Proposing a liberal arts and technical education armistice

Merging the best attributes of two education models will make it easier for graduates to find employment
By: | Issue: December, 2016
October 24, 2016

It may be time to rethink some of our established models of higher education. Let’s consider two classic paradigms. By most definitions, liberal arts education refers to those college studies related to areas such as literature, languages, philosophy, humanities, history, mathematics, psychology and science. These instructional elements are among the most time-honored part of a traditional college education. The aim of these studies is to produce a virtuous, knowledgeable and articulate person—an individual able to assume an active role in civic life. Liberal Arts education relies heavily on theoretical learning models and most often culminates in a Bachelor of Arts degree.

Career and Technical Education (CTE), on the other hand, references the type of hands-on training that prepares students for specific trades, careers or professions. Sometimes referred to as vocational education, CTE has its roots in the age-old apprenticeship system of learning and uses applied learning models in laboratories or real world settings. The chief objective with this type of training is to equip students with a marketable set of skills and to make it easier for them to meet their employment goals. These students most often receive an Associate of Applied Science degree.

Now, let’s consider the harsh realities awaiting many students after college. Graduates coming out of Liberal Arts programs face one predicament while graduates from Tech Ed programs face another. The main challenge for Liberal Arts graduates is difficulty finding suitable employment after graduation. It’s not uncommon for a Liberal Arts graduate to be engaged in an ongoing job search for many years. These graduates are frequently told they lack the requisite skill sets or experience for the jobs they seek. Consequently, they often settle for low-paying jobs that don’t require a college degree, or they enroll in graduate school in hopes of picking up some more marketable skills.

Yet the problem facing Tech Ed graduates is exactly the opposite. They have little difficulty finding employment in their chosen field after graduation because many employers are eager to hire persons with technical skills even when they have little or no experience. But when these CTE graduates want to advance their careers and need a higher level degree to do so, they are often shut out by the higher education system. They are told that the courses on their transcript are nontransferable, and they will have to essentially start their college education all over again. In both cases, these Liberal Arts graduates and Tech Ed graduates become frustrated and discouraged. Both groups deserve better answers for the problems they face.

I believe both problems can be resolved but will require seriously rethinking some of our most commonly held beliefs and basic traditions within higher education.

Like two sides of the same coin, these graduates face two distinct set of challenges, but their problems emerge from one source. One problem involves a lack of work-related training, and the other involves a lack of academic preparation. Both problems reflect a curricular deficit. It seems like the solution to the Liberal Arts dilemma can be found in the elements of Career and Technical Education, and conversely, the solution to the Career and Technical Education dilemma can be found in the elements of Liberal Arts—two disparate academic offerings at opposite extremes of the higher education spectrum with vastly different instructional philosophies and methodologies.

Faculty in these contrasting disciplines share few things in common and rarely communicate with one another, but if they are to find solutions for the problems their graduates face, maybe they need each other more than they would like to admit.

Why does higher education have to be either heads or tails? Why can it not be both heads and tails? Why does instruction have to be offered in either a theoretical learning model or in an applied learning model? Why can’t the instructional learning model be both theoretical and applied at the same time?

Liberal Arts programs need certain elements of hands-on training to better equip their students for specific trades, careers or professions. At the same time, Tech Ed programs could benefit from the inclusion of instructional elements designed to produce more virtuous, knowledgeable and articulate graduates. If Liberal Arts programs of study could be made a little more like Tech Ed, perhaps graduates would find it easier to obtain suitable employment. Additionally, if Tech Ed programs of study could be molded a little more like Liberal Arts, perhaps graduates would find it easier to continue with their education. As hard as it is to accept, the solution for Liberal Arts is Tech Ed and the solution for Tech Ed is Liberal Arts. As iron sharpens iron, discipline sharpens discipline. The solution is not one or the other—the solution is both.

Despite its sometimes rigid conventions and customs, higher education is still very good at finding innovative solutions to problems that face students. Today’s college graduates are struggling. They need the technical skills to enter the modern workforce and the ability to advance their careers—not one or the other. They need both.

—Bill Path is president of Oklahoma State University Institute of Technology