Linda Suskie

 A Common Sense Appr​oach to Assessment in Higher Education


Making a liberal arts degree relevant and employable

Posted on February 10, 2016 at 8:10 AM

One of the reasons I’m a passionate advocate of the liberal arts is because my own undergraduate liberal arts degree has served me so well…but then again, it was an unusual interdisciplinary program. Hopkins coded its liberal arts courses according to area of study: natural sciences courses were coded N, social and behavior sciences courses were coded S, humanities H. My Quantitative Studies major required a couple of entry level courses (probability and statistics) plus electives chosen from courses coded Q, with a certain number in the upper division.


I had a ball! In addition to math, I took courses in engineering, physics, economics, computer science, and psychology, where I discovered an unexpected passion for educational testing and measurement that led me to graduate study and my work today. At the same time, while Hopkins didn’t offer formal minors, I earned 18 credits in English. 


Memories of all this came back to me as I read Matthew Sigelman’s piece in Inside Higher Ed on creating liberal arts programs that combine foundational liberal arts skills such as writing and critical thinking with the entry level technical skills that employers seek. My knowledge of statistical analyses and computer programming got me my first positions. But my writing skills and interdisciplinary studies helped me move out of them, into a career in higher education that has required working with people from all kinds of academic backgrounds, speaking a bit of their language, and applying the concepts I’ve learned to their disciplines. I wouldn’t be where I am today without the combination of technical skills, writing skills, and broad liberal arts foundation that Sigelman advocates.


So here’s an idea. Many colleges today label “writing-intensive” courses with a W and require students to take a certain number of them. Why not do something similar with other skills that today’s employers are seeking? Label leadership- and teamwork-intensive courses L, data-intensive courses D, problem-solving -intensive courses P, technology-intensive courses T, analysis-intensive courses A, ethics-intensive courses E, and so on. Develop clear institutional guidelines on how to qualify for each label; some courses might earn multiple labels. Then encourage students in the liberal arts to take courses with whatever labels best fit their career interests—perhaps as an interdisciplinary major, perhaps as a minor, or perhaps as electives in a major or general education.


This will only work, of course, if curricula have enough flexibility to allow students to fit these courses in. But that’s a solvable challenge, and I think this is an idea worth considering.

Categories: Gen ed/liberal arts, Curriculum & teaching