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An Inspirational Defense Of A Liberal Education For Adults

Bringing up positive aspects like widely applicable skills in a changing market, top administrators are trying to shine some light on the strength of liberal arts degrees for adult students. Photo by Roberto Pani.

With student debt hitting the trillion-dollar level and a job market not quite in recovery, critics both within and outside the higher education community are increasingly making a case for focusing public resources on education that teaches students “practical” skills, in contrast to the “luxury” of a liberal education.

And so, I was uplifted by four panelists who made a compelling case for a practical liberal education at the recent University Professional & Continuing Education Association’s annual conference in Portland, Oregon.

Entitled A practical, liberal education: Exploring why this concept needn’t be an oxymoron, this session, which was facilitated by InsideTrack Founder and President Kai Drekmeier, brought together senior administrators from two land grant universities and two Jesuit universities—all of which run robust programs for the nontraditional learner. Despite differences in their programs and approaches, the panelists all emphasized reasons that a liberal education teaches nontraditional students to be better employees (practical), better citizens (practical), and happier people.

Heather Chakiris, Director of Advising and Learner Success at Penn State World Campus and Continuing Education, offered a wonderful anecdote that exemplifies how one never knows what skills not only might be useful but also could play an important role in a career. Having secured his “dream job” at a Spanish-language media outlet, one Penn State World Campus student went out of his way to contact Ms. Chakiris and thank her for that Spanish language requirement that he had argued so hard against having to take.

This example fit nicely with an argument made by Dave King, Associate Provost, Outreach and Engagement at Oregon State University, who believes that “a liberal education equips students with the resilience and nimbleness to respond to a changing job market.”  He said, “Even though we are a land grant university, we still encourage students to ask those fundamental questions of self that lead to better, more informed career choices.”

Sharing this sentiment was Max Sotak, Interim Dean at Regis University’s College for Professional Studies. Dr. Sotak argued that “a practical liberal education prepares students for careers that have yet to be invented” by equipping with them with core skills. It also makes students better people and better employees by “encouraging deep study and meaningful self reflection.” Regis requires that all new students enroll in a gateway course, Living Lives of Purpose, which grounds them in the university’s Jesuit tradition of developing contributing members of society.

Also steeped in Jesuit Tradition, Georgetown University School of Continuing Studies offers coursework that provides opportunities for those “teachable moments,” explained Darcie Milazzo, Associate Dean. “It’s intrinsic to our mission that we combine applied learning with reflective engagement. Our core curricula include coursework that deepens students’ knowledge of their values and personal ethics. As a result, students are equipped to engage and act on the questions, ‘What contribution do I want to make to the world?’ and ‘How best can I make a difference in my community?’” Ms. Milazzo also related how these values contributed to Georgetown’s Masters in Public Relations and Corporate Communications earning the 2012 PR Education Program of the Year award.

All of this was a conversation that I hope we hear more about in coming years: the strong practical value of a liberal education…for everyone.

Cross-posted from InsideTrack, originally published May 1, 2012.

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