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A Presidential Combination: Liberal Arts And Professional Education

12/12/2016 11:42 GMT | Updated 13/12/2017 10:12 GMT

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Photo credit: Gage Skidmore

The United States of America's president-elect Donald Trump and defeated Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton do have something in common: they both pursued a liberal arts degree before progressing to graduate schools.

Liberal arts education prepares young people for the complexities of modern society, typically by teaching them both science and humanities.

However, on this side of the Atlantic, liberal arts is much less well rooted.

One of the reasons for that is our emphasis on employability: a professional qualification leads much faster to a job, so at first sight professional education is a much more solid investment. From an accountability perspective, the taxpayer can see a quick return on investment. Research shows that those with some form of professional education are much more likely to have a relevant job within six months, and typically will earn a higher salary. But, as so often, first impressions can be deceptive.

If we follow graduates over a longer period, the picture changes quite a lot. Evidence suggests that in the end, those with a generic liberal arts education actually do significantly better in terms of career and income.

The likely reason is that a broader education is a better preparation for a position with senior responsibility than a career-focused qualification. Also, because the scope of liberal arts is much wider, these graduates are more flexible and hence less vulnerable in their career than those who opted for a narrower professional path. Of course, we are talking about big number statistics - individual careers might show different patterns.

For governments, big numbers determine policies. Having students opting for professional, more career-focused education is attractive, as it gives a quick return in terms of economic usefulness.

For graduates themselves, it is appealing to have a less anxious transition from study to work; and, of course, universities are rewarded for their focus on professional education with rosy employability statistics. But actually, a more generic education like liberal arts will probably serve you better if you have high ambitions - though not necessarily as high as president of the United States of America!

In the US, it is quite common to study at a liberal arts college followed by a degree from a school with a professional focus, ensuring the best of both worlds. In the case of Hillary Clinton, this was Yale Law School. That choice says a lot about her approach to her career path, and a combination of broad and highly specialised education plus considerable intelligence prepared her well to succeed in politics.

In contrast, Donald Trump opted for the equally prestigious Wharton Business School. One thing he learned there was that the only chance he had of defeating someone as strong, well-prepared, and experienced as Hillary Clinton was by ignoring all conventions.

Donald Trump's campaign effectively added a political dimension to the economic term of "disruptive".

Trump and Clinton went to very different colleges, though both were selective and prestigious. Hillary went to one of the so-called seven sisters, the all-female Wellesley College. Though in the end she failed to fully harness the women's vote, gender was certainly a very comfortable theme for her.

Mr Trump went to Fordham University, which is a New York college founded by Jesuits. Over the last five centuries, this Catholic order has a record of teaching that leadership should be a selfless service and a humbling privilege - never to be driven by one's ego. Over the next four years, we shall find out how effective that educational message has been, and whether Mr Trump will turn out to be an alumnus that Fordham can be proud of.

All of this does contain a serious message. When it comes to choosing education, the longer route of a more generic first degree ideally followed by professional postgraduate education still offers the gold standard in higher education.

It might not fit the agenda of the UK government - which for funding purposes seems to prefer keeping tertiary education as short and focused as possible. But, by and large, it remains the strongest foundation for success in life.

Professor Maurits van Rooijen is Rector and Chief Executive at London School of Business and Finance (LSBF) and Chief Academic Officer of Global University Systems (GUS).