Matthew J. Anderson, Ph.D., Dean, School of Arts and Sciences, Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College.

Matthew J. Anderson, Ph.D., Dean, School of Arts and Sciences, Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College.

At the recent Rural Prosperity Summit held at the University of Georgia’s Tifton Campus Conference Center, Chris Clark, President and CEO of the Georgia Chamber of Commerce, discussed a variety of overarching global trends and their potential impact on rural Georgia. One specific challenge highlighted by Clark is the unknown nature of the future of work.

Indeed, with so much change occurring in the world it is certainly safe to assume that some jobs of tomorrow might not even exist today. One can see evidence of the rapidly changing nature of the workforce by examining Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) data pertaining to the fastest growing occupations in the U.S., which features several occupations that certainly would not have appeared on the list a decade or so ago.

Clark states that in order to be prepared for the jobs of tomorrow, students should be instructed in “cultural intelligence, critical thinking, communication, collaboration, change management, and creativity.” Fortunately for rural Georgia, an educational model that is designed to achieve many of these very same goals already exists. The powerful model to which I am referring is that of a college education grounded in the tradition of liberal education.

The word “liberal” in this instance has nothing to do with political ideology, but rather refers to an educational approach aimed at exposing students to a broad range of subjects in addition to a more specific major area of study. By exposing students to a variety of courses in the natural and social sciences, mathematics, fine arts, and the humanities, a liberal education aims to instill in students an expansive knowledge base and essential skills that allow them the versatility to be successful in a diverse and rapidly changing world.

Students who have completed such a comprehensive education develop communication abilities, creativity, problem solving and critical thinking skills that lend themselves to any real world setting. Indeed, a quick examination of the Association of American Colleges & Universities “Essential Learning Outcomes,” which are considered to be the ideal outcomes of a liberal college education, will reveal a striking similarity to those educational goals highlighted by Clark at the Rural Prosperity Summit.

With so many changes occurring in the world and workforce, it remains true that individuals can optimally position themselves for a lifetime of success by obtaining a college degree grounded in the liberal arts and sciences. While the confidence the U.S. general public feels in institutions of higher education has dropped over recent years, confidence in colleges and universities among business executives and hiring managers, on the other hand, has remained high.

There are some noteworthy exceptions in regards to the hiring practices of some companies, but the vast majority of evidence clearly indicates that a college degree remains an invaluable asset to job seekers attempting to enter the workforce. Indeed, BLS data strongly suggest that unemployment rates are lower for adults as their level of education increases and that median weekly earnings increase with level of education attainment.

Put simply, those with college degrees are less likely to be unemployed and tend to make more money than those with lesser amounts of education.

In a 2012 Annual Review of Sociology article, Michael Hout reviews the many studies that have looked at the benefits of college education. His review of the scholarly literature suggests that not only does an increase in education benefit the individual in the form of higher monetary earnings, it is also associated with increased levels of happiness and health, and perhaps even a longer lifespan. Education also appears to increase productivity, boost the economy, and increase civic engagement.

Hout states in the conclusion of his review that “Education makes life better.” When one examines the entirety of the data, it certainly is difficult to conclude otherwise.    

An educated workforce is necessary to help rural Georgia thrive in the modern economy. If that that training is grounded in liberal education, Georgia workers will have the knowledge, skills, and versatility to succeed in the jobs of tomorrow. 

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