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Liberal arts watch: Colleges appeal to students with ‘purposeful work’

Why We Wrote This

Is college meant to prepare students for jobs or to help them be better thinkers? Liberal arts colleges in the United States, increasingly defending their content, have found a way to do both.

Steven Senne/AP/File
Nam Luu speaks with fellow Connecticut College students in the library’s cafe and study space in New London in 2016. The school, a participant in a ‘purposeful work’ conference of liberal arts institutions this spring, engages students in career planning during freshman year.

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How to parlay a history major into a well-paying job has long been an issue for colleges to contend with. But a confluence of events, from the recession of 2008 to changing views about how to prepare for a life of work, are forcing liberal arts schools to defend their offerings as never before. Some schools have decided to incorporate “purposeful work” into their culture. Helping students connect coursework and more meaningful career goals is one way to change perceptions, administrators reason. And, they say, it fits with the search for purpose that many of today’s students indicate they want. Alex Cullen, an English and environmental studies major at Bates College, took a course in the spring taught by a freelance writer on science journalism and communication. Journalism may not end up being her calling, but she says her experience is helping her plan for her future. “You can learn something in the classroom a million times, and it might be interesting there or sound interesting,” she says, “but you’re not really going to know how you feel about it until you're ... out there in the field performing the work.”

Across the United States, liberal arts colleges are facing steep challenges.

Fewer students are convinced that a generalist approach will land them a job after graduation, experts say, and for low-income students, that perception is especially pervasive. Enrollment in liberal arts programs has fallen since the 1960s and several colleges have recently considered slashing majors or even closing.

But a growing number of institutions are responding by helping students explore career aspirations in ways that feel meaningful. The efforts go by different names, but many campuses have settled on the term “purposeful work” because of its emphasis on finding deeper fulfillment – not simply a job offer – after graduation.

“Everybody’s talking about this,” says Philip Gardner, director of the Collegiate Employment Research Institute at Michigan State University in East Lansing. “[P]urposeful work is a way to frame the liberal arts experience in a way where students not only attain the intellectual growth of working across multiple disciplines but … they make meaning of it. They’ve got to show that they can use it, that they have the work experience.”

Some studies suggest that with enough time after graduation, liberal arts graduates tend to fare about as well in the job market as those from more specialized programs. (Though, other research suggests graduates end up earning less.) One of purposeful work’s primary aims is to help students understand that they can pursue whatever academic interests they have and still find success in their post-college lives.

“It’s about bringing to consciousness in our students and in the broader public ... the power of liberal arts in preparing students for life and work,” says Clayton Spencer, president of Bates College, in Lewiston, Maine, a leader in the movement. Put another way by Dr. Gardner, “A ‘purpose’ means you have a goal in mind.”

Ms. Spencer theorizes purposeful work could help students find meaning in their post-graduation lives sooner. And it’s increasingly something students are asking for outright, says Mark Peltz, dean of careers, life, and service at Grinnell College in Grinnell, Iowa.

“[W]hat is also important to these students is a sense of purpose. What am I doing and why am I doing it?” says Dr. Peltz. 

More meaningful career development has been a popular idea among liberal arts colleges for more than a decade. But it began to pick up steam in the years following the recession: “2008 made it almost unavoidable,” Gardner notes.

With rising financial concerns from families, colleges felt greater pressure to offer more of an assurance that employment awaited students. “It’s all about that first job. They’ve got to be able to sell that first job,” he says.

But a tension arose at that time. Most liberal arts colleges firmly believe that the power of education goes beyond securing a first job and is more rooted in developing a fulfilling career, says Gardner. Out of that conflict in thought emerged purposeful work. The approach disrupts the older view of career planning and academic development as separate priorities. And unlike in the past, when the process was often relegated to upperclassmen, now students are exploring future aspirations from their very first moments on campus.

One ‘purposeful work' model

Bates offers five-week courses in the spring that bring students of all years together with working professionals, including farmers, bankers, and entrepreneurs. Alex Cullen, an English and environmental studies major, took a course in the spring taught by a freelance writer on science journalism and communication. In it, Ms. Cullen, now a junior, explored potential applications of her academic interests through producing podcasts and crafting 3-D designs of a museum exhibit on coral bleaching.

“You can learn something in the classroom a million times and it might be interesting there or sound interesting but you’re not really going to know how you feel about it until you’re ... out there in the field performing the work,” she says. Ultimately journalism didn’t quite feel like Cullen’s calling – but even that knowledge is helping her plan her future.  

Bates also funds and coordinates longer-term work experiences. James Lee, a biochemistry major, received funding to shadow a doctor in South Korea for the summer after his freshman year and two years later found an internship at a medical technology company through a college career network.

Six months after graduation, 76 percent of alumni are in full- or part-time jobs, according to data from the school.

Elsewhere, too, colleges are embracing this approach. The College of Wooster in Wooster, Ohio, brings freshmen to school weeks before class begins to plan out their semesters and summers with counselors – with an eye toward life and work goals. Lisa Kastor, director of career planning, says she’s spoken with more than 15 other institutions adapting the college’s approach.

At Grinnell, administrators match every freshman with an exploratory adviser who helps them consider their post-graduation lives. Connecticut College and the University of Iowa also engage first-year students in career planning, and participated in a purposeful work conference at Grinnell this spring.

About 81 percent of students participated in programming at Grinnell’s Center for Career, Life, and Service in the past year, school data shows. By comparison, in 2016, only 6 percent of college students said they regularly consult the campus career office, according to a report from the Higher Education Research Institute at the University of California, Los Angeles.

Public universities also taking note

The conversation around purposeful work has spread to other institutions that teach liberal arts. At the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, dropping enrollment has caused administrators to recommend cutting 13 majors. Greg Summers, provost and vice chancellor for academic affairs, says liberal arts colleges have influenced steering efforts at his regional university.

“I think [we are] getting at the same thing,” he says. “We’re trying to work really hard on our general education curriculum so that students who don't choose to major in those disciplines are still getting a robust experience in that 40 credits that comprise our gen ed. But we’re also ... working hard to get our faculty to think about the professional focus of liberal arts majors.”

Even within small colleges, the potential to help level the socio-economic playing field is one of purposeful work’s major draws.

“If you’re first generation to college and your parents may not have been professionals, you may not have been exposed to the array of opportunities ... not to mention how you begin to develop the set of experiences and the set of connections to get you there,” says Spencer, the Bates president.

Bates student Lee, now a senior, emphasizes that his own professional development experience wouldn’t have been possible without funding from the college. Through purposeful work, he realized that he’s especially interested in working on the business and industry sides of medicine. His reasoning echoes’ his school’s goals more broadly.

“When I work in industry, I can see where the research is being applied,” he says. “Sometimes when you’re working in a lab, it’s very easy to lose track of what the bigger picture is. But when you’re working on the front lines, all of the research that you’re doing is applicable.” 

Editor's note: This story has been updated to reflect that the 13 majors at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point are not yet cut.

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