Actually, liberal arts grads do just fine, thank you

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Last week, the American Association of Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) released the report How Liberal Arts and Science Majors Fare in Employment Looking at both employment and earnings outcomes, the report finds that graduates from the humanities and social sciences tend to get good jobs and, by the end of their careers, have matched and even exceeded the earnings of their counterparts in STEM fields.

This is a very interesting finding – albeit an American one – particularly in terms of current policy debates going on in Ontario and around the world. There is now a widely accepted narrative that holds that universities are somehow failing to adequately prepare students for the job market, or are educating students in fields that do not lead to labour market success. In recession-torn Ontario, the Government has turned a laser focus to aligning higher education with the labour market, and enthusiastically embraced concepts like “entrepreneurial learning.” For examples of this, one need not look farther than the Government of Ontario’s recently announced Differentiation Policy Framework.

Often, government policies are burnished with phrases like “training students for the jobs of tomorrow.” By definition, these jobs don’t exist yet, so it is very difficult to “train” people for them. But what the AAC&U study demonstrates is that a liberal arts education actually does a pretty good job of training people for these undefined future careers. The liberal arts – when done well and properly resourced – educates students, giving them the flexibility and soft skills to adapt to future labour markets. This flexibility doesn’t just mean adequate employment. It allows graduates to thrive in employment.

The AAC&U study runs contrary to the narrative around universities and employment embraced by government policymakers in Ontario and beyond. The reality is that there are very few straight lines between a degree and employment, and attempting to hammer curved and zigzagging educational and employment paths into a straight line does not, in the end, serve the needs of students. You can’t design perfect education-to-employment pathways; you can only fund a university adequately to ensure students are equipped to undertake their own journeys.

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