With a projected Fiscal Year 2022 budget shortfall of over $40 million, the Vermont State Colleges System (VSCS) is struggling to stay afloat. The most obvious solution to this crisis? Dramatically increase state support for higher education (nationally, Vermont ranks near the bottom in this category). That solution has gotten little traction, so educators, administrators, legislators, community leaders, and consultants are pondering other options. These include elimination or consolidation of courses and programs and linking curricula to employment prospects, with an emphasis on work force training. Profitability is an underlying motive. That’s understandable, but if we’re not careful this could come at the expense of tried-and-true educational principles. That would harm students. We must not sacrifice core values on the altar of commerce.
We all want the same thing: academically rigorous institutions that prepare students for life after college, including the job market. How best to achieve this? We might start by asking employers what they seek in recent college graduates. In fact, that’s been done — frequently. The answers may surprise you. In survey after survey, employers identify three basic skills at or near the top of the list: communications, critical thinking, and problem solving. All three skills emerge from a solid foundation in the liberal arts.
What are the liberal arts? Here’s what Princeton’s Office of Admissions says: “A liberal arts education offers an expansive intellectual grounding in all kinds of humanistic inquiry. By exploring issues, ideas and methods across the humanities and the arts, and the natural and social sciences, you will learn to read critically, write cogently and think broadly.”
The higher education institutions of the VSCS have long been committed to a strong liberal arts foundation. NVU-Johnson is Vermont’s designated campus for the national Council of Public Liberal Arts Colleges (COPLAC). As it considers the future, the VSCS should maintain and strengthen its commitment to the liberal arts, including the expectation that students should learn to write and speak well, think critically, and solve complex problems. The mastery of these skills is part and parcel of a liberal arts education.
An enduring commitment to the liberal arts need not require a distinct liberal arts major; rather, it should ensure that core liberal arts components are embedded across the curriculum. For example, Physics majors should take courses in literature and English majors should achieve a fundamental understanding of the natural and physical sciences. All courses should include a writing requirement and opportunities for in-class oral presentations. Reading — broadly and deeply — should be emphasized, with topics ranging from poetry to the history of science. Classes could be team-taught, across disciplines. These approaches shouldn’t require new courses or added expenses.
The ongoing benefits to our students will be substantial. Most matriculating college students are uncertain about their future. They’re still discovering their aptitudes and preferences. They struggle to reconcile the disparate challenges of parental expectations, peer pressure, financial stresses, and shifting, often unpredictable job markets (who could have foreseen, in 1990, that the World-Wide Web would spawn four million U.S. jobs by 2020?). Small wonder that a third of all college students change their majors in the first three years. Even after graduation, the typical American shifts jobs a dozen times over the course of a career. A broad education, grounded in the liberal arts, helps graduates adapt to changing circumstances and enhances their marketability across the employment spectrum.
And think about the benefits to society. A dearth of communications and critical thinking skills has undermined Americans’ rational discourse and scientific literacy with pernicious consequences for science-based formulation of wise public policy. More than 50 years ago the Nobel Laureate, George Wald, called for bridging the gap between the sciences and the humanities. Today, that need is greater than ever. Well-educated citizens, with a solid foundation in the liberal arts, can help bridge the gap.
Back to Vermont. We’re all committed to a future for the VSCS that is financially stable and academically rigorous. The pathway to those objectives remains uncertain. As we consider strategies and debate options, we must focus on the over-riding goal: to provide the best possible education for our students. A continuing commitment to a curriculum solidly grounded in the liberal arts will go a long way toward meeting that goal.