Tuesday, June 21, 2011


Transfer as a Get Out of Jail Free Card

This piece in Salon has drawn some attention lately. It's a recounting of an academic advisor's usual responses to parents who ask, regarding their children who have chosen liberal arts majors, what they're going to do with that. The piece basically sides with the parents, noting that the combination of a backbreaking recession, what Richard Florida calls a “reset,” and record-high student loan burdens makes the usual question much more relevant than it once was. The author wrings her hands a bit, but essentially concludes that the folks asking the question have a much more valid point than most academics would like to admit.

I'll confess that one of the perks of working at a community college is that we have an easy answer for that one. You use the liberal arts major to transfer. What happens after that, you can discuss with the destination school. Next!

The great virtue of this answer is that it's true. Although the 'workforce development' side of things gets most of the attention, the largest major on campus is the transfer major. It's built around gen ed requirements, and that's by design. It's supposed to fulfill the distribution requirements for most liberal arts majors, and to give students a chance to sample electives in various disciplines while they're here. The idea is that when they move on, they will receive full credit for the first two years of their four-year degree, and will have done so at much lower cost. And we have articulation agreements and statewide mandates to ensure that this actually happens.

I know I shouldn't make predictions, but I'll venture a pretty conservative one: I hereby predict...and you can hold me to this...that the cost of four-year colleges will continue to go up. And since they're starting from a dramatically higher base than most nearby cc's, even smaller percentage increases will amount to larger absolute increases. (That is, five percent of $50,000 is more than ten percent of $3,000.) Put differently, the cost savings of a cc – as opposed to the first two years of the typical four-year school – will continue to increase.

As long as that's true, I'd expect to see the transfer function continue to thrive. Intro to Psych doesn't change dramatically from one college to another, so why not take it where it's affordable and convenient?

That's not to say that evasion is the only answer, of course. We all know the usual responses to “what are you going to do with that?” Communication skills are crucial in any professional job; you need to learn how to learn; adaptability is key in a rapidly-changing economy; it’s good in itself to be a well-educated person. Those are all true, as far as they go. I’d also add that chasing this year’s hot field is a serious roll of the dice; these things are notoriously cyclical. In the 90’s, petroleum engineers were not hot at all; now, they can write their own tickets. A few years ago, new nurses were rock stars; now, they have to scrap like everybody else. That’s not to say that you shouldn’t study something hot, of course; if you love what you’re doing, you stand a good chance of succeeding whichever way the wind blows. If you want to be a nurse because that’s what you’ve always wanted to be, then by all means, go for it. You’ll be the nurse I’ll want to have. But if you’re doing it because it’s the only way you can see to make money, I’d recommend pausing to reconsider.

From the provider’s perspective, the two-year perch is a pretty good place to be. You wouldn’t know it from the popular discussion, but the liberal arts disciplines live remarkably guilt-free (or angst-free, if you prefer) at the two-year level. Sometimes I forget how oppressive that vague sense of guilt can be at higher levels.

Wise and worldly readers, have you developed an elegant answer to “what are you going to do with that?”

Link to the Salon piece doesn't work - you need to remove the last 4 characters (everything after .html).
"What are you going to do with that [BA and MA in history, focusing on medieval Europe]?"

Answer: Anything I want! Now, obviously, that MA in history isn't going to make me a scientist, or a doctor, or an engineer, or a manager, but that's not the value of the degree. The value, as I see it, lies in the skills you develop while pursuing that degree. So the main skills I developed - critical thinking and reading, organization, examine a variety of threads and tie them together, break topics down into simpler ideas, focus on an overall idea for a relatively long period of time, answer questions and discuss ideas with people higher up the food chain - plus my continuing enthusiasm for learning, are important for almost any job.
I've got to disagree with the comment on nursing not being a hot job anymore. Having worked in a nursing program and having family and friends who are nurses, it's still the place to be. Is the money as high as it was 4 years ago? No. But instead of 5k signing bonus they get 2k. I didn't get any signing bonus. And jobs are still plentiful and will only increase. My sister (the nurse) and I both essientally work for the "state". I'm in the university system and she's in the hospital/med system. For the past 3 years, she's gotten raises (merit and COLA), can get extra vacation time for meeting goals and has had no furlough. I (and my higher ed colleagues) have seen no raises on any front, furloughs for the last 3 years and I can't even give gift cards for coffee to my staff for meeting goals. My institution was lucky to continue hiring unlike the rest of our sister schools.

