Why Businesses Prefer a Liberal Arts Education

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What do American businesses want from their college hires? According to a new survey, creative thinkers and better communicators—both of which are said to be in short supply.

The survey of CEOs by the Association of American Colleges and Universities found that 74 percent said they would recommend a 21st-century liberal education in order to create a more dynamic worker. The survey of 320 business leaders was conducted in January. Results were released last week.

For some analysts, the findings point to an overemphasis on the so called STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and math) at the expense of a broader education that's also needed for business.

"A stem education is important but I think it's sucked all the oxygen out of the room and crowded out investment in other areas like history, literature and political science," said Jamie McKown, chairman of the government and polity department at the College of the Atlantic.

"I think the U.S. will lose some of its competitive edge if it takes the simplistic approach that this (STEM education) is the only pathway to economic success."

A key result in the survey is the need for innovation in the workplace. Ninety-five percent of those surveyed said they look for college graduates who can think clearly and solve problems and be able to translate their ideas with good oral and communication skills.

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One business owner said these talents are at top of his list for hiring.

"We want task-orientated people who have disciplines in critical thinking," said Michael Fromm, CEO of Fromm Electric, an electrical manufacturing firm based in Reading, Pa.

"If someone's studied literature, they know people and have insight into themselves and customers," said Fromm, who majored in journalism. "I find people that have a liberal arts background have a broader view of the world and will go farther in business."

The survey also found that business executives thought colleges weren't teaching students what they need to know to succeed. A third of employers said graduates weren't even qualified for entry level work when it came to reading and writing.

Some colleges say they are trying to meet the demand. (Read More: Surging Student-Loan Debt Is Crushing the System)

"Companies want people who are functionally literate and can read and write," said Jonathan Hill, co-director of the Stem Center at Pace University. "When business students come here, they learn the computer languages but we also make them take a foreign language. The idea is to have graduates strong in their chosen business area and in the arts, like writing and reading."

"Our business students take more liberal arts classes, like the humanities, literature and art, than they take business classes," said Donald Gibson, dean of Fairfield University. "This is rare among colleges, but we think this makes them more well rounded and better at succeeding in their chose field of business."

But a liberal education, one that might focus on the arts and humanities, has come under fire lately in an economy that's slow to create jobs.

Governors in Florida, Texas, and North Carolina have said they are thinking of shifting state funding to degrees that have the best job prospects—specifically those in math, science and technology and away from liberal arts. They cite the need to improve a graduate's work prospects, with unemployment hovering around 7.6 percent.

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"It's easier to sell math and science as a political selling point with the current economic moment," said McKown. "That's nothing new, though the data suggests it's not necessarily more relevant for employers."

A focus on a STEM education as well as liberal arts should be part of any argument, said Mauri Ditzler, president of Monmouth College.

"To say that the country is spending too much time on science and math at the expense of liberal arts is a wrong distinction," Ditzler said. "It's important for students to have humanities as well as math and science. That's what we do here at Monmouth. We expose students to all areas of education."

Only 8 percent of college students now major in the humanities, according to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. That's down from a peak of more than 17 percent in 1967. For Gibson, that's a sign of economic pressure.

"There's a strong concern by students and parents to focus on an education that seems like an immediate gateway to a job," the Fairfield University dean said. "But they're not getting the full education they need. They end up missing some basic skills that businesses want."

For Brian Fox, an adjunct professor at Vanderbilt University and founder of Confirmation.com, a firm that specializes in electronic audit confirmations, students must realize they have to change with the times.

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"Businesses want more now," Fox said. "In places like Google, they want people who are self-motivated and articulate and can think on their own. It's not enough just to have tech skills. Graduates have to do more."