May 18, 2011

College Grads Need Skills, Not Liberal Arts

By: by Bloomberg BusinessWeek


Pro: Engineering Economy Growth

by Robert E. Geer, College of Nanoscale Science & Engineering, University at Albany-SUNY

I can almost hear the exchange. First, Alex Trebek quizzing Jeopardy! contestants: "This will enable a bright future for students while improving national competitiveness." Then, Watson's response: "What are ‘specialized courses of study, particularly in science and technology'?"

Correct indeed. The U.S. economy has always been driven by innovation, with high-tech research, development, and commercialization spurring economic growth. We have relied largely on our universities as the training grounds for the high-tech workforce.

But to compete-and succeed-in today's global economy, our universities must do more than simply impart knowledge. They need to offer specialized courses of study that teach students how to create knowledge, innovate, and blend multiple disciplines to forge new pathways in science and technology.

A prime example of students capitalizing on specialized degrees is in the field of nanotechnology. The National Science Foundation projects that the U.S. will require at least 2 million nanotech-savvy scientists, researchers, engineers, and others by 2014.

One such public undergraduate program exists at University at Albany's College of Nanoscale Science & Engineering. With $7 billion in public and private investment, it gives students a unique opportunity to study and drive innovation and technology transfer-and to obtain employment with more than 250 global corporate partners, both before and after graduating. In the process, CNSE has helped create and retain thousands of high-tech jobs, with an average annual salary of $81,000.

As the saying goes, "Opportunity only knocks once." The specialized undergraduate degree gives students the key to unlock that door-and our nation's economic future.

Con: Encouraging Expansive Thinking

by Linda H. Halisky, College of Liberal Arts Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo

In an attempt to address the nation's need for a ready workforce, some argue that early specialization, preferably in a professional discipline, is key. What experience and research are showing us, however, is that such an agenda would likely work against us.

In a recent Harvard Business Review item, writer Tony Golsby-Smith points to the limitations of an education focusing more on skills that prepare us to "control, predict, verify, guarantee, and test data" and less on the aptitudes necessary to "navigate the ‘what if' questions" the real world presents.

In addition, New York Times columnist David Brooks writes in the "The New Humanism" that talents like the "ability to enter other minds and learn what they have to offer" and the ability to "see patterns in the world and derive a gist from complex situations" are critical to our future success. Such abilities, of course, are honed by the study of such things as literature, history, philosophy, and art.

The role the humanities, arts, and social sciences plays in developing the "whole persons" we need to become-to live rich and meaningful lives and address complex problems-are all factors students should be encouraged to explore throughout their education.

This debate really needn't be about one or the other: It's the cooperation and interplay of the liberal arts with vocation-specific training, as it turns out, that holds the most promise.