The future of UNC-CH might also hinge on the balance between providing a liberal arts education and ensuring graduates can find employment.
A five-year plan for the UNC system, which will be unveiled in January, will help decide how the system can better prepare graduates for 21st century jobs as well as increase the percentage of four-year degree recipients in the state from 28 to 31 or 32 percent.
The UNC Advisory Committee on Strategic Directions, which includes business, political and higher education leaders, is developing a set of recommendations for system President Thomas Ross and his staff, who will create the final plan.
“Students are now more focused on their future and the investment that they’re making,” Ross said earlier this month after a system Board of Governors meeting. “Once you’ve invested in (a degree), what is the likelihood of a return?”
About 54 percent of college graduates younger than 25 were jobless or underemployed in 2011, according to an analysis by the Associated Press.
The Georgetown University study found that students in nontechnical majors, such as the arts, humanities and social sciences, face higher unemployment rates than students with professional degrees.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 46 percent of students who majored in literature and languages were employed full-time, year-round in 2011 — compared to 64.1 percent of business majors.
Professional schools give students more specialized skills, said Lawrence Mur’ray, director of UNC-CH’s undergraduate business program.
“It’s another tool in their toolkit to set them apart in a hyper-competitive job market,” he said.
But proponents of liberal arts say employers still value the skills — such as problem solving, teamwork, communication, critical thinking and organization — that liberal arts courses provide to students.
“When we measure things like critical thinking and problem solving, those are best taught in courses we think of as liberal arts — courses that approach from an intellectual rather than a pragmatic standpoint,” said Andrew Perrin, a UNC-CH sociology professor.
Ross has praised these skills and said preparing students for jobs does not always mean encouraging more specialized, technical education.
Still, professional sectors like business, health care and education are expected to hire the most future workers in North Carolina.
Tran Nguyen, a sophomore intending to major in health policy and management, said job security was a factor in deciding her major.
“Health policy and management is something that can always give me a job,” she said. “I plan on becoming a dentist, and people always need them.”
But Ray Angle, director of UNC-CH Career Services, said the real issue with high unemployment rates among recent college graduates is the economy — not the majors students choose.
Angle said liberal arts students can improve their chances of gaining employment by completing internships, networking with employers and taking advantage of college career centers.
Career centers can help liberal arts students master valuable skills before they enter the workforce, said Dan Gitterman, a UNC public policy professor.
“Universities should invest a bit more in services which help students connect the dots,” he said.
Gitterman said liberal arts majors do prepare students for an unclear economic future — but he worries the system’s strategic plan might be too narrow.
“We are training students for jobs in North Carolina, but not necessarily nationally and internationally,” he said.
Some students worry the system could focus too much on ensuring graduates obtain jobs — instead of providing a quality liberal arts education.
Senior J.J. Lang, a philosophy major, said fixating on jobs could cause students to panic and forgo intellectual curiosity while at school.
Lang said the purpose of a liberal arts education should not be employment.
“Some majors outside of the humanities are a means to an end, which is a career,” Lang said. “Humanities majors are ends in itself through the experience and education.”
“We forget to ask, what should the function of college be? If we ask that, we will have a more productive conversation.”
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