Quillen Tells DC Crowd to Show Liberal Arts Degree's One-Two Punch

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- February 2, 2018 -- A liberal arts degree doesn't mean what it used to. It means a lot more.

But the degree doesn't express that to an employer

Liberal arts colleges, and higher education generally, need to figure out how to communicate a graduate's breadth of experience and capabilities, Davidson College President Carol Quillen told an audience at the American Enterprise Institute, in Washington, D.C., Friday.

"If you're an anthropology major, and you have been interning with a huge regional hospital, working on gathering and analyzing data about managing a chronic disease across a large regional community, then you've developed analytic skills, cultural competence, interview skills, communication skills back to the sponsor of the research," Quillen said. "Your degree will say anthropology. Will an employer know what that means? I'm interested in thinking through how your diploma can communicate what you can do."

Quillen joined a panel of higher ed leaders and the Washington Post's Jeff Selingo at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), a conservative think tank, to look at bridging the divide between education and employment.

The group was breaking down an AEI study that showed liberal arts graduates, equipped with additional skills and experience, can reach or exceed the earnings of graduates with more applied or technical degrees in a variety of fields. The authors argue that liberal arts graduates are leaving money on the table that they can scoop up with the right mix of degree and skills.

"It's the skills, stupid," said Mark Schneider, one of the authors and the White House nominee for director of the federal Institute of Education Sciences at the Department of Education.

The AEI study found that the evolving economy is transforming the workplace, and employers are requiring a more diverse and more blended mix of skills–a hybridization. Liberal arts graduates who add internships, experiential learning, digital skills from boot camps or other credentialing will more easily qualify for more entry level positions. The study highlights, among other examples, Davidson's partnership with the technology talent development company Revature for tuition-free training in computer coding for students and recent graduates.

"We need a better way to signal what our students have demonstrably learned, and how to communicate it more effectively to employers," Quillen said, highlighting how Davidson introduces first year students to the Center for Career Development, ensures they receive information about study abroad programs and familiarizes them with internship opportunities. "We need to build bridges between what they do in the classroom and what they see themselves doing in the world."

The panel went beyond the study and emphasized that liberal arts colleges bring together students from all backgrounds, preparing them for life and work in a diverse, pluralistic society.

The AEI study echoed the need to communicate to students the opportunities of the mixes of degrees and skills. Davidson's career center engaged with 86 percent of students across all classes during the last academic year, including 94 percent of seniors, and expanded its communications tools. The center, with the help of the Handshake recruiting platform and a strong alumni network, increased access to internship, fellowship and job opportunities by 150 percent.

"The work that has gone on at Davidson is extraordinary," said Monty E. Sullivan, another panelist and president of the Louisiana Community and Technical Community College System. "It's those broad capabilities [employers] are looking for, not the computer science degree. It's the technical skill that gets you in the door, and the liberal arts background that helps you stay."

Watch a video of the full discussion.

Mark Johnson


  • February 2, 2018