The Power of the Liberal Arts

Having a bachelor’s degree implies a universally understood level of competence. It is evidence of time and skill dedicated to reaching a specific milestone. However, not all college educations are equal. The number of college graduates continues to grow each year. Before long the U.S. will be turning out roughly two million bachelor’s degree recipients annually, and it is difficult to believe all of those graduates are equally qualified.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, each year more than 30 million Americans work jobs that did not exist in previous years. Technology is advancing at an amazing pace, and globalization is making the world seem smaller while simultaneously opening up a plethora of opportunities. For businesses it means untapped markets. For nonprofit and humanitarian organizations it is the ability to serve more people. With the job market changing from year to year, asking colleges and universities to prepare their graduates for whatever may come their way is increasingly difficult. The career fields they were hoping for at the start of their educations might look entirely different by the time they earn their degrees.

What separates the average from the exceptional in terms of a college education can be seen in the type of student a school produces. Those that focus solely on imparting a particular set of skills or knowledge run the risk of turning out graduates who are ill-equipped to meet the demands of the constantly evolving workforce. Schools that develop critical thinking and inspire their students to be lifelong learners produce graduates who can solve problems and adapt to a variety of challenges. Perhaps nothing prepares today’s students better for the modern world than a liberal arts education.

Fighting the Misconceptions

To some, mention of the liberal arts evokes images of professors wistfully lecturing to students about Socrates, Plato or Aristotle. Critics envision drum circles and classes about poetry or philosophy – the types of subjects that are perceived to be entertaining food for thought but hardly the intellectual foundation on which students should build their futures. Parents cringe at the prospect of making abhorrently high tuition payments for years, only to have their children move back into the basement because they have no marketable skills. Those fears are rooted in antiquated stereotypes that could not be further from truth.

The sciences have always been key components of the liberal arts. Mathematics, geometry and astronomy were included in the original curriculum dating back to ancient Greece. As the wealth of human knowledge has expanded, so too have the courses that comprise a liberal arts education. Today’s liberal arts education is designed to give students a diverse range of knowledge, allowing them to be adaptable. Of Truman’s 48 undergraduate majors, physics, mathematics and computer science can be found alongside classics, language and art.

However, the power of a liberal arts education is derived from more than simply offering those courses. It comes from teaching students to recognize the interconnectivity of the different disciplines, coalesce their knowledge and apply it with purpose. Students who take those poetry and philosophy classes might gain the type of analytical and argumentative skills that will put them at the top of the class in law school. When a business administration major realizes things she learns in a health science class can be used to harness the optimal productivity of her future employees, or how an art class can help her relate to the marketing and communication team, she becomes a better leader. Graduates who understand the complex nature of the world are the ones best suited to stand out and make a difference, regardless of their fields of expertise.

Winning the Battle

The tide of public opinion may be turning in favor of the liberal arts. The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Chronicle of Higher Education are among the numerous publications to extoll the virtues of the liberal arts in the past few years. Forbes went so far as to debunk a traditional criticism in the headline of a July 2015 article entitled, “That ‘Useless’ Liberal Arts Degree Has Become Tech’s Hottest Ticket.” In it, the author pointed out how software companies have started to embrace the idea that the analytical skills of those trained in the liberal arts can be a boon for their business.

As that line of thinking continues to take hold, potential students are increasingly aware of what makes a Truman education unique.

“Many students we interact with already have some foundation of knowledge about Truman or are individuals who, to some degree, value education essentially for the sake of learning,” said Melody Chambers, director of admissions. “They may not fully understand what a liberal arts education means, but they commonly associate it with broad-based curriculum, and they may hope to see more direct connection between the course requirements and their potential career path.”

One reason for the renewed interest in the liberal arts may be the students who dominated college campuses for the last several years and who are now moving into adulthood. With the Millennial generation continuing to make up a larger portion of the workforce, they are influencing the job market and perhaps indirectly making a liberal arts education increasingly valuable. Among other things, Millennials are often associated with multiple career changes, as well as a penchant for seeking more meaningful work, particularly of a philanthropic nature. The well-rounded background that comes with a liberal arts education increases the chances for success in a market where individuals switch jobs on a regular basis.

“As they learn more about the University and the foundation of Truman degrees, we see students internalize how the experience will help them be educated for life, not just their first job,” Chambers said. “They see how a liberal arts education will prepare them for the unknown, will help them adapt to the changing needs of society and will arm them with the ability to think broadly and creatively as they begin to navigate a future none of us can even really imagine.”

Further evidence of the value of a liberal arts education can be seen in the University’s continued recognition among multiple college guide sources. This academic year marks the 20th in a row U.S. News & World Report has recognized Truman as the No. 1 public university in the Midwest region. In recent years the school has worked its way into numerous other rankings, and last fall Washington Monthly rated Truman as the No. 1 master’s university in the nation. Beyond the affordability angle, a growing number of college rankings have begun to consider factors like alumni job satisfaction and salary compensation, and those changes have proven the University to be more than just a good buy. Because of its liberal arts foundation, Truman is turning out the type of people the market is demanding. Truman graduates are consistently employed in fields they enjoy, and they are compensated well for their work. As the metrics adapt to reflect the concerns of potential students and their parents, Truman continues to shine brighter each year.

