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The perceived disconnect between the classroom and the ‘real world’

Despite some concerns, a liberal arts degree is still the best preparation for a rewarding career.

By THOMAS KLASSEN | October 14, 2015

A million university students have returned to the classroom across Canada. Most are worried about their prospects after graduation, especially those using loans to finance their studies and those in liberal arts programs.

Many undergraduate students don’t understand the connection between classroom learning and post-graduation success in the labour market. Consequently, they can become disgruntled, unmotivated and cynical. Some drop out altogether, others enroll in unsuitable programs, and many ultimately struggle in the transition from school to work.

The disconnect students feel between what is expected in the classroom and what they perceive are the demands of the “real world” is a recent phenomenon. Until the middle of the 20th century, university education was reserved for elites, with only a small window for upwardly mobile middle- or working-class students. The professional and practical education that existed operated on the fringes of university life – the certification of teachers, clergy, clerks, accountants and so forth.

When universities welcomed female students in larger numbers after the Second World War, most were still expected to seek a “Mrs.” degree and spent little, if any, time in the workforce. Even by the early 1970s, only 12 percent of 21-year-olds were in university; today, it is one third.

The unprecedented expansion of postsecondary education in the past decades allowed a new cohort of students – from middle- and working-class families, including many immigrants – to study at universities. Most of these are in non-professional or liberal arts programs with no direct path to a career or occupation. Only a small percentage of the nearly one million undergraduate students are in programs, such as engineering, that bestow a professional credential or designation.

The result is a large group of students anxious about their job prospects post-graduation and ability to repay student loans. They do not see how their classroom studies – of philosophy, sociology, history, English literature and so on – relate to the “real world.” What most fail to grasp is the nearly all the skills learned in the classroom are exactly those needed for an interesting, challenging and well-paying career.

Identifying links and patterns, locating and sifting sources of information, writing well and with some analytical depth, conducting oral presentations, working in groups, meeting deadlines, and dealing with people in positions of authority are at core of every interesting job and career. These skills are also at the heart of the classroom, and must be developed for any student to succeed at university, regardless of the program of studies.

Universities know that any program with “business” in the title is sure to prompt a rush of applicants. However, many of these students are driven by a promise of a job, or by parental pressure. The outcome is a large group of students going through the motions without a genuine interest in economics, finance, accounting, free enterprise and so forth. Potential employers quickly spot and dismiss these as not having the basic general skills to contribute in the workplace, nor the motivation to survive the strenuous entry-level positions.

The far more successful strategy for undergraduate students is to follow their interests and passions, be it the history of tattoos or the impact of divorce on children. By doing so, young people will be willing to invest the time and energy to learn the essential research, communication and related skills that guarantee success at school and later in the workplace.

Once they’ve spent some time in the labour force many of these students will return to school, often on a part-time basis, for a professional degree or certificate. By then, they will know what technical knowledge and credentials they need for their career, whether an MBA or something else altogether.

A liberal arts degree will never be the ticket to a great job immediately after graduation. It is however, the best preparation for a rewarding career that will span decades. No one ever claimed that the classroom was the real world, but there is no surer path to success in the real world than time in the classroom.

Thomas R. Klassen is a professor of political science at York University. Dr. Klassen and John A. Dwyer (professor emeritus at York University) are co-authors of the recently published book, How to Succeed at University (and Get a Great Job!).

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  1. Natalie Pietrzak-Renaud / October 14, 2015 at 1:49 pm

    Thank you or addressing the all too common perception of most students entering post-secondary education. Education is about learning, and analyzing concepts and arguments. It is the basis for making connections and the real foundation of creativity. If you deeply understand your subject you have the knowledge to develop new ideas and problem solve. Education is limitless possibilities for application. Training on the other hand is learning to master a repetitious task. It is self-limiting to a skill that is in demand at one point in time, in danger of being obsolete at the drop of a hat.

  2. Dave Grimshire / November 29, 2015 at 11:18 am

    I entered my undergrad degree at age 27. For such an old man university was very much like Disneyland. Profs were surprised they couldn’t babble at the blackboard. They protested when students noted their research programs didn’t enhance the courses they taught. The marking system didn’t reflect the reward system in the real world (money). I had a job waiting for me on graduation so I took the courses that invested value in me.
    Younger students must take fluff courses to get a high GPA. No one expects them to know much on graduation. A high GPA provides opportunity to become a medical doctor, a lawyer or entrance into a Masters program. Profs promote this because frankly it is easier to teach a fluff course.
    This topic could have been better with more rounded input.

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