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UB aiming for more job-friendly liberal arts degrees

Some college students have been avoiding arts and humanities majors in recent years, often out of fear that they won’t have employable skills when they obtain their degrees.

The University at Buffalo is trying to woo them back.

Last week, UB got a boost from the State University of New York, which is providing $1.75 million for efforts to create several programs emphasizing applied learning and professional training for humanities students.

The new academic offerings could help make arts and humanities students more employable.

“As a nation, we aren’t attracting a lot of students to the classical humanities to get their degrees,” said Charles F. Zukoski, UB’s provost. “We need to take the material to where the students are. Society is changing. Students are taking on a lot of debt. They’re deeply concerned about the return on investment, if you will. There seems to be more risk associated with going into majors that do not have obvious career outcomes.”

In 2005, nearly 24 percent of bachelor’s degrees at UB went to students in eight traditional arts and humanities disciplines, including history, English and visual performing arts.

A decade later, that percentage was down to 12.5 percent, while disciplines such as engineering and life sciences experienced significant growth.

Nonetheless, the study of arts and humanities such as anthropology, English and foreign languages remains highly valuable to society, Zukoski said.

The university needs to figure the best ways to package such traditional programs with new ones that also teach core competencies needed by employers, he said.

UB is looking at options, including 3+2 programs involving humanities and the health sciences and certificate and master’s programs emphasizing professional training, but geared toward graduates who have liberal arts degrees. Students in such programs typically spend three years in a liberal arts program and then two years in one that’s more technical.

For example, a psychology or sociology major might be able to combine those programs with more technical, health-related studies in addiction.

Language majors might be attracted to a new degree program under consideration, called Speech, Language, and Hearing Science.

The grant will be used to research market demand for such programs, both from students and employers.

“We need to know if there’s student interest before we invest in building out the program,” Zukoski said.

UB is among 31 SUNY campuses splitting $18 million in awards announced last Monday as part of the system’s new investment and performance fund to reward ideas that improve college completion rates. SUNY Chancellor Nancy L. Zimpher included the awards in her annual State of SUNY address in Albany.

“On a tight deadline, 61 campuses came back to us with a total of 211 proposals, which translated into $489 million in completion ideas,” Zimpher said.

“So we had some choices to make. To help, we enlisted a panel of independent external reviewers to ensure that the ideas put forward were consistent with or exceeded national best practices.

“And from their recommendations, we selected programs that will give our system and our students the most bang for the buck.”

SUNY Fredonia and SUNY Geneseo also were among the beneficiaries of the fund, which debuted this year. Fredonia will get $420,000 to lead a five-campus partnership to analyze course offerings, course capacity and space utilization.

Partnering campuses are the College of Ceramics at Alfred University, Dutchess Community College, SUNY Oneonta and Schenectady Community College.

In addition to the $1.75 million, UB will get $250,000 to help improve student performance in “gateway” courses, as part of a four-way partnership with the University at Albany, Binghamton University and Stony Brook University.

Courses such as freshman physics, chemistry, biology and calculus are considered gateways to further college study, especially within the science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM, fields. Without mastering those courses, students are unlikely to perform well in more advanced work.

The four university centers, including UB, will develop best-teaching practices, digitally enhanced learning technology and supplemental digital materials to increase student learning and improve student retention, degree progress and success in later courses.

The centers will adopt and implement the program across their four campuses. SUNY expects to ultimately use it at all its campuses.

email: jtokasz@buffnews.com