Perhaps “things at Facebook would be different if Mark Zuckerberg had a liberal arts degree or took more humanities courses in college,” Paula Krebs, executive director of the Modern Language Association, said at an academic conference recently. Her association is one of the nation’s largest scholarly groups.
Zuckerberg, of course, is a Harvard dropout. But even among computer scientists and engineers who graduated from college, it’s often the case that the requirements for their major leave little room for classes in philosophy or history. At the same time, few liberal arts graduates take STEM courses (science, technology, engineering and math) that would allow them to compete for jobs in the tech industry. Yet research has shown that the fastest-growing occupations are those requiring both the cognitive skills of STEM and the soft skills of the liberal arts.
Now, the two sides are coming together in a partnership designed to make students more employable. Dominican University of California, a small liberal arts college, and Make School, a San Francisco-based coding boot camp, are partnering to offer computer science courses and a minor at Dominican taught by Make School faculty, while Dominican professors will teach general education classes at Make School and help incubate a new bachelor’s degree there.
On the surface, an alliance between a college with 1,264 undergraduates and a start-up boot camp with 110 students might not seem that meaningful. But it matters for several reasons.
For one, many small colleges are struggling financially and to meet the changing demands of their students. While Dominican is financially sound, its president, Mary B. Marcy, told me it would have taken more than $1 million and several years to start a computer science program that probably would have reached only a handful of students. The partnership with Make School allows Dominican to make basic data and coding skills “ubiquitous among our students no matter their major,” Marcy said.
Second, the partnership could do a small part to diversify the tech industry, which is overwhelmingly white and male. More than half of Dominican’s enrollment is made up of underrepresented students of color; one-third are the first in their family to attend college. Meanwhile, 42 percent of Make School’s current class is constituted of underrepresented students.
Finally, Make School gets access to Dominican’s accreditation — and the federal financial aid for students that comes along with it — while it develops an independent, accredited degree program. Boot camps, like Make School, grew quickly in recent years because they offered the promise of lucrative tech jobs after students completed programs that were more focused and shorter than traditional college degrees in computer science. At one point, there were more than 60 boot camps in the United States and Canada. But the boot camp market is beginning to shrink and consolidate, in part because the schools don’t offer traditional degrees and can’t provide federal aid to students.
“Tech companies said they didn’t look for degrees when in reality that’s how they were sorting talent, by degrees,” said Ashu Desai, one of the founders of Make School. Desai and his co-founder, Jeremy Rossmann, no longer consider Make School an alternative or replacement for college, but as a complement to traditional higher education.
With the Dominican partnerships, “we’re not becoming like traditional higher ed,” Rossmann told me, “but living alongside traditional colleges.”
The hope of Make School and Dominican is that their partnership spawns a model of college that allows legacy higher education institutions to copy the model nationwide as well as join with new providers in any field, not just technology. Imagine colleges partnering in this way with hospitals, retailers and manufacturers to provide students with a mix of the hands-on skills and the foundational knowledge needed to be a productive citizen.
It’s nearly impossible for most colleges to remake their academic majors to keep up with changes in any field these days. As a result, higher education is often criticized as lacking innovation and being too slow to change with the economy. But colleges shouldn’t be expected to bear the burden of training the next generation of the workforce alone.
“The world of work is changing quickly,” Marcy said. “The basic core skills of the liberal arts — critical analysis, deep and coherent reading, and communication across differences are deeply needed in the tech field and every industry.” STEM fields have enjoyed massive growth at colleges mostly at the expense of the humanities. That’s unlikely to change anytime soon. But the liberal arts still play a critical role in educating citizens, and it will take innovative thinking by higher education leaders to build models of college for the future.