Volume 8, Number 2
Is Majoring in the Traditional Arts and Sciences Preparing Students for the New Economy?
by Tricia A. Seifert
Postdoctoral Research Scholar
Center for Research on Undergraduate Education at the University of Iowa
and Gregory C. Wolniak
NORC (National Opinion Research Center) at the University of Chicago
For years, liberal arts advocates, higher education professionals, and many employers have asserted that traditional arts and science disciplines develop broad habits of mind rather than narrowly focused job-specific skills. These broad habits of mind, like critical thinking and effective communication, are believed to provide students with life skills that transfer between professional and personal domains. In today's economic context, workers in the new knowledge economy engage in solving new and novel problems with colleagues from around the globe. Success depends on thinking critically and creatively, communicating effectively within diverse work groups, and being adept at using appropriate technology. There appear clear similarities between the broad habits of mind historically linked with liberal arts and sciences and those competencies deemed necessary for professional success in the new economy. What remains unclear, however, is whether a liberal arts education really fosters student development in a manner that is substantively aligned with the contemporary economic context.
Liberal arts advocates have long argued that studying traditional arts and sciences disciplines effectively prepares students for successful professional and personal lives. Critics, on the other hand, have argued that liberal arts colleges and traditional disciplines alone do not adequately prepare students for the world of work, and trends in higher education enrollment appear to support this claim. During the past thirty years, interest in the traditional arts and science fields has been dramatically in decline, while interest in occupational and professional programs has exponentially increased. Students seeking majors closely connected with careers have been consistently and increasingly choosing to study more occupationally oriented majors.
The confluence of increasingly global knowledge, the competencies necessary for career success in the new millennium, and the rise of students favoring professionally oriented majors calls for an improved understanding of the relationship between college majors, along with the development of competencies relevant to the modern economy. Societal perceptions, which view the goals and benefits of a liberal arts education as disconnected from the development of tangible career skills, are among the historic challenges faced by liberal arts colleges and the liberal arts curriculum. Only recently have social scientists begun rigorously and empirically examining the liberal arts to identify if such perceptions are misinformed or accurate. Continuing along this line of research, our study uses data from three cohorts of alumni who attended public and private colleges in the Appalachian Region to examine the relationship between college major and alumni reports of how their college experience impacted their development of competencies necessary for success in the twenty-first century workplace.
Sample and Survey Instrument
We collected data for this study in 2001 with the purpose of studying the effects of a small group of liberal arts colleges (both religiously affiliated and secular) on the personal and occupational lives of their graduates. We surveyed alumni from three graduation cohorts (graduates from the classes of 1974-76, 1984-86, and 1994-96) from 30 private and public colleges in or near the Appalachian Region. We then matched these respondents with data collected prior to college on the ACT assessment. Together, the data provided us with a precollege and postcollege picture of the alumni with information covering a wide range of demographic, socioeconomic, and ability characteristics prior to college; information on college experiences; and lifestyle and occupational information following college.
We were interested in better understanding how college majors affect development in three areas associated with success in the knowledge economy. We constructed three distinct scales representing competencies that the literature suggested were important for the twenty-first century workplace. Each scale measured alumni responses as to how much their college experience influenced their development of professional competencies, cross-cultural cooperation and citizenship competencies, and technical competencies. High inter-item reliability accompanied each scale (ranging from alpha = 0.67 to 0.86), indicating that the items within each scale capture information about the same overarching concept and therefore may be treated as a single, scaled variable.
We defined the Professional Competency in terms of:
Developing original ideas or products
Improving thinking and reasoning skills
Developing problem-solving skills
Speaking and writing effectively
Developing leadership skills
Developing ethical standards and leadership skills
We defined the Cross-Cultural Cooperation and Citizenship Competency as:
Getting along with people of different attitudes and opinions from my own
Interacting well with people from racial groups and cultures different than one's own
Awareness of environmental issues
Understanding international issues
Working as a team member
Exercising my rights, responsibilities, and privileges as a citizen
Finally, we defined Technical Competency in terms of:
Applying scientific knowledge and skills
Applying mathematics and statistics
Applying computer and technological skills
The primary independent variable in the study was undergraduate major field of study. We coded college major into a set of variables, which included both traditional arts and science majors and those majors that were applied or preprofessional in nature. Our traditional arts and science majors included arts and humanities, mathematics and natural sciences, and social sciences. Our applied or preprofessional majors included business, education, computer science and engineering, health sciences, and other technical/applied fields. Because the largest percentage of our alumni sample majored in business, business majors serve as our comparison group. In other words, in all of our analyses, we compare each major to those alumni who were business majors.
