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A Case for Applied Liberal Arts: Adapting to Disruption

A Case for Applied Liberal Arts: Adapting to Disruption
Institutions that choose to become static in the face of disruption will be overrun by new market entrants filling specific educational demands.
When the pursuit of higher education does not necessarily lead to a job and the costs of that education become prohibitively expensive, we have a problem. Moreover, with rising student loan debt, freezes and reductions of state subsidies and a widening skills gap in the American workforce, pressures are mounting on all higher education institutions to be clear about the value of a college degree.

As tuition costs continue to soar, students will likely become savvier education shoppers. They will want to know whether their investment in higher education will pay off over time. Some will have to decide whether to pursue a degree at all. Unfortunately, there is a shocking dearth of data around institutional performance outcomes. Calls for transparency, such as President Obama’s college ratings plan, have most institutions up in arms and resisting the notion that performance can and should be quantified.

But something’s got to give. We are now faced with a massive surge in demand of skillsets for the workforce, millions of unfilled jobs and a large contingent of bachelor’s degree candidates unemployed upon graduation. With no obvious bridge between graduation and employment, it’s no wonder policymakers are emphasizing job attainment and the need for colleges and universities to be more responsive to workforce needs. Traditional liberal arts institutions, in particular, find themselves under attack for somehow not adapting their curricula to these major environmental shifts.

This is neither another defense of the liberal arts nor another piece that pits the liberal arts against vocational training. We’ve all grown weary of commentators who ennoble without question the ideal of the liberal arts while denigrating vocation as factory work or corporate training.

In lieu of these tired tropes, I would suggest the notion of applied liberal arts. It’s time we shed vocation of its connotations of career education, corporate training and utility. Vocation does not preclude the liberal arts but can fuse a liberal education with the application of knowledge, effective citizenship, well roundedness and even artistry.

There is an enormous opportunity here to make the transfer of knowledge clearer from learning to know to learning to do. “Ours is a society based on work,” argue Saad Rizvi, Katelyn Donnelly and Michael Barber, authors of “An Avalanche Is Coming.” “Learning and work are becoming inseparable. Indeed one could argue that this is precisely what it means to have a knowledge economy or a learning society. It follows that if work is becoming learning, then learning needs to become work — and universities need to become alive to the possibilities.”[1]

Right now, there are thousands of institutions in the United States that are all relatively expensive and undifferentiated from one another. In order to simply survive, some institutions will have to carefully consider the importance of this missing linkage to utility and jobs.

Scholars tend to resist the notion that college should be tied directly to “training” students for the economy. This sentiment has its roots in our collegiate model from the 1870s, when Charles Eliot, then-president of Harvard, insisted that students pursue their passions in college and then learn what they really needed to know in graduate school.

In the face of mounting external pressures and financial exigencies, institutions that wish to uphold the liberal arts must make a case for its economic relevance. Arguing that critical thinking, communication and problem-solving skills are inherently built into a liberal arts education is not enough. The transfer of knowledge into identifiable skills for the workforce needs to be clearer for students as well as employers. If not, employers will lose faith (and this is already happening) in the signaling factor of a college credential.

Applied liberal arts can only become a reality if it’s valued both by students and employers and is delivered at a lower price point. Despite the fact that liberal arts institutions might find the idea of collaborating with employers unattractive or incongruous with their strategic missions, our research predicts that if institutions do not bridge the skills gap, alternative learning providers will. We call this asymmetric motivation, as disruptive entrants find their footholds by inhabiting a space deemed undesirable by the established leaders in an industry. In this particular case, as the gap between learning and the workforce continues to widen, disruptive innovations will directly target the growing population of students seeking direct pathways to jobs.

Take coding boot camps as an example: Students pay anywhere from $10,000 to $20,000 for a six to 12-week immersive experience in which they spend up to 12 hours per day learning to code. By the end of the session, they are proficient enough in programming to be hired as developers, earning a six-figure salary at places such as Google and Adobe.  These kinds of innovative learning hubs will only proliferate over time. We can neither dismiss online education providers as non-competitors with established institutions nor assume brand-name recognition will forever be a strong signaling mechanism to employers.

The instinct for some institutions might be to give into the “threat rigidity,” or to cease being flexible in the face of such major, systemic shifts. If, however, traditional institutions double down on a static curriculum, then how will they compete with these lower-cost, briefer and targeted programs that lead directly to high-skills opportunities at desirable companies? The oncoming disruption must be viewed as an opportunity to tie education to economic relevance — to offer more than a trajectory, but a well-defined pathway, to employment.

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[1] Saad Rizvi, Katelyn Donnelly and Michael Barber, “An Avalanche is Coming: Higher Education and the Revolution Ahead,” IPPR, March 11, 2013. Accessed at

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