Liberal arts lead to good employment outcomes…just don’t tell the policymakers

Last week, the AAC&U released the report How Liberal Arts and Science Majors Fare in Employment (for coverage, check out Inside Higher Ed, the Chronicle, or the AACU release). Looking at both employment and earnings outcomes, the report is notable for two things: first, it actually looks at long-term data, not just a five- or 10-year datasets that have the unfortunate drawback of GIANT, RECESSION-BASED OUTLIERS. Second, it finds that – ta-daaaa – graduates from the humanities and social sciences tend to get good jobs and, by the end of their careers, have matched and even exceeded the earnings of their counterparts in STEM fields.

A very interesting finding, particularly in terms of current policy debates going on in Ontario and around the world. There is now a widely accepted narrative that holds that universities are somehow failing to adequately prepare students for the job market, or are educating students in useless fields (read: the humanities and social sciences). If you can’t draw a straight line between a degree and an occupation, the thinking goes, that degree is a waste time. Here in recession-torn Ontario, the Government has turned a laser focus to aligning higher education with the labour market, and enthusiastically embraced concepts like “entrepreneurial learning.” For examples of this, one need not look farther than the Government of Ontario’s recently announced Differentiation Policy Framework.

(For the record, the idea of a sector-wide focus on “entrepreneurial learning” has to be one of the most bizarre ideas in recent memory. Entrepreneurs – even in the United States – seldom make up more than a tiny fraction of the workforce. These are people who literally create their own jobs, and for every Steve Jobs there are many more people whose “big idea” went nowhere. If the Government of Ontario’s big plan for job creation is to tell university students to create their own jobs, its reasonable to conclude that the Government of Ontario has officially run out of moves on job creation.)

You’ll often see government policies burnished with phrases like “training students for the jobs of tomorrow.” By definition, these jobs don’t exist yet, so it is very difficult to “train” people for them. But what the AAC&U study demonstrates is that a liberal arts education actually does a pretty good job of training people for these nebulous future careers. The liberal arts – when done well and properly resourced – educates students, giving them the flexibility and soft skills to adapt to future labour markets. This flexibility doesn’t just mean adequate employment. It allows graduates to thrive in employment.

The AAC&U study runs contrary to the narrative around universities and employment embraced by government policymakers in Ontario and beyond. The reality is that there are very few straight lines between a degree and employment, and attempting to hammer curved and zigzagging educational and employment paths into a straight line is doomed to failure. Hammering is, of course, a technocratic imperative, so we’re likely to see a bit more of it. But you can’t design perfect education-to-employment pathways; you can only fund a university adequately to ensure students are equipped to undertake their own journeys.

Follow Graeme at @NuncScio.