, a whopping 38% received an outright “F,” requiring one (or none!) of these essential courses.
Instead, core requirements have largely been replaced by lame distribution categories and open curricula. Introductory survey courses have disappeared in favor of boutique electives such as Middlebury’s “Mad Men and Mad Women” or Carleton’s “Mean Girls: the Movie, the Phenomenon”—not exactly the makings of strong post-graduate foundations. Once the bedrock of the liberal arts degree, general education has become an afterthought.
At Williams College, students can fulfill their Languages and the Arts requirement—one of only three divisional requirements total—through rigorous core subjects, such as English literature or foreign language, but they can also sidestep these in favor of courses in dance or music. Amherst College, meanwhile, has dropped even the façade of divisional requirements in favor of a completely open curriculum with no requirements.
Not surprisingly, the decimation of general education requirements has had deleterious effects on student outcomes. In their groundbreaking book Academically Adrift, sociologists of education Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa found that 45% of students “did not demonstrate any significant improvement in learning” over their first two years as undergraduates, and 36% managed no significant improvement over four years. Some 20% of college students can graduate with only basic quantitative skills—not enough to complete tasks as simple as calculating the cost of ordering office supplies.
As a consequence, graduates often receive a rude awakening after entering today’s fiercely competitive job market. Employers are dismayed, giving college graduates low marks for key liberal arts-driven skills. Only 26% of employers view recent graduates as adept at critical thinking or analysis, and only 27% see them as well-prepared writers. No wonder college students increasingly graduate underprepared, and, in turn, unemployed or underemployed.
Related: The 50 Best Liberal Arts Colleges
Colleges and universities extol the virtues of the liberal arts, in word but not in deed. This puts the burden on prospective students and their families to develop a discerning eye, separating the ever-smaller number of programs with strict core requirements from the ever-larger number of schools whose lofty proclamations amount to empty rhetoric.
Individual students can vote with their feet by choosing to attend schools with strong curricular requirements and the serious academic culture they signal. Or they must rise above the situation by fashioning a broad-based general education for themselves.
But, perhaps more to the point, don’t their alma maters bear responsibility? Colleges must do better: They should adopt rigorous and thorough general education programs that ensure students graduate equipped with the skills employers prize and the knowledge central to informed citizenship. The liberal arts are long overdue for restoration, and in our demanding and fast-changing world, they are more valuable than ever.
Kenneth Kolson and Alexis Zhang are the vice president of policy and programs and the research associate/editor at the American Council of Trustees and Alumni.