I agree with DD's answer regarding transferring. It's my bread and butter. Personally, I would encourage students to narrow down their field of interest as much as possible. There isn't any reason you can't change your major.
Now, obviously, that MA in history isn't going to make me a scientist, or a doctor, or an engineer, or a manager, but that's not the value of the degree.

A business management degree won't make someone a manager. Many history majors are far more equipped for management than some of the B-school students I see going through my Directional State U.
My answer is to employ the Zen technique of un-asking the question. At the CC level, that question is based on a false premise.

The Salon article is not talking about our AA "liberal arts" degree. (God save us if we ever offer a 2-year AS degree in Medieval History!) Any answer you come up with should emphasize that distinction. You might want to recast it (rebrand it?) as a "transfer" degree.

However, despite the fact that many of my future engineering students see most of those gen-ed classes as something to get "out of the way" at the lowest possible cost, I would never market the college that way because I think it is counterproductive. Just be happy they are thinking that themselves as you position the electives in your AA degree to meet all of the transfer requirements for business, engineering, etc, and sell that as an economical win-win for them.

I say this because they need to have all of us on the faculty push the value of the critical thinking skills they need, without marketing telling a different story. Indeed, my only complaint is that our communications classes don't turn out students who all can write a decent paragraph describing what they did in the lab or selling their project to management.

The exception is nursing. There the AS Nursing degree offers a faster track to the RN because it includes only a minimal amount of liberal arts classes. You can market that. And if they want to go further, there are RN to BSRN programs they can pursue after they have a job.
On the liberal arts: I think too many students blindly follow the formula

1) Study something you like or is easy
2) ????
3) Profit

when it doesn't work that anymore. Sure, you can parlay your love of ancient history or population genetics in careers, but it doesn't mean that it will be easy, or the kind of career that you ultimately want. And this is true regardless of where one studies.
1. I majored in computer science and mathematics, so my response is "get a real job without having to worry about it."

2. There may be inherent value in a lib arts degree. But when cost of said degree exceeds the value of said degree, you have a real problem -- nobody wants to pay for an overpriced good if they can help it. Everybody wants a "deal," nobody wants to get ripped off.

These days, the value proposition (the Salon writer asserts she paid $120k to UVA) almost comes down to "you can buy a house or you can go to college." If my house was paid for and I had no student loans, I'm pretty sure I can get by on $10/hr. Heck, before I started grad school, I had a semi-skilled blue collar job (no college required) paying $15/hr+OT. My sup was making $20.
I understand that we're talking here about CC or similar level liberal arts, but recently the Times Higher Education website had an insightful article about humanities PhDs. You can find it here:


Understanding that one company cannot set a global trend, I still find it encouraging that there are top-tier employers saying that the humanities are important. As a recent BA grad from Canada, I'm happy to hear those things, especially since I've decided to continue into an MA and possibly PhD. Yes, there is a cost involved, but fulfillment is a remarkable motivator.
...have you developed an elegant answer to “what are you going to do with that?”

My wife's nephew was a double major as an undergrad--political science and...

Well, when he was asked what he intended to do with a poli sci major, he'd respond, "I can always fall back on my philosophy major."

But seriously. Grad school. (He went to law school.)

I was initially an unergrad history major, intending to go to law school (target: Supreme Court justice). Then I took an econ class and switched majors, eventually deciding I didn't want to leave college. So, grad school. And now, 42 years later, I still haven't left college...

Not that my strategy will work for everyone, but the grad school part seems generalizable.

Grad school. Not just for aspiring academics. And so much more fun than real life.
I'm a big fan of the liberal arts, having spent 9 of my 12 years of post-secondary education there...but I think that the "what are you going to do with that?" question is one that is harder and harder to answer.

