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Liberal arts college offers a job to every grad

Albion College, a small Michigan liberal arts college, may be the first institution of its sort to guarantee students "meaningful employment" after graduation.

It's a significant gesture: the nation is mired in a sluggish economy, and families are questioning the wisdom of sending a child off to study philosophy or Russian history at a $40,000-a-year private college to prepare them for a job preparing foamy coffee drinks.

The downturn prompted some soul-searching among liberal arts schools, a community that generally holds itself to a higher standard than mere job-preparation. Some college presidents have told me they believe a liberal arts education is ultimately more valuable in the workplace than any professional degree, inasmuch as liberal arts students are taught to reason, to solve problems, to live ethically and to write grammatically correct sentences.

For parents at Albion, that may not be good enough. Michigan has one of the nation's highest unemployment rates. When the recession hit, "our parents felt it," said Donna Randall, Albion's president.

Ninety percent of Albion students come from Michigan. Recently, though, graduates have found that they can't get good jobs unless they move away.

"And just to say that we're going to prove our worth in 20 or 30 years, when you see you've gotten a great education, that's just not good enough," Randall said. "Our students want to know that there's something for them out there when they graduate."

The Albion Advantage kicks in with this year's freshmen, who are on pace to graduate three years and nine months from now. The pledge is an offer of help to students who don't find a fulfilling job in a reasonable span: by the end of summer or, for December graduates, within a month. The college will offer several types of support, including internships, research assistant positions, even the chance to return to school and take more classes at no charge. Students have two years to invoke the pledge.

The college will start working with students upon their arrival on campus. There are new courses including Life After College, which meet perhaps once a semester and keep students focused on career preparation. There is a new faculty advising model, oriented to a student's future career as well as her or his current major. There are new dinners, hosted by alumni, to discuss career preparation with current students.

Randall stresses that Albion will still offer a classic liberal arts education, and professors won't be pressured to offer job training during philosophy classes.

"There may be a reference in one of those courses to, What would Socrates do if he were here today?" she said. Write a blog, perhaps?

Randall has a business background. She spoke to many alumni while developing the job pledge.

"Each one of them said it took them a couple of years of flopping around, looking at different paths," before they found meaningful work. "And that's not necessary. . . [W]e can reduce that time, that nonproductive time, of trying out different jobs."

(Disclosure: I myself flopped around here and here after completing a philosophy degree here and before my first newspaper job. I also had a brief, exhausting stint washing dishes in a nursing home whose name I can no longer recall.)

Randall is motivated partly by increased competition with Michigan's public universities. Some of them have cut into Albion's business by offering smaller classes and intense faculty interaction in the context of "honors" programs and such.

"They can do the career readiness, and they do a wonderful job," Randall said. "But it's the timelessness of a liberal arts education that they don't do."

By Daniel de Vise  |  September 1, 2010; 10:52 AM ET
Categories:  Administration , Liberal Arts , Marketing , Pedagogy , Students  | Tags: Albion Advantage, Albion College, college promises jobs to graduates, liberal arts schools  
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Donna Randall, President of Albion, has the right idea. It's not just about jobs; it's about preparing students throughout their college career to get those jobs, even when the student's major has nothing to do with her career interests. At Albion, they start career preparation early; they integrate career and academic advising; and they involve alumni. That's in addition to providing traditional career services. With an unemployment rate for college grads under 25 exceeding 12%, more colleges need to be following Albion's lead.

Posted by: CareerConsultant | September 3, 2010 10:42 AM | Report abuse

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