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Reflections on the Liberal Arts

Steve Bahls, President of Augustana College

For those of us in the business of being a 21st century liberal arts college – business and liberal arts not being an oxymoron in this instance – the question of how to remain true to the humanities is forever at top of mind.

Traditional residential liberal arts colleges – those with small classes where students might engage in philosophical debate, write creatively, or study religion and romance languages – once numbered about 250 in this country. Today fewer than 150 remain, among them Augustana.

But this is no meditation on the glory days of classical education. While other institutions are closing, consolidating, or increasingly turning to online offerings – becoming “donuts,” with a hole in the middle where the humanities used to be – we have not shuttered an academic program in 15 years.

Augustana, and the tradition of critical thinking and inquiry that has allowed it not only to survive but thrive in this new environment of higher education, is alive and well. Still, liberal arts colleges roundly feel under siege; we are doing something about it.

We are responding not by ignoring the concerns of parents that their children be both educated and employable upon graduation. Rather, we know that the very things that employers are seeking in new hires – the ability to think critically, communicate clearly, problem solve, and maintain an ethical sense of self – are the same attributes our professors and staff help Augustana students to cultivate every day.

One way we are doing this is by encouraging students in the humanities and traditional liberal arts to add minors or double majors to their courses of study. A student-scholar who combines a classics major with biology or pre-med becomes a standout applicant; a medical school admissions officer sees not only competency in the sciences but a future doctor with people skills, a talent for creative thought, and a foundation in principled decision-making.

By encouraging this kind of expansive thinking and planning among our students, we take a valuable course of study and increase the perception of its value among parents and employers alike. At Augustana, we have not hunkered down; instead, we have asked how do we create that plus factor and dispel the notion that you can’t get a job by studying what you love?

A unique program called CORE – careers, opportunities, research, and exploration – is helping us move the needle in this endeavor. Through career coaching, networking, and funding opportunities for study abroad or internship/research, CORE meets students at the intersection of passion – that “thing” that animates them – and education for a career.

Put simply, “We figure out what to do with your ‘thing’ and connect you to the resources,” says Laura Kestner Rickets, CORE executive director of career and professional development.

That includes using the Viking Score worksheet, in which students track the milestone activities they complete each year – attending career fairs, creating a portfolio, meeting with career development staff – and earn points for doing so. A humanities student who participates in CORE will see a range of career paths open up for their consideration. To those who ask, “What can I do with an English major?” (the short answer to that is, quite a lot), connecting them through CORE with a writing professional to shadow or intern will expose them to the many career paths their degree can take them down.

All Augustana students also benefit from Augie Choice, in which every student is given $2,000 to use toward a career-building experience, running the gamut from defraying expenses while undertaking an unpaid internship to covering the cost of purchasing suitable professional clothing.

At our institution, enrollment remains strong, and we can proudly say to students and their parents: You can attain a robust major in the liberal arts, and go on to a successful and – this is key – fulfilling career. It is not enough that we prepare young people for the portfolio, the career path, the balance sheet. We must educate for the heart and mind, as well. We do both at Augustana, and will continue to do so, for we have no greater mission.