The Liberal Arts and Leadership

Originally posted: May 14, 2012

First appeared in Inside Higher Ed

Today’s economic environment, with its stubbornly high level of unemployment, is pressuring liberal arts institutions to justify the “value proposition” offered by our undergraduate programs. This was one of the concerns that brought leaders together at Wake Forest University for a conference in April, focusing on careers and the liberal arts in the 21st century. In particular, we are being asked to explain how a liberal arts degree advances employment prospects at a challenging time that many believe favors immediately applicable, career-ready skills.

Along with my peers at other liberal arts colleges, I regularly articulate the value of a liberal arts education: providing interdisciplinary opportunities for analytical, problem-solving and adaptive learning that produce graduates who think creatively, innovatively and expansively; express themselves persuasively; and operate ethically as citizens committed to making a difference in a constantly transforming world.

Candidly, many people feel this rationale sounds more philosophical than practical. With more than a decade of experience in the field of career development, I could cite countless examples of liberal arts graduates who embody these skills and whose professional successes would quickly silence the prevailing rhetoric about the practicality of the liberal arts. But rather than cherry-pick stories from the hundreds of students I’ve advised, an analysis of the educational credentials of leaders in the business, nonprofit, and government sectors of our economy may help to stem the notion that a degree in the liberal arts is impractical.

According to the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching’s classification system, there are 270 U.S. baccalaureate colleges that offer arts and sciences programs — the designation that most closely aligns with the mission of liberal arts colleges and includes Grinnell and our peer institutions. These schools represent a subset of the 4,634 U.S. higher education institutions in the Carnegie database, and just 2.2 percent of students enrolled in U.S. undergraduate programs attend these colleges.

Consistent with these statistics, one might extrapolate that societal leaders would reflect a similar distribution with 2.2 percent holding degrees from baccalaureate institutions offering arts and sciences programs. However, after analyzing data from three distinct sources, a striking difference revealed itself – one that demonstrates a strong correlation between a liberal arts education and career leadership positions in the business, nonprofit and government sectors.

In researching the undergraduate institutions of leaders in these three broad fields, the Grinnell College communications team and I consulted three data sets: for businesses, the CEOs of Fortune 500 companies; for nonprofit organizations, leaders from The Chronicle of Philanthropy’s Philanthropy 400; and, for government, the 100 U.S. senators. In each case, the undergraduate institutions these leaders attended were coded in accordance with the Carnegie classification system.

Overall, 11.33 percent of the leaders across the above three sectors graduated from baccalaureate colleges that offer arts and sciences programs. That’s more than five times the expected 2.2 percent incidence of enrollment in baccalaureate arts and sciences colleges based on Carnegie’s classification. Looking at each sector individually, 11.75 percent of Philanthropy 400 leaders, 12 percent of U.S. Senators and 10.87 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs received their undergraduate education at baccalaureate arts and sciences colleges, i.e., liberal arts institutions.

These findings suggest that a liberal arts education may be a significant contributor to the career success of leaders in the business, government and nonprofit sectors. Today, perhaps more than ever, our nation’s leaders need to be able to strategically think and plan, deftly interpret changing global conditions, effectively marshal expansive resources and collaboratively guide teams of diverse people. Students at liberal arts colleges are challenged and supported to cultivate these skills throughout their coursework and co-curricular activities and then apply them during undergraduate research projects, volunteer experiences, and internships.

In today’s job market, many people are urging liberal arts colleges to refocus our academic efforts on career preparation. While those of us who lead career development programs at liberal arts institutions are very serious in our commitment to cultivating a dynamic learning community that allows students to grow and develop in remarkable ways, we also know that the educational experiences we offer are especially effective in fostering the enduring, broadly applicable skills needed for the workplace of tomorrow. In fact, the data presented here clearly illustrate that liberal arts graduates will not only be well-positioned for career success, but that many of them will be poised to become our nation’s next leaders.

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