Dear Alumni and Friends,
A longtime friend of mine ran a large Wall Street investment firm for several years. I once asked if he hired MBAs exclusively. "No," he responded. "I mostly hire English majors. I need people who can communicate. I can teach them finance."
I have reflected on that conversation many times, particularly when the discussion turns to college majors. There are plenty of statistics and studies on earning potential of specific undergraduate degrees, and no shortage of people demanding that colleges produce more graduates who can do "X." As you would imagine, engineering, business and my field, petroleum geology, often rank atop those lists of earning power.
Certainly one of the goals of a college education is to prepare for a successful career. Given the cost of tuition and its often-attendant student loan debt, earning power matters. Yet my experience with countless people in business, politics, education or community endeavors has made me a firm believer in the value of a broad-based education. Too much focus on one area does a disservice to a college graduate. It may prepare individuals ready to do, but not necessarily ready to think.
Let me be clear: Our state and country share a significant need for graduates in science, technology, engineering and math that we absolutely must meet. STEM graduates are essential to our competitiveness and to the health of our economy and society. But I believe we can produce those graduates while also ensuring they are well-rounded individuals and leaders. College is about far more than job training.
I received an insightful letter recently from David Kassoy, professor emeritus of mechanical engineering at CU-Boulder. With the interesting perspective of a rocket scientist, Kassoy offered that the primary objective of higher education is to teach people to learn how to learn. He wrote, "A successful learner can cope with the ambiguities and challenges of life that many of us are familiar with. People with these capabilities contribute to the well-being of their families, their communities and the larger society in many different ways. They make their marks as diverse professionals, creative people, political, business, social and religious leaders, entertainers and athletes, among others."
He's right. If you buy the notion that today's graduates will have multiple jobs – even multiple careers – over their working lives, a well-rounded education is critical. There is some misplaced disdain these days for liberal arts majors. While we certainly need to focus on science and engineering to drive our information economy, we should not forget that innovation is born of critical thinking. Additionally, the global economy and cross-cultural interactions require new levels of knowledge and capacity.
Employers increasingly demand a workforce capable of critical thinking and analytical reasoning, effective communication, the ability to apply knowledge and skills in real-world settings, and teamwork. These qualities are the hallmarks of a liberal arts education. This does not discount focused study. We still need to provide students in-depth knowledge in a specific field. But we need to complement that and we need to recognize that sometimes the broad base the liberal arts provide is the means to an end.
We recently did an informal survey of the educational attainment of the 25 highest-paid CEOs of Colorado public companies as identified by the Denver Business Journal. Nearly half had undergraduate degrees in traditional liberal arts fields, including art history, communication, English and dramatic literature. Some three-quarters went on to earn advanced degrees in law, business or the sciences. But rather than refute the value of a broad-based undergraduate degree, it affirms that those fields of study are excellent preparation for advanced study and a successful career.
Professor Kassoy hit the nail on the head. The point of a college education is to learn how to learn. If our graduates walk away from CU with that skill in hand, it will serve them well for the rest of their lives, and we will have done our jobs.
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