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The question is getting asked more frequently these days. With the unemployment rate among 20- to 24-year-olds at 14.5 percent in June and the economic recovery limping along in many areas, the value of a college education is coming under increased scrutiny, especially as the cost of a degree continues to climb. The media at all levels are weighing in, writing and airing stories questioning the need for a college education and featuring graduates who are thousands of dollars in debt and struggling to find
In spite of critics, there is plenty of data that continue to make the case for the value of a college education, beginning with a breakdown of the latest unemployment rates for adult workers based on educational attainment:
* 4.4 percent for adults with a bachelor's degree or higher
* 8.4 percent for adults with some college or an associate degree
* 10 percent for adults with a high school degree
* 14 percent for adults without a high school degree
In addition to those numbers, a study released in June by Anthony Parnevale and Stephen J. Rose of Georgetown University argues that the United States has been underproducing college-educated workers for decades. The study examines the value of a college education by occupation, and shows that college has financial benefits even for those whose jobs don't require a college degree.
Lakeland President Stephen Gould acknowledges that this anti-college sentiment is real and is comfortable with colleges being challenged to prove their worth, but says expecting every college graduate to find work in their chosen field of study in today's job market isn't realistic. "To randomly pick people not employed six months after graduating or doing something they could have done without a college degree and making it seem typical is at least disingenuous," Gould said. "Because of the weak job market and lack of job creation, many recent graduates, who don't have an employment record, are competing with someone that's been doing the work for 20 years."
Now in his 42nd year with the college and 14th as president, Gould has been an unapologetic champion of Lakeland's unique applied educational strategy for a long time, and he thinks that it is more relevant today than ever. Lakeland brings to the table a decades-old academic approach that combines a broad, general education with specific career preparation. This is often referred to as an applied liberal arts education and thousands of Lakeland graduates have been able to achieve life and career success because of it.
Just as students have changed over the years, so has Lakeland's academic approach as the faculty has experimented with varying requirements, from a large required core of liberal arts courses to no requirements at all. Gould said one constant through his four-decade tenure at the college is the quest for data to demonstrate results. "We have been constantly increasing our concern about how we know if we are succeeding," Gould said. "It's not always easy to measure some of the things you really care about happening, but where possible, we use empirical data to determine what works and what doesn't."
The college has also strived to hire faculty who embrace the approach, which often means hiring teachers who themselves learned at applied liberal arts institutions. Gould said Lakeland faculty need to be aware of what's happening with the entire college curriculum in order to teach a wider spectrum than what might be expected at a larger, research-oriented university. "We expect our faculty to refer to other portions of the curriculum, so someone teaching a social science course refers to principles in science or a basic genre of artwork," Gould said.
Today, students engage in the practical, hands-on experiences, all the while being challenged to think critically in order to answer questions like "why?" and "where did you come up with the theory or idea?" Gould believes graduates of an applied liberal arts institution are particularly suited for the current economic environment, as they possess the technical knowledge for initial entry into a specific occupation and the longer-term professional growth potential through honed critical thinking, problem-solving and communication skills. "These higher, longer-term skills are essential because a good percentage of the jobs available in 2020 and beyond don't exist today," Gould said. "The knowledge and skills required for those jobs isn't known because the jobs aren't known. What happens when you are required to change careers? An applied liberal arts education is the best short- and long-term solution because it helps you adapt and stay relevant."
What can employers expect from recent graduates from an applied liberal arts institution like Lakeland? They can expect a person who won't need a lot of initial general training in the area in which they're being hired, and who can learn on their own, has good critical thinking skills, and can research information on virtually any topic. "An applied liberal arts experience increases one's ability to make sound decisions," Gould said.
The cornerstone of the liberal arts portion of Lakeland's program is the Core courses, a series of three required classes completed in the first three years that challenge students to become more sophisticated in their thinking. Core classes focus on helping students improve their oral and written communication skills and their reading and listening skills. They also challenge students to think deeper and understand the difference between fact and opinion, thus developing their critical thinking and problem solving skills.
"When someone is presenting information, we want our students to actually hear what is being said and understand their point of view," said Jeff Elzinga, chair of the General Studies Division and a veteran faculty member. "We also want them to read critically and be able to discuss higher-level issues rationally."
The skills developed in Core classes prepare students to tackle real problems they'll encounter at home, in the workplace and in their community. "If they've had experience in the classroom learning how to approach complex issues in a deliberate way, it's going to help," Elzinga said. "If someone at work says 'We've tried to introduce our product in that area but haven't been successful.' How do you tackle that problem? Your city wants to build a new school or rotary intersection - how do you know that's a good idea? Our goal is to give students the vocabulary and skills to make those decisions."
Similarly, Gould says that Lakeland helps students develop an ability to learn, which impacts how well they will ultimately execute their responsibilities in a democracy. "A good applied liberal arts education will make people skeptical of what they read and what they hear," Gould said. "It should also make them capable of researching their own information in order to develop their own position. But it also keeps them open to the views of others as they seek answers to issues."
Meg Albrinck, Lakeland's vice president for academic affairs and dean of the college, said a number of students enter college without having to take active roles in the classroom or to back up opinions with evidence that goes beyond Wikipedia. "The ability to navigate a complex world requires complex thinking skills," Albrinck said.
"Acquiring those skills requires training. Asking graduates to interact with people not like you with no critical thinking skills and solve the world's problems seems like a pretty tall order."
The applied portion of the curriculum is rooted in Lakeland's Student as Practitioner (SAP) experiences, which are requirements in most courses. From internships and other field work to shorter-term, in-class experiences, the SAP experiences allow students to take the theoretical learning and discussions and apply them. Some examples from this past academic year include:
* Students in intermediate accounting II worked in small evaluation teams playing the role of bank credit analyst determining if they would recommend lending money to a company.
* Students in research methods for behavioral science designed research proposals for projects that could be completed in a 15-week time period. Many students conducted interviews, content analysis of organizational documents and survey design and pre-testing to support their proposals.
* Senior art students planned an exhibit with a handful of their peers. Students were responsible for planning the show, putting the public relations together and hanging their work.
While the data clearly shows financial and employment advantages for workers who earn a four-year degree, the degree alone does not guarantee success. While some critics frame the issue as one of credentials, Gould notes that individual responsibility also plays a major factor in obtaining and retaining a good job. "There are many individual factors that have to be considered in the discussion," Gould said. "A college degree opens the door to opportunities that others may never have available, and, as the data shows, it clearly gives them a competitive advantage over peers who don't have a four-year degree. But it does not guarantee employment or success."
Gary Scheel '70, vice president of sales for OrthAlign, Inc., in Aliso Viejo, Cal., recently congratulated students attending Lakeland's Business Colloquium on making their first major life decision correct by attending college, but he reminded them that the degree is only part of the equation. "Earning a college degree gets your career on the launching pad," Scheel said. "Your ensuing career path and whether you achieve what you define as success will ultimately be defined by the time and effort you put forward while you're in college and in the workplace. Graduating from college just lays the foundation."
In the end, Gould said Lakeland's approach is successful if graduates become self-directed, life-long learners. "When people have to change careers or specialties several times during their careers, you need the ability to learn new skills in an unmediated situation."
How has your Lakeland degree positively impacted your life and career? Post your comments below.