ACTA is an independent, non-profit organization committed to academic freedom, excellence, and accountability at America's colleges and universities.

ACTA is an independent, non-profit organization committed to academic freedom, excellence, and accountability at America's colleges and universities.

ACTA is an independent, non-profit organization committed to academic freedom, excellence, and accountability at America's colleges and universities.

A Reminder of the Value of General Education

March 28, 2019 by Nathaniel Urban

The college application process is over for most high school students. Most students see college as the next phase of their life, but with the average cost of tuition increasing by over 200% from 1980 to 2014, some are thinking twice about pursuing an undergraduate degree. America’s economy is changing quickly, and employers are expecting graduates to possess a certain set of skills, regardless of their major, by the time they enter the job market. How then, should students navigate this new landscape?

Immense pressure is placed on students to make a major life decision so young and so quickly. The growing student loan debt burden and the tremendous cost of tuition place greater weight on declaring the right major. Students hear that the economy is unpredictable, so they choose a major with high job security or a high starting salary—who could blame them? However, many colleges and universities are not requiring the foundational courses that will ensure graduates are nimble in an ever-changing job market, regardless of their chosen major.

Executives expect graduates to possess skills including oral communication, critical thinking, and ethical judgment.

A rigorous liberal arts general education provides students with the tools for a wide range of careers. A challenging and thought-provoking general education is an essential foundation for students. It is meant to guide students toward choosing an appropriate field of study and ensure they have the basic professional skills needed to excel in their area of expertise. General education also is meant to foster soft skills, such as problem-solving, teamwork, and flexibility. These skills are invaluable and highly sought after by employers.

A study from the Association of American Colleges and Universities shows that both executives and hiring managers expect graduates to possess skills including oral communication, critical thinking, ethical judgment, working effectively in teams, written communication, and real-world application of terms and knowledge. Soft skills cut across majors and are a significant portion of a student’s undergraduate and professional experiences.

Thomas Jefferson listed a series of scientific, civic, and humanities related subjects in his plan for the University of Virginia. His list consisted of ancient and modern languages, mathematics, astronomy, geography, physics, chemistry, anatomy, government, history, grammar, ethics, and fine arts. Jefferson believed this foundation of knowledge would provide the most critical skills to “the statesmen, legislators, and judges, on whom public prosperity and individual happiness are so much to depend.” Students, according to Jefferson, should choose a specific profession only after they received a holistic and practical general education.  

Jefferson believed this foundation of knowledge would provide the most critical skills to “the statesmen, legislators, and judges, on whom public prosperity and individual happiness are so much to depend."

Students with less definitive career paths are able to develop and foster their aptitudes through a rigorous liberal arts general education program. A comprehensive foundation in the liberal arts acts as a springboard by helping students discover the areas in which they excel and equipping them with life-long skills that are transferable across professions.

Nathaniel Urban is the program manager for the What Will They Learn?™ report, a flagship initiative by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA) which evaluates the core curricula at over 1,100 American colleges and universities.

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