It makes sense that parents and students focus on majors as since the great recession, news article after news article have come out touting the demise of the liberal arts college and the need to major in engineering to ensure oneself of a job upon graduation. You must justify the increased cost of a college education by a career. After all, if you look at the list of schools with graduates receiving the highest starting salaries, the majority of schools on that list are engineering schools like MIT, Cal Tech, and Carnegie-Mellon. But dig a little deeper and you will notice that when you compare mid-career salaries, more than half of the colleges and universities on the list are liberal arts colleges or universities. What happens between starting salaries and mid-career salaries to elevate the standing of so many liberal arts institutions?
Careers happen, that is what! Capable students from the best liberal arts college graduates may begin at lower salaries than engineers, but the broad and varied skill sets they learn better prepare them for advancement to leadership positions. When taken a as percentage of total students, liberal arts college graduates are far more likely to become a CEO, COO, or CFO. Can it be that a liberal arts education is the key to gaining the keys to the executive washroom?
Before you get too angry with me, I am not dismissing large research universities like Virginia Tech or UVA as being unfit for your children. And I only wish my children were going to be engineers. I am only trying to make the point that the traditional argument that professional undergraduate majors are the best way to ensure future financial success may have a few flaws. So what is it that makes a liberal arts education such a Petrie dish for future corporate leaders?
For my answer, I turn to Pat Bassett, the former Executive Director of the National Association of Independent Schools, and one of the smartest guys I have ever met. A disclaimer, Pat Bassett went to Williams College, perhaps the best liberal arts college in the country. Pat always said that the very best teacher to hire is a graduate from a good liberal arts college because they understand what a good education requires. He knew that at a liberal arts college, students would be taught by professors in smaller classrooms. They would be asked to answer questions, to demonstrate they had done their reading, to write critically, and to expect their writing to be closely read. He knew that the key to an education was the relationship between the professor and the student and that critical thinking could only be developed in an environment where a student is tested. And I don’t mean a multiple-choice test graded via Scantron, I mean the fill in two blue book kind of tests. I mean the “you are really excited about passing your rhetoric examination on the first try” kind of examination.
Pat knows these skills are available in almost any college or university but he also knows that only in good liberal arts colleges can you be assured that every graduate is exposed to these skills. And in just the same way these skills make for good teachers, once transferred to the corporate world, they also provide for success in the boardroom.
Pat speaks of the “5 C’s plus one,” but I will use my liberal arts education to call that the 6 C’s. These six characteristics —communication, collaboration, critical thinking, creativity, character, and something he terms cosmopolitanism — are required for a good education. Perhaps each one is fodder for future columns but I pass them on to the reader, along with a link to a TED Talk that Pat gave at St. George’s School, in hopes that they may inform your college decisions. Don’t get hung up on the major or the quality of the football team, look for the college or university that best provides these six characteristics.
TED Talks presentation by Pat Bassett: