The implications should be obvious:

1. Students are wrong if they think that they need a career-aligned major.
Just as there’s no royal road to geometry, there are few direct routes to career success apart from Nursing. As many millennials have discovered to their dismay, even an Engineering or a Computer Science bachelor’s degree offers no guarantee of a job. Undergraduates need to understand that for many graduates, a bachelor’s degree isn’t the end point; rather, it’s a step along a path.

2. Instead of looking for a program that screams relevance, students need undergraduate programs that are demanding in terms of writing, critical thinking, quantitative skills, presentation skills, and experience in working as a team member.
In most cases, a liberal arts education, supplemented with specific transferable skills, represents the best preparation for long-term success.

Sure, it is helpful to acquire foundational and technical knowledge as well as training in areas like Excel and project management, and research methods. But it’s precisely because a B.A. or a B.S. isn’t the end of the line, majors matter far less than the skills and range of knowledge that students acquire and are able to demonstrate through projects and activities.

3. The students who do best in the rapidly expanding number of online 12-24 month master’s programs or in MOOCs are those with a solid 4-year liberal arts background.
Online learning, we now know all too well, isn’t for everyone. Not surprisingly, those students most likely to succeed online are those with strong time management, organizational, planning, and metacognitive skills, and a well-developed capacity for self-regulation.  These are the very skills that a demanding liberal arts education furnishes.

When higher ed imagines its post-COVID-19 future, it typically foresees more hybrid programs, shorter degree times, expanded online learning, and a greater focus on finding students jobs. But those predictions largely omit the heart of the actual academic experience: the content, assignments, and assessment found in individual courses.

It’s time for faculty and administrators to be blunt: Post-graduation success, more than ever, requires a demanding curriculum that includes extensive writing, facility with data and statistics, and extensive opportunities for collaboration and critical thinking.

What the pandemic should have taught us is that we need to double down on teaching – not teaching defined simply as instruction or content transmission, but as mentoring, scaffolding, intervening, engaging in substantive interaction, and providing constructive feedback. It also entails attending to students’ needs, confusions, and interests and responding appropriately.

There’s a phrase some teaching and learning experts use to describe this approach to pedagogy. “Deep teaching” differs from more conventional approaches in that it’s more intentional, self-aware, evidence-informed, empathetic, and learner and outcomes focused.

Teaching, in this more profound sense, is extraordinarily time consuming and exhausting. It is a process that begins by articulating a course’s learning objectives, not defined narrowly as a body of knowledge and a skills set or even in terms of research methods and modes of analysis and interpretation. Rather, it encompasses the mindsets, dispositions, and habits of mind associated with a particular discipline.

Next, deep teaching treats pedagogy as a design and engineering problem.  It asks, in effect, how might I best:

  • Bring my students from novice to a more expert status?
  • Help the students master the appropriate skills, knowledge, and methodological and analytical approaches?
  • Monitor student engagement and learning and determine whether the students have achieved my objectives?
  • Scaffold and support the students’ learning, encourage critically reflection, and provide useful comments and suggestions?

At most universities, the incentive structure discourages the level of commitment that deep teaching requires. But there are colleges that embrace deep teaching as an ideal. They’re called liberal arts colleges.  

For the past century, the more selective liberal arts colleges were, first and foremost, prep schools for graduate and professional education. Institutions like Oberlin and Swarthmore sent a grossly disproportionate share of graduates to success in doctoral programs, med schools, law schools, and advanced training in the arts or the caring professions, like social work.

Recognizing the fact that a BA or BS wasn’t a job ticket or a terminal degree, liberal arts college faculty didn’t worry about requirements because the whole educational experience was developmental and holistic, emphasizing writing, discussion, logical reasoning, and critical self-reflection. 

Nor did these colleges institute career-oriented programs like business, communication, or engineering because their graduates would enter those fields later after acquiring some real world experience and pursuing advanced education.

Sadly, as my colleague Michael Rutter observes, the prohibitive cost of an elite liberal arts college education has made it harder and harder to advocate on such an education’s behalf. 

But even if only a miniscule proportion of undergraduates will attend a liberal arts college, we who teach elsewhere need to reassert the value of something like a liberal arts education: a broad, rigorous, and demanding education that involves extensive writing, close reading, research, discussion, problem solving, and critical reasoning.

We have a duty to make it far clearer that a high-quality higher education isn’t vocational or technical training.

Above all, we need to reaffirm the value of what a liberal arts college education traditionally offered: preparation for a lifetime of learning and living.

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.