Adelphi University President Robert Scott was having a dental checkup a few weeks ago when he found himself being grilled. His dentist's son wanted to study, of all things, art in college. "But what could someone do with an art degree?" the dentist lamented to Scott.
Across the nation amid an anemic economy, parents, students and colleges are asking the same question: How do you take a liberal arts education and leverage it into a paycheck after commencement?
As a result, Long Island's four-year colleges - from large ones like Stony Brook with 25,000 students to smaller Molloy College with 4,000 - have been shaking up curricula, adding job-friendly courses and majors - all meant to ensure that graduates don't end up jobless and living in the family basement surrounded by their books and diplomas in philosophy or Ancient Greek.
"We are determined to provide a relevant education to all students," said Stony Brook University provost Eric Kaler, "and we're making sure that we offer programs that are seen as leading more directly to jobs."
Several years ago as the economy began to stumble, he said, the school saw increasing student interest in nonliberal arts studies and began expanding courses in engineering, health sciences and the environmental sciences - fields seen as promising for jobs.
State labor department officials say sectors that figure to see job growth include health care, high tech, and business and professional services.
In five years, the number of first-year students at Stony Brook enrolled in computer engineering soared 87 percent, mechanical engineering 90 percent and physics - good preparation, school officials said, for the emerging fields of wireless technology and advanced energy, as well as postdoctoral research and commercial research and development - by 113 percent.
Kaler says the university's strategy is to play to its strengths in the hard sciences and health science. For example, he said, it has developed bachelor's degree programs in coastal environmental studies and sustainability studies - growing areas in an ecology-minded era that expect to draw more attention and career opportunities in the wake of the Gulf oil spill.
He said Albany budget cuts have stalled several other job-linked programs. After getting state approval for a civil engineering major, which is in demand from students and potential employers, the plans were abandoned this year amid $30 million in cuts.
Even as the number of students earning degrees in French, German and Hispanic literature remained flat, and the number earning degrees in English fell 10 percent, Kaler stresses Stony Brook is not abandoning its liberal arts roots, only mixing in some old-fashioned pragmatism.
"It's important to maintain the balance between a short-term career and a long-term, productive life of work and learning," he said.
Molloy is offering this school year a minor in sustainability, so students can graduate with environmental credentials.
To make its students more attractive in the job market, Molloy added Arabic three years ago to meet a demand from employers in the law enforcement and business industries; enrollment increased by nearly 70 percent in the first two years.
The school touts that its new business dean, Ed Weis, comes from Wall Street, not academia, and students majoring in business increased nearly three times faster than the number majoring in humanities from 2004 to 2009.
"Parents touring the campus ask why their son or daughter should spend four years earning a liberal arts degree if they're going to end up at home without a job," said Marguerite Lane, Molloy's admissions director. She estimates she hears that concern from parents 10 times more often now than she did two years ago.
Eye on job market
Virtually every Long Island college said it has been taking steps to make its students more marketable.
Adelphi, a relatively small, traditional liberal arts school with nearly 8,000 undergrads and graduate students, has expanded its nursing programs to better accommodate career changers. This year it began offering a master's degree in emergency management and is looking to expand interdisciplinary offerings in health fields.
The school also started an internship program that pays students to take unpaid placements at regional nonprofits.
Still, Scott, the university's president, defends the value of liberal arts - he calls it a "liberating" education - "which draws from the wisdom of the ages to prepare for the problems for today."
At Farmingdale State College, which was launched as an agricultural school and always has specialized in career-oriented programs, a surge this year in applications - which have been increasing since 2000 - prompted the admissions office to stop accepting them in July. "There's no more room at the inn," said communications director Kathy Coley.
Last year, SUNY Old Westbury added a bachelor's degree in biochemistry, to help students get jobs as researchers.
Hofstra University has added popular bachelor's degree programs in forensic science, urban ecology and physician's assistant studies. Like other local colleges, Hofstra has bolstered internships, mentoring by alumni and other initiatives meant to give students an edge in the job market.
Shift in priorities
National studies show that is now students' top priority.
College guide publisher The Princeton Review asked students this year what they saw as the prime benefit of college: 55 percent replied it was about jobs and income, compared to 45 percent citing education.
And a 2009 UCLA study of 200,000 incoming freshmen at 1,500 schools reported that more students cited "to get a better job" as a very important reason for entering college as compared with "to learn about things that interest me," a reversal from the previous survey in 2006.
Matt Klics is one student who took a second look at the direction of his education. A few months into his freshman year at Stony Brook, Klics considered the job market and decided it was time to switch his major from history to athletic training.
"At least this way, I can get into physical therapy, which is a growing field," said Klics, 19, of Northvale, N.J. As baby boomers age, he noted, they will need help for their aches and pains. "What am I going to do with a history degree?"
Bernie Firestone, dean of Hofstra University's College of Arts and Sciences, said the debate over whether a broad or narrow education is better has raged for decades but always intensifies during economic downturns.
"The argument gains greater currency at a time when people are nervous about their investment in a university education when they're worried about how long they're going to have to support their children," he said.
The fate of liberal arts is seen as so pressing that Hofstra will host a conference on the value of a liberal arts degree. Hofstra resolutely defends the importance of a traditional education with its emphasis on critical thinking, writing and communication skills. "What good is a professional education that trains you for your first job," said Firestone, "but not for the ones after that?"
With Jennifer Maloney
While humanities courses remain popular on many local campuses, classes intended to prepare students directly for jobs are flourishing. Some majors, minors and courses introduced in the past four years:
- Bachelor of science in biochemistry (for careers in emerging fields that mix biology and chemistry)
- Master of science in taxation
- Minor in sustainability
- Bachelor of science in software technology, applied economics, applied psychology, applied mathematics.
- Minors in sustainable energy, sport management, web development, among others
- Bachelor of science in coastal environmental studies, bachelor of arts in sustainability studies
- Combined bachelor's/master's degrees in geosciences and public health, pharmacology and public health, and electrical engineering and business administration
- Master's degrees in genetic counseling and clinical laboratory science
- Five-year accelerated degree programs in international studies/business administration and in adolescence education and subject fields including Spanish and applied mathematics
- Courses in business negotiations, terrorism, video game design and global information systems
Source: Local colleges