I've come to believe that the "communication skills/critical thinking" line is too facile. For one, the liberal arts are far from the only place you can learn these skills; for another, communications skills and critical thinking skills won't take you very far if you have nothing of substance *to* communicate; likewise, critical thinking about *nothing in particular* isn't really that helpful in most jobs.

And of course it's not at all the case that all (or even most) liberal arts grads have excellent communications/critical thinking skills - the B student who is majoring in English because he couldn't get into the college of business where he really wanted to be (and there are many of these) is a very different student from the student pursuing a passion for French poetry.

So I really don't think that there's a good answer to the question...and I think that students wanting to study the liberal arts who don't want to work at starbucks for most of their 20's need an additional vocational track, be it a double major in English and Chemistry, documented web design experience picked up on the side, or a plan to go to professional school after the undergrad/MA.
Some lovely sea stories on this comment thread. What can one do with that liberal arts degree? Whatever one wants to do next, since he or she will have learned the necessary skills to make sense of applications, trends and such things. the liberal arts type will also, one hopes, exit his or her progtram with the social/cultural contextual knowledge needed to make sense of the World As It Is and why it is as it is.

What did I do with that degree in French? I roughnecked, and made just on $20 per hour--in 1979. I finally managed to earn something close to this as an historian about four years ago. So, the sense of humor I developed in undergrad came in handy, too.
What I tell my students (English majors, but also students across disciplines in my gen ed courses) is this: any degree is as good as the skills that you acquire in the earning of it and the experiences that you have while pursuing it that demonstrate your mastery of those skills. So, for example, an English degree may seem, on paper "useless" (i.e., not related to a direct career path) while a degree in journalism might seem "practical (i.e., related to a direct career path). HOWEVER: an English major who takes the opportunity to explore internships, to do paid work while in school that relates to career opportunities he/she will pursue after the degree, and who chooses a minor that complements those skills in the major that speaks to future career goals is going to have an easier time finding employment upon graduation than a journalism student (or business or whatever) who has just shown up for his/her classes and who hasn't done those things. In other words, what you'll be able to "do with that" liberal arts degree - or any degree for that matter - depends a lot on what you do while you're earning the degree.

And then I give my students examples of what former majors have done with their degrees. It's really not that difficult of a question to answer in a straight-forward and practical fashion.
I took my philosophy degree and turned it into management in medical research.  Yes, my first job out of college was as a secretary at near minimum wage.  So was my second job.  And my third and my fourth- all in my first year out of college as I hustled up better opportunities.  At job #4 I discovered that the big boss had a problem: about 20 rolodexes with a complicated filing system.  I asked if I could fix it.  I wrote the database (learned how from videos I watched after work) and typed in all the data.  That was the start of my "real" career.  Yes, you can have a career.  But you have to take the job you are qualified for (parents who insulate their graduates from this requirement are doing them no favors!) and make your own way.  For the first 5 years of my career I still knew people at each of those first four jobs who were still complaining that no one had "given" them a chance.
I'm almost certainly blinded by the conversation going on around me here in Texas about the "productivity" of higher ed faculty and institutions, about how "efficiently" we provide "service" to our "customers." But even so, I can't help viewing this discussion in light of market principles.

Is it really appropriate even to ask "should we be teaching this" when there's clearly an enormous demand for humanities and liberal arts courses and majors? If the students want to take these courses -- and I believe they are adult enough (most of them) to know the risks -- then who are we to say they shouldn't?

This is, after all, how intellectual development happens -- students pursuing, sometimes very obliquely, their curiosities and passions. The social, and even economic, benefits of such exploration are real and valuable.

And, also, humanities courses are among the cheapest to offer: lots of students, one prof, few supplies and materials, no labs. They're the bread and butter of higher ed. We can't afford to replace them with welding.
I would rather look at this from the other direction: are people with degrees in "Business" or "Compuer Programming" coming out of college truly educated in any meaningful sense of the word? Have they even been exposed to the foundational texts and ideas of our culture? Do they know any history? Isn't this grounding in the "general ed" "liberal arts" courses really the only thing that separates a university education from a trade school?
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