Standing with STEM

A cursory assessment of higher education in America would lead one to believe that STEM is the future and the only thing that matters right now. Industry shorthand for the disciplines of science, technology, engineering and mathematics, STEM is no doubt vital in today’s society. What might come as a surprise, though, is liberal arts schools are some of the biggest proponents of those fields and have the potential to turn out some of the most successful STEM graduates.

Widely categorized as a liberal arts school, Truman is officially designated as Missouri’s only public liberal arts and sciences university. The second part of that designation is more than just a semantic afterthought – it is the crux of what a modern liberal arts education entails. The underlying philosophy of the liberal arts is a complete circle of education. The circle could not be complete without including the sciences. They were a valuable part of the foundation in ancient Greece, and they are equally important in the contemporary curriculum. Truman did not shy away from the sciences when it became a liberal arts university – it embraced them. Evidence of an investment in the hard sciences can be seen in its graduation rates more than three decades later.

In 2015, Truman’s School of Science and Mathematics produced the same number of graduates as the School of Arts and Letters, despite offering less than half as many areas of concentration. The School of Health Sciences and Education topped those totals by nearly a hundred students while offering even fewer areas of concentration. Some of the most popular majors that year were exercise science, biology and business administration.

The University’s commitment to STEM is so thorough it has an office dedicated solely to supporting students pursing degrees in mathematics or science. The STEM Talent Expansion Programs Office, also known as STEP, provides scholarship and research opportunities for Truman students throughout their undergraduate experience.

On the national level, the push for STEM-focused training alone may have already reached critical mass. As a growing number of schools realize the importance of a balanced education, they have started to include an arts component with the other disciplines, resulting in STEAM. In some higher education circles, STEAM might be the next buzzword, but the idea behind it echoes what liberal arts institutions such as Truman have been doing for decades.

Making it Work

It is important to have graduates well versed in as many fields as possible. Employers have begun to realize technical proficiency in and of itself is not always sufficient. Hard skills combined with softer skills, like communication and leadership, tend to produce the best results and, therefore, the most valued graduates.

“Employers expect proficiency in the major but value the skills gained through the liberal arts,” said Polly Matteson, assistant director of Truman’s Career Center. “I always ask the employers what skills they seek with employees and how we can better prepare students for success. No matter the industry, I hear very similar responses that they need people who can solve problems and communicate well in a team structure. They also look for leadership experience. These are definitely skills Truman students gain through their major and liberal arts courses.”

Parents worried about their liberal arts-educated student returning home after college can take solace in the thought that their kid might end up being one of the most in-demand graduates in today’s job market. According to, the four-year graduation rate for liberal arts schools is 61 percent, compared to only 33 percent for other schools. Truman specifically has long been known for having the highest graduation rate of all public schools in Missouri. Truman also boasts incredibly high post-graduate outcomes. In 2015, more than 97 percent of responding students were either employed or in graduate school within six months of receiving their degree.

“From an employer perspective, Truman students in general easily acclimate to their post-graduate work environments and are able to quickly make valuable contributions,” Matteson said.

Education for One, Benefits for All

Admissions counselors at Truman realize parents and students typically have one thing in mind when choosing a school.

“Generally, people go to college because they want to accomplish a specific goal that includes graduate/professional school or employment,” Chambers said. “Truman has a great track record of preparing students to lead meaningful lives. We attract students who are actively engaged in their education, and the young people we interact with directly have often found considerable success in their previous endeavors. They are used to success and have some level of expectation that they are prepared to continue on that path.”

Understanding the necessity to meet the wants and needs of students, Truman goes to great lengths to ensure they can get jobs when they graduate. The University hosts the Career and Grad School Expo twice a year. Through the Career Center, every student has access to a job board account where internship and employment opportunities are posted regularly. A glance at the University Master Calendar will reveal any number of informational meetings for students interested in gaining some type of transformative experience that could lead to advancing their future careers.

All that being said, employment is not the only goal the University has in mind. A liberal arts education is about more than preparing students for careers – it is about producing educated individuals who can apply their knowledge to the best use of society as a whole.

In Truman’s vision statement, the words career, job or employment are nowhere to be found. The roughly 500-word treatise does, however, include multiple entries of some version of the words educate, student, thought, leader, and citizen. Those five words might be the difference between a good education and a great education. For most students, jobs will come. For the fully educated, they will have the chance to make a transformative difference in society. As the vision statement reads, Truman seeks to create “educated citizens needed to protect our democracy and offer creative solutions to local, state, national and global problems.”

With a multifaceted approach to knowledge, a liberal arts education provides a variety of ways to make the most of the opportunities that lie ahead. Complex problems have complex solutions, and a singular discipline or mindset alone will not be enough to untangle future world issues. As meaningful as it is for the individual student, the true power of a liberal arts education comes from what it can do for the benefit of all.

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