President's Speeches & Writings:

Liberal Arts Colleges: A Missing Piece In The Search for Talent

President's Office
February 25, 2022

However unintentionally, the pandemic has unearthed an opportunity that benefits both employers and liberal arts colleges.

A recent report by Bain & Company starts with a well-known observation —employers are struggling to fill jobs, especially those that demand “specific skills and experiences that can be hard to acquire and demonstrate.”

The report calls for higher education to “rise to the challenge by elevating career outcomes, aligning what they teach with workforce needs, improving the quality of their programs, and partnering with employers to create hands-on work experiences for students.”

Traditionally, employers (especially larger ones) have gravitated to public universities and community colleges to get this work done, often neglecting the smaller private liberal arts colleges.

In some ways, this approach makes sense. Those institutions tend to be closer to urban areas and offer scale. If you’re going to send a team to the halls of higher education to forge partnerships or recruit some talent, it’s easier to send them to a larger institution within easy striking distance of corporate headquarters.

There is also a perception that the liberal arts colleges are not providing much in the way of career preparation and are somewhat slow to change, reluctant to try new things, and difficult to engage with.

The pandemic has created a moment to rethink these assumptions.

For starters, the pandemic reduced the importance of location. Experiments in remote work and learning over the past 20 months have shown that it does not matter where you are located. Technological advancements around videoconferencing, messaging and collaboration make it possible to easily find and connect with talent whether someone is in the big city or rural college towns. Our faculty have also learned to use technology to create more ways to connect with our classrooms and our students.

At my own institution, we have students working with companies during the semester. We have established The Red Frame Lab, an entrepreneurship and consulting lab, where students learn design thinking and then do consulting projects for businesses and organizations. Our students are gaining valuable skills and companies get to know our students.

We are also in the early stages of a partnership with the experiential learning platform Riipen that has also allowed us to provide real-world internships that can take place throughout the entire school year, not just the summer, providing a deeper and more valuable internship experience, including virtual internships that are embedded in courses.

Second, contrary to a lot of thinking, liberal arts skills have never been more aligned with much of what employers need. Burning Glass data on the foundational skills of the digital economy feature a list of liberal arts skills like critical thinking, creativity, collaboration and analytic abilities.

Matt Mullenweg, founder and CEO of Automattic, the company behind, put this well in a recent Wall Street Journal article when he stated that the biggest skill challenge of a more remote/hybrid work environment is, “clarity of writing. If you don’t have that, you can have people thinking they’re on the same page when they actually have different understanding.”

What Mullenweg describes is not just writing skills, but also clarity of thought and the ability to communicate with a wide range of people.

Additionally, the changing nature of work and markets has raised the stakes for companies in developing a workforce that is adaptable, flexible, and can learn new ways of thinking and doing things. That’s precisely what a liberal arts education trains students to do.

Further tipping the scales in favor of liberal arts colleges, our students are hard workers. A common lament among companies is that they are desperate to attract recent college graduates with a good work ethic. A common strategy has been to hire athletes, who have a track record of showing up on time, working as a team, and pushing through adversity.

Walk onto any liberal arts campus and you will be impressed by the students and amazed at all the things they are doing. Our classes are small and taught by full-time faculty who push our students and unlock their potential. We are residential because we want students to learn how to engage with the full community and engage in extracurricular activities. On our campuses, nearly everyone is involved outside the classroom developing skills, developing a strong work ethic, and learning how to deal with challenges.

And we are diverse, which means that our students show up able and excited to work with people who are different from them. Sure, large universities are also diverse, but on a small residential campus our students have to learn to live and work in diverse teams.

Finally, most liberal arts colleges are devoting significant resources to their career centers and to other career-related activities. This creates willing partners for employers who want to partner more closely. At my institution we have multiple centers focused on preparing students for careers, including our Knowlton Center for Career Exploration and Denison Edge, which we have actually opened up to students from other liberal arts colleges.

The bottom line? There are a lot of smart, talented, motivated students in liberal arts colleges—and now companies have more access to that talent than ever.

As HR directors at big companies are thinking about this looming issue around talent acquisition, development, and retention, they would be doing themselves a favor by taking a close look at liberal arts colleges. It’s never been easier to discover the talent there. Now presidents, provosts, CEOs, and corporate HR departments must work together to seize this opportunity.