Higher Education Reform

Are Vocational Education, Liberal Arts on a Collision Course? Higher Education Reform
Sura Nualpradid

Are Vocational Education, Liberal Arts on a Collision Course?

February 26, 2013 1334

Sura Nualpradid

Last year, in Liberal Arts at the Brink, I analyzed changes between 1987 and 2008 in the majors of graduates from 225 private liberal arts colleges identified as the “Best” by U.S. News. The analysis revealed a substantial increase in the percentage of graduates whose majors were vocational (as opposed to liberal arts)—from 10.6 percent to 27.1 percent.

Data for 2011 graduates are now available from the U.S. Department of Education’s Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System. That year, two of the 225 colleges lost or gave up their accreditation and ceased operation; at the remaining 223 colleges, vocational majors have continued to increase, to 29.1 percent.

In 2008, 12 of the colleges graduated no vocational majors. In 2011, that number fell to 10; the number of colleges graduating less than 10 percent vocational majors dropped from 56 to 52; the number graduating 30 percent or more vocational majors rose from 118 to 120; and the number graduating 50 percent or more vocational majors climbed from 51 to 55. (Indeed, in 2011, 22 of the colleges graduated between 60.1 and 88.1 percent vocational majors, raising a question as to the correctness of classifying them as liberal arts colleges.)

Colleges and universities are now adding new undergraduate majors at a great rate, almost all of them vocational. The current edition of U.S. News’ Best Colleges reports the University of California system has responded “to workplace demand” by introducing 38 new majors this year alone. U.S. News touts nine “hot new majors,” all vocational, including homeland security, information assurance/cyber security, new media, and computer game design.

Young people are being advised to pursue directly career-related majors, rather than “impractical” liberal arts, by almost everyone – nervous parents; high school counselors; educational consultants; business leaders; and local, state, and federal officials. Anthony Carnevale, who heads the Center on Education and the Workforce at Georgetown University, says American colleges and universities “need to streamline their programs, so they emphasize employability,” meaning that the college years are explicitly “preparing for an occupation.”

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