New Winthrop president values survey pointing to benefits of liberal arts education

05/18/2013 11:07 PM

07/05/2014 7:46 PM

Nearly 1,500 students walked away from Winthrop University or York Technical College this month with certificates or diplomas in hand.

National surveys reveal contradictory statistics on whether those graduates have a good chance of finding a job in their field of choice or making enough money to start paying down their student debt.

Incoming Winthrop President Jayne Marie Comstock says she’s encouraged by one survey that suggests employers place a high value on graduates with a liberal arts education background.

A recent poll by the Association of American Colleges and Universities shows that of 318 CEOs and non-profit group leaders surveyed, an overwhelming majority would recommend a “21st century liberal education” to someone they know.

Nearly 80 percent of those employers who participated said broad knowledge in liberal arts and sciences was important, regardless of what a graduate chose as his college major.

“The good news is that employers and educators agree on the value of a liberal arts education,” Comstock said. “I plan to work with Winthrop faculty and staff to enhance our public-private partnerships with local and regional businesses and schools.

“These mutually beneficial partnerships accelerate workforce development, community improvement and graduate employment rates.”

Comstock will start this summer as Winthrop’s 10th president.

The AAC&U survey comes at a time when universities – especially liberal arts institutions such as Winthrop – are trying hard to prove their worth.

To add to the problem of already declining state taxpayer support for public schools, some elected officials around the country are calling for colleges to be judged on the employment rates of their graduates – a shift in the way most states make decisions about spending.

Gov. Nikki Haley has said she’d like to reform the way South Carolina distributes money to colleges and universities by basing financial support on four factors, including job placement rates and contribution to economic development.

The “undeniable value” of higher education versus the relevance of a college graduate in today’s workforce is a “paradox facing American society today,” according to a study published by McKinsey & Co. in conjunction with Chegg, an online textbook rental company.

While research shows that a college education is linked to earning more money and a person’s well-being, the Chegg survey shows that about half of the nation’s recent graduates aren’t using their hard-earned and high-cost college degrees, and many are in minimum-wage jobs.

About half of the 5,000 students or recent graduates in the survey also said they didn’t consider graduation or job placement rates when they picked a school and that if they could go back, they would change their college choice or the subject they majored in, or both.

Some employers in York and Lancaster counties say both Winthrop and York Tech are churning out students with needed skills, but “soft skills” like teamwork and critical thinking are the most important.

York Tech’s two-year programs are popular with students looking to enter fields such as health services, computers and engineering, construction, machine and welding technology. Many of the school’s students join a continuing education track to transfer to a four-year institution after two years.

By contrast, Winthrop offers four-year bachelor’s degrees and master’s degrees in areas such as visual and performing arts, teaching, business administration, political science, foreign languages, social work and sciences, such as physics, chemistry and nutrition.

Both schools are producing “extremely qualified graduates” who make a big difference in his company, said Bob Perrin, president of Williams & Fudge, a Rock Hill-based collections agency for student loans.

A liberal arts education is important, he said, as it increases a person’s critical thinking, problem solving and communication skills.

A four-year university isn’t the best fit for everyone, Perrin said, and increasingly students are starting out at two-year technical colleges to save money.

Schools like Winthrop and other four-year institutions typically referred to as liberal arts colleges aren’t the only ones teaching skills associated with liberal arts, he said.

York Tech graduates have an understanding of history, humanities and political science, which are valuable in any work environment, Perrin said.

Carolyn Stewart, York Tech’s executive vice president for academics and student affairs, agreed, saying her school integrates “soft skill” training across its curriculum to teach students critical thinking and adaptability.

The college’s professors stress collaboration and “soft skills,” she said, because employers are asking for that.

Winthrop uses surveys to track student engagement and the collaborative experience of its students.

Compared to national statistics in the 2011 National Survey of Student Engagement, Winthrop’s student engagement experience is above the national average when it comes to community service, volunteer work, undergraduate research and immersion in a diverse environment.

With a high demand for workers with technical and specialty degrees, Comporium Communications – another large employer in Rock Hill – benefits from having York Tech in its backyard, said Glenn McFadden, executive vice president and chief operating officer.

Although Winthrop doesn’t train electricians or graduate certified engineers, Comporium “owes a great deal of its success to Winthrop,” he said. The company needs a variety of skills, both technical and based in liberal arts.

“Comporium is a proponent of education of any type,” McFadden said.

Once hired, Comporium employees can use the company’s continuing education program. Many of the 10 to 15 Comporium employees making use of that program are enrolled in Winthrop’s master’s classes, McFadden said.

People who successfully graduate from college show at least the resolve and dedication needed to earn a degree, he said, and whether the degree is from a technical school or a liberal arts college doesn’t cause Comporium to “lean either way.”

At one of Lancaster County’s largest employers, the county school district, the majority of its employees must have a teaching degree or certification.

The district benefits by having Winthrop close by, said Gwendolyn Conner, Lancaster schools’ human resources director.

Beyond the minimum of being certified for the classroom, she said, teachers need such “soft skills” as classroom management and teamwork abilities.

Money challenges over the past few years have prevented the district from hiring new teachers, which is unfortunate, she said.

A study by the National Association of Colleges and Employers shows that the Lancaster school district is not alone in that.

Seniors who graduated in 2012 and applied for education jobs had the lowest rate of success among graduates looking for work in their fields, according to the survey results.

The national numbers on employment and starting salaries send a mixed message about the value of a college education and whether a liberal arts-based or a technical degree increases the likelihood of finding a job.

Employers want the skills that liberal arts institutions like Winthrop offer, Comstock says, but the conversation about higher education shouldn’t be just about jobs and starting salaries.

The AAC&U survey shows that companies want graduates who demonstrate “ethical judgment and integrity, intercultural skills, the capacity for continued new learning and the ability to contribute innovation in the workplace,” she wrote recently on her blog, which focuses on higher education topics.

Those skills, she wrote, “are part of the mix of essential learning outcomes delivered through a strong, engaging liberal arts curriculum.”

As families and prospective college students consider their higher education choices, Comstock said, the decision shouldn’t rest solely on student loan default rates, what kind of jobs graduates get and how much alumni earn.

Students should weigh things like research opportunities, the percentage of students who study abroad and community service and collaborative learning options, she said.

“Let’s elevate the higher education conversation above, ‘How much money can I make?’ to the much more important questions of, ‘What kind of contribution will I be able to make to my family, my employer, my community, my country and my world?’”

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