June 19, 2004

New Course for Liberal Arts: Intro to Job Market


Ting-Li Wang/The New York Times
Toni J. Nicolino, who will enter her senior year at New York University in the fall, plans to take two courses in the "Professional Edge" program. This summer, she is an intern at American Cheerleader Magazine.

Matthew Santirocco is a scholar of ancient Greek and Latin poetry, and a strong advocate of the liberal arts. But as dean of the College of Arts and Science at New York University, he is also under siege from parents paying mammoth tuition bills who want to make sure their children will land the right jobs.

So, in a concession that would have been unlikely 20 years ago, Dr. Santirocco has begun to invite liberal arts students to sign up for vocational courses in N.Y.U.'s School of Continuing and Professional Studies.

They will not dilute their liberal arts studies, he says, since they will not receive credit toward their degrees. But he expects the program, "Professional Edge," to help prepare students for the job market. An art history major, for example, might learn how to appraise art. A foreign language student might take courses in how to become a translator.

"I don't want to sell out the liberal arts to vocationalism," Dr. Santirocco said. "But then, I say, I'd like to do add-ons, create some interschool programs."

N.Y.U. is one of a growing handful of colleges and universities taking this approach; still others are talking about it. After years of sending students out for internships to give them a taste of a possible career, college officials are beginning to look for ways to turn their faculty and classes to bolstering the career prospects of their liberal arts students.

The phenomenon takes many forms. Some universities, like the University of Southern California and Columbia, are letting students take career-oriented classes in their professional schools - classes on finance or public health, for example - and giving them academic credit. N.Y.U., which already allowed liberal arts students to take courses in its professional schools, is now also letting students take classes at its School of Continuing and Professional Education to provide even more specialized vocational classes. Colgate will be offering introductory career courses during vacations. And the University of Virginia, which had offered a postgraduation immersion program in business in the summer, began offering similar courses during the school year last fall. (Students pay extra.) But while some see these courses as a sensible extra that will ultimately help protect the liberal arts degree, some liberal arts educators vehemently oppose the idea of trying squeeze professional training into students' schedules.

Anthony Marx, the president of Amherst College, said that if students had more time they should "go deeper into the liberal arts, because that is the seed corn of an intellectual life and informed citizenship."

"To dilute the power of the liberal arts with premature professionalism will deprive our society of the thoughtful leadership it needs," Mr. Marx added.

Dr. Santirocco said students and parents at N.Y.U. seemed to like the idea that the professional training was "an add-on, not in place of a liberal arts education."

The belief that college should train students for a career is widely held. When more than 1,000 adults were asked about the primary purpose of a college education in a survey four years ago, 64 percent said it was to prepare students for specific careers, 16 percent said it was to prepare students for work in general, and only 19 percent said it was to provide students with general knowledge. (An additional 2 percent said they did not know.)

The survey was conducted among working adults and those looking for work by the Center for Survey Research and Analysis at the University of Connecticut.

The increased focus on careers has developed in the last few decades. As recently as 1968, nearly half of all bachelor's degrees were in the arts and sciences, said Sarah E. Turner, an economist at the University of Virginia and a visiting scholar at the Russell Sage Foundation. But by 1983, they had fallen to 25 percent, and they have stayed below 30 percent since then.

The decline has occurred even at liberal arts colleges, said David Breneman, dean of the Curry School of Education at Virginia. Of 541 private liberal arts colleges that he studied, only 212 were giving at least 40 percent of their degrees in the arts and sciences in the late 1980's.

"In the 1960's, the dominant thing kids wanted to develop was a philosophy of life," Dean Breneman said, citing the annual freshman survey conducted by the University of California, Los Angeles, and the American Council on Education. "They were going to college for idealistic reasons. Then making money just shot to the front."

College officials are well aware of these attitudes, but are trying to protect liberal arts education.

Five years ago, Columbia University decided to allow undergraduates to take up to four courses for credit at its professional schools; previously, seniors had been allowed to take one course in the business school.

Kathryn B. Yatrakis, dean of academic affairs at Columbia College, said there had been accusations that the college was giving up its commitment to liberal arts education, but "that was ridiculous."

This year, Colgate University is introducing a "Gateway Program," which will offer short, noncredit courses in fields like law, journalism, marketing and finance, during winter break and the summer.

"We continue to think that a liberal arts education is valuable in the new economy," said Adam Weinberg, a dean at Colgate. "But it is important for students to know the language - the jargon - when they go on the job market."

Richard J. Light, a professor of education at Harvard and author of "Making the Most of College" (Harvard University Press, 2001), said that the topic of doing more to help students acquire job skills came up on all the campuses he visited. "The administrators get it," he said. "But they are struggling with what to do."

Some professors, like James Shapiro, a Shakespeare scholar at Columbia, have begun to devise their own ways to help their students make the transition from the liberal arts to careers. Dr. Shapiro introduced a course on book reviewing last fall, to steep his students in the genre and instruct them in the craft.

"I'm as committed to the liberal arts as anyone," he said. "But there are ways of rethinking the curriculum that will help them with their careers after graduation. This was an experiment for me that confirmed that there are ways of bridging the kind of writing that people want to do after school, with the kinds of things they are studying as English majors."

At the University of Washington in Seattle, liberal arts students are permitted to take courses in the university's professional schools for credit. Tim Washburn, assistant vice president for enrollment services, said he expected interest in the N.Y.U. program to be high.

"Students are looking for an edge," Mr. Washburn said. "If you have two or three majors and an internship and a certificate, your résumé is going to be a little thicker."

At the University of Southern California, Joseph Aoun, dean of the College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, said that after the university revamped the undergraduate curriculum six years ago to encourage students to take double majors and minors, the number of liberal arts students taking minors in the university's professional schools "increased phenomenally."

The minors include liberal arts disciplines, but also more vocational fields like music recording, occupational therapy and advertising.

"It is becoming the culture," Dean Aoun said.

N.Y.U. is limiting its new program to its strongest students: juniors and seniors with a 3.5 grade-point average or above. They will not receive academic credit for the courses- or be charged for them - but will be eligible for certificates if they take enough courses, perhaps five or six in one area.

N.Y.U. is offering 25 certificates, including graphic design, real estate finance and intellectual property law. Courses might be offered once a week for a semester, over a weekend, or in a couple of evenings.

Toni J. Nicolino, who hopes to work at a magazine after graduation and is an intern at "American Cheerleader Magazine" this summer, plans to take two of the N.Y.U. courses in the fall, on magazine advertising and marketing and on magazine production.

"I don't know how much it will benefit me," said Ms. Nicolino, who is entering her senior year. "But I am really interested in magazine editing and I figured I want to learn this stuff. So even if it doesn't benefit me, hey, it's free, and I'm sure I'll love it."

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