More Colleges Give Majors a Professional Spin

Draped in an academic gown, you take the long-awaited walk across the dais, get that hard-won scroll, then walk proudly offstage. Family is waiting to greet you with hugs and congratulations.

Then what? Has your college background landed you a job? For many fresh graduates, the answer is: Well, no, not yet.

As a result, many colleges and universities have been taking a hard look at their curriculum and are reshaping courses and creating career-driven majors that meet the new demands of today's marketplace. The courses reflect a range of workplace needs, but communications, the environment, health services, international trade, and varied electronic and other fast-changing technologies figure prominently.

"National statistics indicate that the typical baccalaureate approach is not accomplishing society's needs," says Roger Perry, president of Champlain College in Burlington, Vt. "We cannot address the issues of unemployment in our urban areas and underemployment of college graduates through rhetoric."

His viewpoint is echoed by many deans and academic administrators. But it also reflects a growing concern among students themselves, who are concerned about the future relevance of their degrees.

"You'll find more and more students highly sensitive to what happens after college," says Roger E. Herman, business futurist and author of "Turbulence!" "They're thinking beyond the college experience to the process of life planning. I forecast that people will change jobs every two to four years ...and many will move into jobs that don't even exist today."

Listening to employers

At Chippewa Valley Technical College, that concern is prompting changes in their already career-oriented mission. Its president, Bill Ihlenfeldt, is in the process of overhauling the entire course structure and has told faculty his priorities in no uncertain terms: a curriculum designed for and by employers; a college that makes a priority of student success; and flexibility in offerings that allow students to respond to specific employer requirements.

And at Virginia Commonwealth University's School of Mass Communications, a "21st century newsroom" is being created so print students can learn about computer-assisted reporting and familiarize themselves with multimedia news vehicles.

Other colleges teach communications by combining existing courses in a hybrid major. Franklin Pierce College in Rindge, N.H., for instance, now offers an information-technology major combining three former majors: computer science, graphic communications, and mass communications.

Even at graduate schools, already geared toward placing graduates in jobs, a more responsive approach to the marketplace is under way.

The University of Alabama's MBA program, for example, has been honing a second-year concentration in consulting work. "A couple of years back, we began to work actively with our clients [the recruiters] to better design a product that met their needs," says the director, Lawrence Foster. The school's engineering sciences are moving in the same direction, he adds.

"In all cases, however, we are making the effort to be driven not by the transitory question of where the jobs are," Mr. Foster says, "but by the more important one of what skills are important."

At the community-college level, employer criteria are increasingly the guideline in the evolution of courses. Isa Englebergh, the curriculum administrator for Georges Community College in Annedale, Va., has been monitoring, among other sources, a national survey of the skills sought by employers. Then she examines her school's courses to see how well they are responding.

So how about a major in professional golf management? Don't laugh. The school - which also offers a new music-industry major -has roughly a 93 percent placement rate.

But what about Homer?

But not everyone is enthusiastic about career-driven majors, no matter how helpful they are at landing a first job.

For starters, critics argue, the marketplace changes so fast that students may be locking themselves into obsolescence by getting too focused. What's needed in today's fast-paced world, they claim, are the kind of problem-solving analytical skills that a liberal-arts education supplies.

Increased pragmatism

Increased pragmatism in choice of colleges and majors is emerging as the theme in a study on "the nature, purpose, and value of a liberal-arts education," conducted by Hobart and William Smith Colleges in Geneva, N.Y., and Daniel Yankelovich's DYG research service.

Although still being written, the study's results show that in the view of parents and their college-bound children, "a college education is primarily to get a job and to develop a career," says HWS president Richard Hersh. "That is it in a nutshell. That is the goal of higher education."

Mr. Hersh, who is an active member of the Annapolis Group, an alliance of liberal-arts college presidents seeking to promote the benefits of a liberal-arts education, points to the comments of executives and resource managers in defense of his perspective.

"They say you've got to have people of judgment, critical thinking, problem-solving, the ability to present themselves well orally and in written form. People with cross-cultural skills and adept at foreign languages," he says.

Hersh says that sounds suspiciously like what you get from a liberal-arts education. "You gain these skills from literature and history and language and writing and oral presentation and feedback, feedback, feedback from other human beings."

Behind the burgeoning of these new majors is a philosophy shared by many of these schools about how students learn to understand the real world. Most students, the reasoning goes, learn inductively, by dealing with concrete examples and eventually drawing general conclusions.

"Colleges and universities must start teaching the way most people learn," says Champlain's Perry. His own college uses a "two-plus-two" program. Instead of beginning a bachelor's degree as a freshman and spending four years earning it, students can earn associate degrees in a career field before the college accepts them in its baccalaureate program.

But employability also looms large in the minds of many college students. "We do hear from students, and perhaps more often from parents, whose notion of education is something that leads to a specific job," says Glen Johnson, associate dean for undergraduates programs, arts and sciences, at Catholic University in Washington, D.C., a traditional liberal-arts institution.

In response, four years ago the school created a communications studies program. "We designed this as a liberal-arts program that would also provide basic skills that the field demands," says Dean Johnson. "Students have responded well to that conception, and potential employers say, anyway, that this is what they want - a graduate who can write, read, think analytically, and know something about the basic mechanics of the profession."

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