Colleges feel pressure to boost business courses

Published: Monday, September 1, 2008 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Monday, September 1, 2008 at 12:59 a.m.

Longtime Middlebury College economics professor Michael Claudon should have been ecstatic. More and more students at the quintessential Vermont liberal arts school — nearly 1 in 6 — had picked his department as a major.

But Claudon could tell many students weren’t taking his classes because they loved economics. They just thought it would help them get a job.

When he asked students once what they would do if there were some other way to get the kinds of experiences they thought employers wanted, one piped up: “I sure as hell wouldn’t be here.”

That comment was the genesis of a new class Claudon developed with alumni in business, designed to give students intense experiences that mimic real-world problem-solving.

Liberal arts colleges make a passionate case that the skills they offer — analysis, writing, argument — are the best preparation for a career in the ever-changing business world.

But at a time of surging college costs and rising career anxieties, they’re feeling some heat from parents and students to do more to give students a well-rounded resume.

And they’re all struggling with variants of the same question: Can liberal arts colleges maintain the distinctive education they provide, while serving students who want a clearer path to a business career?

Some colleges, like Middlebury, have started programs but taken pains to keep them separate from the traditional curriculum (Claudon’s “MiddCORE” course is offered during the winter term, a short interlude between the regular academic semesters).

But others have gone much further. Kalamazoo College in Michigan is adding a business major this year. Furman University in South Carolina has added a dozen business and account courses over the last three years. Benedictine, a Roman Catholic university in Lisle, Ill., is starting a theology major designed to provide students with skills for careers like law and business — either secular or church-related work.

Even some elite, highly selective liberal arts colleges have added to the curriculum. A new program at Claremont McKenna College in California blends coursework in areas like finance and accounting with internships and other out-of-class experiences. This fall, students at Sewanee — a small college of Oxford-style buildings on a Tennessee mountain — will be able to minor in business for the first time.

In surveys, employers say the liberal arts skills are the ones they value most in applicants. Many top CEOs have liberal arts backgrounds, and the most prestigious companies — Goldman Sachs, Google, McKinsey & Co. — all recruit aggressively at prestigious liberal arts colleges. But if colleges don’t respond to the pressure students and parents are feeling, they risk getting left behind.

“What (employers) want is people with the skills to think and write and speak, but the parents don’t want to hear that,” said Maria de la Camara, dean of Benedictine’s College of Liberal Arts. “If we want to stay alive, it’s like walking on a tightrope. You don’t become a technical college and totally focus on the professional side, but you combine both sides and do it well, and turn out liberally educated professionals.”

Many schools, like 500-student Lyon College in Batesville, Ark., cling to the liberal arts label, insisting those skills are integral to their teaching even in vocational subjects.

“What we’ve really done is sort of highlighted those career paths that follow from a liberal arts education,” said Walter Roettger, president of Lyon, which switched to a liberal arts focus in 1994 but since then has been adding back programs in preprofessional tracks like business, computer science, journalism and education.

The new, blended model of schools combining preprofessional training and the liberal arts even has its own consortium now — the Associated New American College, founded in 1995. The group was started by a collection of schools that felt the new model wasn’t getting its due respect from pure liberal arts colleges or research universities, said Lynette Robinson, the organization’s executive director. Some of the original 10 schools have changed their focus and left the group, but overall it’s expanded to 21 institutions.

“I think people see (a preprofessional focus) as diminishing what a pure liberal arts environment can do,” she said. “But our institutions see it as enriching what a liberal arts education can be about. If you’re an engineer you need to be as critical a thinker as a math major.”

At elite colleges like Middlebury, there’s less concern about filling seats; indeed the liberal arts focus is a big part of the draw. But there are worries that once on campus, students are feeling too much preprofessional pressure — exactly what they chose Middlebury to avoid.

“These are incredible life skills,” Claudon said of the liberal arts skills Middlebury teaches. “But parents are convinced that they don’t guarantee Johnny and Sally a job at graduation. So they’re hedging their bets and majoring in economics.”

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