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February 4, 2019

To assert relevance, liberal-arts colleges lean into skills training, business partnerships

HBJ Photo | Steve Laschever Sonia Cardenas, Trinity College's vice president for strategic initiatives, said her school's new partnership with tech giant Infosys aims to help students and others with liberal-arts backgrounds leverage their skills for tech-sector jobs.
Photo | HBJ File University of St. Joseph President Rhona Free said adding a blockchain program helps the school tap into a growing sector.
Anthony Carnevale, Director, Center on Education and the Workforce, Georgetown University
Janet Steinmayer, President, Mitchell College

Defining liberal-arts education can be difficult, but many people can identify the comical stereotypes:

A group of young scholars sitting cross-legged on the quad, sincerely nodding as their professor quotes Plato.

“Human behavior flows from three main sources: desire, emotion and knowledge,” the professor says rolling his r's and gesticulating like an actor performing a Shakespearean soliloquy.

Kidding aside, the role of liberal-arts schools has come under the spotlight in recent years, especially as colleges and universities nationwide facing declining enrollment, and some public skepticism has been raised about the value of skills taught at such institutions.

Amid this backdrop, some Connecticut colleges that have traditionally focused on the humanities are experimenting with business partnerships, and offering skills-based programs aimed at improving students' job prospects in the technology and manufacturing industries.

This month, University of St. Joseph, in collaboration with New Haven app developer DappDevs, will begin a pre-certificate program that offers basic skills training in blockchain technology. A six-week blockchain certification program is set to debut in March.

Meanwhile, Trinity College will soon begin an experimental partnership with tech giant Infosys, dubbed the Trinity-Infosys Applied Learning Initiative. First on the list is a course in which Trinity faculty and Infosys will jointly provide training to new Infosys employees who are starting out as entry-level business analysts, said Sonia Cardenas, Trinity's vice president for strategic initiatives. The program will incorporate elements of the liberal arts along with tech training.

“What's unique about it is thinking about very explicitly the ways that (students) can translate their liberal-arts skills and their liberal-arts experience into this new domain,” Cardenas said. “We really are kind of approaching this with an experiment mindset of, 'how do we think creatively about the future, the relevance of the liberal arts, the value of the liberal arts — which we're confident about?”

To be clear, Cardenas and other liberals-arts school administrators still strongly defend the value of a humanities education, which remains the bread and butter of their institutions. However, they also believe adding some skill-specific courses will elevate their graduates above peers, who may have technical know-how but lack communication, logical-thinking and other skills that are in high demand.

Additionally, Cardenas and University of St. Joseph President Rhona Free point out their schools have long offered some career-track education programs, like nursing or pharmacy.

Small private liberal-arts colleges seeking to supplement instruction in the humanities with courses that teach specific job skills is a nationwide trend, experts say. And for many such institutions, declining to participate in this evolution could lead to their demise over the next 20 years, said Anthony Carnevale, director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce.

Perception problems plaguing liberal-arts schools are in part rooted in shifting expectations of what higher-education institutions should provide, Carnevale said. In the late 1970s about 70 percent of jobs required a high school diploma or less. But now that about 60 percent of jobs require at least some post-secondary education, college is a necessity for job-seekers. This has increased demand for college programs teaching explicit job skills in fields that are hiring, or that link students to specific employment opportunities.

“College suddenly became the nation's workforce-preparation system,” Carnevale said. “Underneath all of it, everybody's paying more attention to careers.”

Added to that, higher-ed enrollment is trending downward. Overall, postsecondary enrollment decreased 1.3 percent in 2018's spring semester from a year earlier, according to a study by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. That marks the seventh consecutive year of shrinking student bodies, trade publication Inside Higher Ed said. In Connecticut, enrollment shrank by 0.21 percent between the fall of 2016 and fall of 2017, National Center for Education Statistics data show.

The slumping admissions trend is to be expected, Carnevale said. Colleges and universities typically see higher enrollment during economic recessions, but as the economy improves enrollment suffers.

Liberal arts still has value

Cardenas said questions about the utility of a liberal-arts degree are playing a role in Trinity's experimental partnership with Infosys.

“We're all part of the world,” Cardenas said. “We're aware of trends around us, and we all kind of soak that in and are responding to that in some way.”

But, she reasoned, liberal-arts students learn broadly applicable communication and leadership skills that are more difficult to acquire than technology know-how. Job-seekers with liberal-arts backgrounds complemented with tech skills could turn out to be more sought after than those without any competence in the humanities, she said.

At the University of St. Joseph, Free predicts blockchain-technology training will weave into the fabric of some humanities-based professions. Art history majors who go into the museum field, for example, could use blockchain to create a database of works and artifacts in order to verify authenticity.

But Free predicts University of St. Joseph could see a shifting focus among students in coming years and they want to cater to market demand.

In 2016-2017, there was 400 percent growth in job postings related to the blockchain industry on LinkedIn, followed by 700 percent growth in 2017-2018, USJ said. According to, 25.5 percent of all postings for “blockchain engineer” are between New York City and Boston.

“I think increasingly we will see students wanting to build strength in a career-related discipline like actuarial science or accounting, but then also continuing their preparation in the liberal arts,” Free said.

That's not novel thinking, said Lynn Pasquerella, president of the Association of American Colleges & Universities (AAC&U).

The association, which aims to advance the vitality and public standing of liberal-arts education, recently enlisted Washington-based Hart Research Associates to conduct a survey of 501 CEOs and 500 hiring managers at Fortune 500 companies to find out how they view the higher-education backgrounds of prospective hires, she said. Pasquerella said there's a disconnect between executives and hiring managers in the premium they place on a liberal-arts education.

“CEOs of Fortune 500 companies have said, 'Oh we love liberal-arts majors, we want people who have majored in the humanities,' but do your hiring managers know that? Are they actually hiring people with these degrees?” Pasquerella said. “There's been a false dichotomy in the narrative that disconnects curriculum to career, and there's nothing inconsistent about a liberal-arts education and career preparation.”

Core mission

As liberal-arts schools seek to promote themselves as places where students can receive job training, they should be cautious about drifting away from their core mission, which could alienate staffers and students, said Louis Soares, chief learning and innovation officer at the American Council on Education, a higher-ed advocacy group. However, there are ways in which institutions can have their cake and eat it too.

Partnering with businesses on internship programs fits this bill, Soares said. Liberal-arts schools can find businesses that connect with their curricula, and set up internship and apprenticeship programs, Soares said. Then students develop work skills as they advance soft skills studying the humanities.

That's the direction Mitchell College in New London took two years ago, when President Janet Steinmayer introduced a career-immersion model.

“It's a progressive involvement with our 50 local partners so that (students) begin to understand how their strengths and their interests and their coursework connects with what they'll do in the business market,” said Steinmayer. “Day one, they're … visiting our local partners and they're understanding, like at the Mystic Aquarium, that it's about science and oceanography, but it's also about having an HR department, and a marketing department.”

Participating partners from the Mystic Aquarium to Mohegan Sun offer students experience in a broad array of industries, Steinmayer said.

Another challenge in adding job-training programs can be professors' aversion to it, said Georgetown's Carnevale. But while some faculty may fret the idea of watering down liberal-arts studies, the job market favors graduates with specific skills.

For smaller liberal-arts schools without the benefit of broad name recognition, embracing the swing toward higher education as a job-training system — at least to some degree — will be necessary to their survival, he said.

“It matters less and less where you go, it matters more and more what (courses) you take,” Carnevale said. “You can educate the hell out of people, but if they end up living under a bridge, you've failed.”

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