What's the Best College Major?
Should Your Student Choose Liberal Arts, Business or a Technical Field?
With pressure from their families for a meaningful return on their investment in higher education, what factors should guide students on how to choose a college major or career path? What is the relative value of a liberal arts, technical or business degree? Are these fields of study mutually exclusive?
Some students believe there is a “right” choice of educational path, according to Ryan Keaton, director of college guidance at Abington Friends School in Jenkintown, PA. Instead, Keaton believes success can be found in liberal arts, business, vocational and technical programs.
A business degree
Dean Moshe Porat attributes the “unprecedented growth” in enrollment and higher standards at Temple University’s Fox School of Business to the fact that the school provides students with “a value proposition.” Gone are the days when employers hired bright kids and trained them for specific company needs. Now, says Porat, colleges must produce professionally competent individuals who immediately apply specific, sophisticated skill sets on the job. In Porat’s words, “They must grow as individuals and as leaders.”
To learn maturity and grow professional habits, the Fox School of Business encourages students’ active engagement in co-curricular professional organizations and internships.
Porat notes that a business degree doesn’t necessarily rule out liberal arts classes. Distributional credits for a business degree at Temple may include up to 40 percent liberal arts courses. Similarly, the university’s engineering department demands about 30 general education credits.
Degree choice is not an either-or reality, agrees Kathy Demarest, public information officer at New Castle County Vocational-Technical School District in Delaware. The development of rigorous technical skills isn’t mutually exclusive of analysis, deep reading and problem solving, she says.
Clinical rotations provided by the vo-tech programs, together with some dual-enrollment arrangements with area colleges, offer the district’s tech students a “slingshot” in terms of advanced credit when they arrive at college. “They get the best academic course work as well as a foundational skill set for their chosen industry,” says Demarest.
She advises less worry over what subject to major in and more focus “on taking advantage of a great education, no matter where you are and what’s in front of you.” Like Porat, she urges students to show initiative, pursue internships, participate in clubs and work to achieve.
The liberal arts
At Abington Friends School, Keaton challenges some families’ perception that students default to a liberal arts degree because it may feel more familiar. Instead, she emphasizes the broad, global exposure and perspective the liberal arts offer, along with “deep intellectual engagement” in the student’s primary discipline. This route trains students in critical thinking, mental flexibility, communication and interdisciplinary connectivity.
One advantage of a small liberal arts college like Bryn Mawr College in Bryn Mawr, PA, is the personal approach to education and the intimate faculty-student ratios, notes Dean Katie Krimmel of the Leadership, Innovation and Liberal Arts Center. She emphasizes the value in how their learners connect as a community and engage with the material.
Krimmel maintains that the liberal arts broadly prepare students with a framework of skills that will still be applicable a decade from now, although we can’t fully anticipate what jobs may exist. These include hard skills in specialized fields like mathematics and chemistry. Krimmel adds that many liberal arts schools feed into graduate-level business programs.
Keaton tries to dispel the pressure on students to make the “right” choice of degree path and instead encourages them to select a program that fits their goals and personal values — the “type of program in which they feel they would flourish,” she notes.
To do that, she recommends that students meet with career services and alumni and also look for mentors in special fields of interest.
If a student wants to be a star, there are stars in every field. If he wants a job at a living wage, again, no field has the monopoly on such jobs.
Demarest suggests that a key to a fulfilling and productive life — and gaining a return on your self-investment — is the Greek maxim “Know yourself.” Do you thrive in structured or more flexible situations, work better in a team or independently, remain stimulated or get bored by numbers?
Every field of study and career path has advantages and disadvantages. Knowing yourself can be a dynamic process as you learn, internalize new experiences, grow and change.
Ann L. Rappoport is a contributing writer to MetroKids.