Higher ed 'traditionalists' - Macleans.ca

Higher ed ‘traditionalists’

Survey reveals that arts students care less about employment, more about parties


In a previous post, I pointed out that when we consider what students are actually studying, concerns over the demise of the liberal arts are overblown. Students are not recoiling from subjects that have few direct lines to post-graduation employment. The social sciences and the humanities, that presumably underpin our democracy, have not been replaced by more utilitarian fields. Whatever the government’s lack of interest in funding the liberal arts, or in the increasing emphasis on marketable skills, the numbers of students graduating from the social sciences and humanities has barely budged since the early 1990s.

What I didn’t consider was why the liberal arts remain popular. It may be that commerce and engineering programs, for instance, have entrance requirements that make them inaccessible to the average student. If this were true then the thesis that the liberal arts have been replaced may have some traction. That is, if it can be shown that high achieving students have been increasingly less likely to major in English or sociology then they would have been in the past. Though there is some evidence to suggest this isn’t the case. For example, at the University of British Columbia, students entering the faculty of arts will need a minimum high school average of 85 per cent, suggesting even high achieving students are opting for the liberal arts.

Still, it might be the case that by providing a comparatively less exhausting path to a credential, the continued popularity of the liberal arts may have as much to do with finding employment as more professionally oriented programs.

A new survey, however, suggests that the liberal arts attracts students who are relatively unconcerned with pursuing employment. Last spring, Academica Group surveyed 150,000 students who were applying to more than 40 colleges and universities. The aim of the study was to determine what draws students to “specific institutions.” Liberal arts students, dubbed “higher-ed traditionalists,” were found to “place less weight on employment outcomes and even grad school placements than their peers in other programs, and are less concerned with co-op programs.”

Similar to applicants of other programs, students applying to arts place importance on the quality of faculty and resources but, “they place significantly more emphasis on library collections,” and “less weight on investments in the latest technology, high-profile research, and undergraduate research opportunities.” Liberal arts students were also found to give greater consideration to the student experience, such as whether the campus is attractive, the quality of the residences and “student diversity.” They are also more likely to be attracted to “clubs and social activities, and off-campus urban life,” while “being less concerned with recreational facilities or varsity athletics.”

What this suggests is that so long as there are students who view university as a pleasant way to spend four years, or as an interval between adolescence and adulthood, there will be a market for the social sciences and humanities.

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Higher ed ‘traditionalists’

  1. Are you being serious? Why would history majors give great concern to the “latest technology” or “high-profile research” over library collections?

  2. You’re right, it is pretty self-evident that arts student would place less weight on the “latest technology,” but I am not so sure it is as self-evident that they would place less weight on “high-profile research.”

    And, the point about the latest technologies is only one point about this survey.

  3. “What this suggests is that so long as there are students who view university as a pleasant way to spend four years, or as an interval between adolescence and adulthood, there will be a market for the social sciences and humanities.”

    I don’t think you’ve come to a sensible conclusion here.

    Rather than just categorising people via this decision about ‘liberal arts’ or ‘something else’, we need to think about the set-up and culture of education, and valuation of knowledge and skills. When students are in school at the primary and secondary levels, there is usually an emphasis on identifying their ‘strengths’ or the areas where they tend to achieve the highest grades. Students are then encouraged to imagine ‘jobs’ or career paths that fit with those strengths. Since we live in a society that places a great deal of emphasis on technology and science (and where we ‘value’ that knowledge), it’s a lot easier to see specific, appealing options in terms of jobs and careers in those areas. I know nobody who grew up thinking “I want to be a media analyst!” (yes, this is a real job and one that pays well) but plenty who imagined themselves as ‘scientists’ or ‘engineers’ of some kind (an interesting exception to this could be lawyers–as far as I know, they often have liberal arts degrees). I know a lot of people who grew up wishing they were better at math. Why? Because they can’t think of a high-paying job in the arts (although there are plenty out there–as many people discover later in life).

    Another issue is that many people, at the age of 17 (or later!), don’t yet know what they want to do with their lives; and given the way that programs in the sciences are often set up (linear, hierarchical, etc.) it might be easier for some people to take courses in a liberal arts degree until they feel more certain; they may switch areas later. Overall I think that the division being made between ‘liberal arts’ and ‘everything else’ isn’t useful because it perpetuates stereotypical classifications of knowledge, like “science is for hard-working and serious people, and the arts are for lazy, indecisive people.”

  4. “Still, it might be the case that by providing a comparatively less exhausting path to a credential…”

    Do you have evidence for this? What are you basing this statement on? Your own opinion that the Arts/Social Sciences are less rigorous? Less hours of study time?

    Please back up this statement.

  5. What brought me to take up an arts degree was just that I loved the field. After 7 years working construction, I felt comfortable in my ability to earn a living, which is nice in that I don’t view the education so much as a career investment… (Besides that one of the first things one of the profs cleared up for everyone is not to expect to get rich doing art, heh)

    The students around me come from many other backgrounds and have other objectives. But I must agree that many of the fresh-out-of-highschoolers really seem to be there because it just seemed like the thing to do. It’s what the culture tells us growing up – “after highschool, you go to post secondary if you’re to amount to anything in life”… It’s a very expensive way to find out what you want to be when you grow up, IMO.

  6. Thanks, Carson, for reading my white paper and thinking about it, and for sparking some interesting discussion here on the Maclean’s OnCampus site!

    As a humanities grad myself (a long time ago, on a campus not so far away) I certainly didn’t write the paper with the intention of dissing those university applicants interested in the arts and humanities. The differences illustrated in our “push-pull” graph are subtle and sometimes complicated.

    Still, universities across North America are concerned about the enrolment trends in the humanities — some tie the rising careerism of undergraduates to rising tuition fees, others to a generation of increasingly-educated parents — and it’s interesting to see how that is borne out by the data from our survey. Some of the commentators are absolutely right — some of the best-paid positions in our society are occupied by humanities graduates. But the career pathway is less direct, and the humanities may attract students with a longer-term view of “return on investment.”

    As for the “humanities vs everything else” approach taken in this white paper, fear not — we have 6 other white papers soon to be published, comparing applicants to the sciences, social sciences, computer sciences, business and commerce, and environmental sciences with the overall average for undergraduate applicants.

    Thanks again!

    Ken Steele
    Senior Vice-President, Education Marketing
    Academica Group Inc.

    Marketing Innovation for Higher Education

    See our website for blogs, news, commentary and resources – http://www.academicagroup.com

  7. Interesting post with great information, but a pretty careless conclusion. I’m not sure where the data proves that arts students are less serious about their education. Did you perhaps use that angle as a way to get more people to read the article?

  8. @Chris,

    I don’t think that arts students are careless about their education, and didn’t argue that. To say someone views university as a pleasant way to spend four years, or as an interval on the way to adulthood, is not to suggest that they don’t take it seriously. Rather, it is to suggest that they might not see university education as a means to a predefined end, namely finding a job, at least when compared to students in other programs.

  9. Right, Maybe a good number of these students are simply looking to be well-educated. That’s been my experience of most of them in over 15 years of undergraduate teaching. It’s also been my experience of them as a Dean. When faced with having to implement budget cuts, the student complaint is not that being unable to take an elective will hurt their chances at employment. It’s that it will deprive them of something they really want the opportunity to learn.

  10. I read the whole article hoping that it will explain somewhere, how exactly arts students care more about “parties” than employment. I didn’t get that vibe from this article, sorry.