Liberal arts graduates' college experiences and work preparation
Molyneaux, Valerie Alexis
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The public perceives that college attendance contributes to workforce development. Employers, however, report a skills gap or lag (Commission on Higher Education, 2006). This study explored recent liberal arts graduates’ perceptions of how college experiences prepared them for the work world. The research site was Mountain State University, a public university in a southeastern state. Mountain State University’s liberal arts graduates are representative of many college students today: older, spending five to seven years to complete their degrees, working part- or full-time to pay for education and other costs, and involved in family life (National Center for Education Statistics, 2002). Theoretical lenses employed included Kegan’s meaning making (1982, 1994), Baxter Magolda’s (2001) self-authorship, Chickering and Reisser’s vectors of identity development (1993), and Arnett’s (2004) emerging adulthood. The researcher employed qualitative methodology, including semi-structured interviews with 12 participants and resume analysis. Themes uncovered from the results supported three ideas about the effects of college degree completion on graduates. First, liberal arts graduates in this study did increase their levels of human capital marketable skills and abilities by completing college. Second, graduates in this study did carry a credential, one of perseverance. Third, they believed that college causes a perspective shift, differentiating college graduates from non-attendees. The study generated seven major themes by which liberal arts graduates understand their career choices in the context of college experiences. These were 1) the direct relationship between major and career, 2) performance of little career planning, 3) the hope for enlightenment via education, 4) emphasis on enjoyment and relevance, 5) valuing of purpose, 6) focus on convenience and expediency, and 7) perception of college completion as a proverbial stepping stone to future plans. Serendipity (Bright, Pryor, Wilkenfeld, & Earl, 2005) featured strongly in participants’ ideas about career planning. Participants believed that personal differences created both barriers and supports for the work preparation during college. Although participants reported very few college experiences such as extracurricular activities or socializing with college friends, they did cite academic experiences and assignments as sources of their development of work-related skills. The results of the study indicated that participants did too little career planning at too late a stage in their college careers. Demographic differences, particularly age, maturity level, major, and religious convictions, affected students’ ability to benefit from the college experience and their success at work world preparation. Finally, the nature of Mountain State and its place in students’ lives had a significant effect on whether students participated actively in college experiences and how prepared they were to work.