We wanted to be sure that any relationship that we found between college major and the development of twenty-first century knowledge economy competencies was not due to other confounding variables. For this reason, we took into account alumni gender, race, parents' education, family income, whether the alumni lived in Appalachia during high school, alumni education aspirations, ACT score, the cohort in which they graduated (1974-1976, 1984-1986, 1994-1996), the selectivity of the college, and their college grades. In other words, our analyses statistically controlled for any effects that these control variables may have had on alumni development of knowledge economy competencies.
We conducted our analyses in two stages. In the first stage, we estimated what unique effect college major had on alumni development of the knowledge economy competencies, controlling for demographic, socioeconomic, and precollege as well as college academic characteristics. Because some have asserted majoring in the traditional arts and science disciplines has a more potent effect at liberal arts colleges due to a common educational experience, in the second stage, we tested to see if the effect of major on development varied by type of institution attended (liberal arts college versus public comprehensive institution). If this interaction effect was statistically significant, it would suggest that the effects of college major on the development of competencies for the new economy differed in direction or magnitude by institution type.
Summary of Results
Our first major finding was that college major did, in fact, have a statistically significant effect on alumni reports of college impact on their development of knowledge economy competencies, controlling for alumni demographic, socioeconomic, and precollege academic characteristics. With business majors as our comparison group, we found alumni who majored in the traditional arts and sciences (i.e., arts and humanities, math and science, and social science majors) reported distinctly greater development in both professional and cross-cultural competencies, with the exception of arts and humanities majors who were not advantaged in their cross-cultural competency development. Alumni who majored in education experienced developmental advantages similar to those in the traditional arts and sciences, while computer science/engineering and health science majors reported significantly lower levels of development. Interestingly, with the exception of math and science majors (who had a significant advantage over business majors on all three of the competency scales), those majors that had significantly greater development of professional or cross-cultural competencies were also found to report lower levels of technical competence compared to their peers who majored in business. The table below provides a visual representation of the college majors we found to have statistically significant effects on the development of knowledge economy competencies. We list the majors in the order of the effects with the greatest magnitude in the development of knowledge economy competencies compared to business majors, controlling for differences in alumni demographic, socioeconomic, and academic characteristics.
Second, our results suggest that alumni who attended a liberal arts college, compared to a comprehensive university, reported greater levels of college impact on the development of professional and cross-cultural competencies but no difference in terms of developing technical competencies. However, the effect of college major on the development of knowledge economy competencies did not vary by institution type. In other words, the effects of college major on the development of twenty-first century workplace competencies displayed in the table held regardless of whether alumni attended a liberal arts college or a comprehensive university.
Note: All comparisons are made with Business as the reference category. Thus, the positive effect of Arts & Humanities (compared to Business) on Professional Competency was larger than the positive effect of Social Science (compared to Business). n.s. indicates the effect of the major was not significantly different from Business.
Higher education researchers and supporters have long advocated for higher education experiences and environments that provide traditional arts and science majors a professional orientation, and preprofessional majors a solid foundation in liberal learning. To the extent that this holistic education can operate through the college major, our findings suggest it matters little where students attend college. The functions of the major seem to operate similarly regardless of institutional type. In terms of optimally producing twenty-first century workplace competencies, students' choice of college major, however, seems to make a difference.
In the past several decades, students have been trending away from choosing a traditional arts and sciences major in favor of preprofessional majors. Our findings suggest that if this trend continues, students may graduate without having developed in areas important for success in the twenty-first century workplace. Although traditional arts and science majors reported a greater positive impact on development of twenty-first century workplace competencies than their counterparts in preprofessional majors, it is precisely the traditional arts and sciences disciplines that have experienced the most acute student disinvestment in the last three decades.
Understanding college majors in relation to twenty-first century workplace competencies is necessary for identifying meaningful pedagogies and optimizing investments among students and higher education's stakeholders. Our results suggest that, for example, the kinds of college environments conducive to developing technical competencies may be quite distinct from the environments needed for developing professional and cross-cultural competencies, although we also found that alumni who majored in math and science fields most consistently developed in all three competency areas. It may be that the college environments fostered through math and science disciplines are worth modeling for the twenty-first century workplace.
This study contributes to our general understanding of higher education in relation to the changing economy, with a focus on the liberal arts and sciences. At the very least, this study may inspire increased attention to educational experiences and environments that are ultimately most likely to provide students with the competencies necessary to meet the demands of the twenty-first century workplace while enhancing arguments in favor of the relevancy of traditional liberal arts and sciences in the modern economic context.
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