By: Merly Lopez
It’s safe to say that at one point or another, everyone considering (or enrolled in) a liberal education has pondered what it yields for them in the future and whether the financial value of it is worth investing in.
A vocational education replaces the traditional university route by providing students with a “hands-on” education that hones in on skills specific to a field, such as truck driving, food service, cosmetology ,plumbing and hair styling. A liberal arts education, on the other hand, is more difficult to define given that it’s been evolving for centuries since its establishment in early American colonial society and is based on more abstract concepts. In the U.S., a liberal arts education is defined by Jill Tiefenthaler, an economics professor and president of Colorado College, as “educating the whole person, and preparing students to excel in a range of careers and, most importantly, live lives rich with meaning and purpose.”
Historically only accessible to the top 0.01% of society, a liberal-arts education is now the go-to for the majority of students who pursue a higher education. It doesn’t focus on any specific skill, but instead, it seeks to instill the student with a versatile education in various subjects such as math, literature, science, and even the arts. But many still ask themselves if a vocational education is one worth undertaking in the place of a liberal one. Which of the two prepares the student for a wholesome future that is both personally gratifying and economically successful in the U.S.? This article explores this central question by sampling different reports and analyses on the issue and will explain that perhaps, the solution is an integrative one rather than a binary one.
In the analysis of liberal arts education in the peer-reviewed scholarly journal ASHE’s Higher Education Report, it is argued that although vocational studies prepare one to be effective members of the workforce, it doesn’t encompass other essential aspects of a democratic life in the U.S., such as civic duty and cultural awareness. A liberal arts education is aimed at teaching foundations to build on, such as mathematics and communication, when you are employed so that your options are plentiful. Dr. Howard Gordon, a Professor in the Department of Teaching & Learning at the University of Nevada and the author of “The History and Growth of Career and Technical Education in America”, responds to this argument by simply stating that although useful, a liberal arts education is not enough to keep a society strung together and doesn’t tend to the needs and wants of the student. Gordon claims that while it is important to give a well-rounded education, it’s more important to keep in mind the end goal of students in college: to have a guaranteed employment opportunity right after, which a vocational education all but assures.
Although a vocational education is more likely to offer immediate guarantees than a liberal one, there is uncertainty on the effectiveness long-term. In their research-based analysis on vocational education, economists Eric Hanushek, Ludger Woessmann, and Lei Zhang state that there is clear evidence that the “initial labor-market advantage of vocational relative to general education decreases with age.” In other words, the performance observed when one enters the technical job market isn’t consistent as time progresses, and this may be due to a number of factors, an important one being technological advances. The life-cycle of the employment in vocation fields is important to consider given that you don’t want to just secure a job immediately after college, but for the decades that follow and an education fixed on specific skills may not be able to offer that.
Moving past the theoretical dynamic of the argument, a study done on behalf of the Association of American Colleges and Universities revealed what employers are seeking from incoming students. Two of the values they argue are essential in the workplace are “integrative learning” and “knowledge of human cultures and the physical and natural world.” Integrative learning encompasses the idea that a student must not only learn a subject by the books but that they are exposed to the field hands-on (what vocational education succeeds at). Integrative learning is what can be seen in, for instance, an electrical technician school. It is the idea that the student learning and simultaneously integrating the concepts learned into the practice of a specific skill. The latter, on the other hand, asks of the employee to be aware of “global issues and developments and their implications for the future, the role of the United States in the world, and cultural values and traditions in America and other countries” which are characteristics attributed to a liberal education given that they span concepts beyond those of tangible and immediately applicable skills.
The study doesn’t make a claim for any form of education, only concepts which employers believe if students are equipped with, would benefit not just a given company, but society at large. The study also looked at what the main objective should be in the nation’s colleges (well-rounded education or focus on a specific skill), and 56% (majority) of employers decided both. It’s evident that this common ground isn’t something sought after just by students, but by their future employers as well.
Ultimately, it goes without saying that the concept of a one-dimensional education is outdated. In order to prepare students with the necessary tools to thrive in terms of their own financial wellness and for the betterment of the nation, one must consider the gray area between a liberal education and a technical one. There is already movement within many liberal arts institutions which seek to incorporate integrative learning in their curricula. Take, for example, Harvard University, one of the oldest institutions of higher education in the U.S. that has been based on the liberal arts style since the 17th century. Not only are the students expected to take courses within the program of General Education, but they are expected to choose a specific concentration to begin specializing in. This new requirement is a step forward, being taken by many other universities, to merge experiential learning with liberal learning.
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