Cashing In On Columbia?


Le_Penseur_at_Columbia_University_(6435262909) Cover image by Katie Shenck, via Flickr.

As the end of the year approaches, students across Columbia’s campus are turning their thoughts towards the world outside the gates of 116th and Broadway. With recovery from the global recession proceeding slowly and youth unemployment at almost 15 percent, it is tempting to question the actual value of our liberal arts degrees. We reached out to the Columbia community to find out their views on education and the economy, asking student groups, professors, and administrators the following question:

What role should Columbia play in preparing students to face this economy?


Education, in terms of both opening your mind and acquiring skills, means that students should be exposed to informed debates among faculty on issues before the world today. At Columbia today, money goes instead to programs like the Committee on Global Thought and the Earth Institute which are led by people who want to bamboozle students into specific advocacy by packing panels with people who share their specific prescriptions. Their programs are a travesty of the Habermaasian democracy that we ought to encourage. This needs to be changed; rotating the leadership of such programs, so they do not turn into fiefdoms, would help.

- Jagdish Bhagwati, Economics, Law and International Affairs 

Sunil Gulati, Economics

Columbia, in addition to providing graduates basic skills (communications, etc.) should be an opportunity to experiment and experience. Preparing for the economy is easier than preparing for life and the latter is much easier if passion is central to the choices one makes. Finding that passion is more often than not based on experimentation and experience.

Rashid Khalidi, History 

It is understandable that students are concerned about jobs. I have three kids out in the world, and I know how tough it can be.

But I have two words of warning: A certain kind of narrow-minded professionalization is the antithesis of true education. What you do to make yourself “job-ready” may be at the expense of benefits that can only be acquired from an open-minded approach to learning. Moreover, the best kind of education, such as that Columbia students are extremely fortunate to have access to, prepares you for a satisfying and successful life, and not just a “career.”

I know many people who aggressively sought career advancement from early on, and who later on found themselves working hard and making money, but got no enjoyment from what they were doing. I would not want to live that way. Ricardo Reis, Economics

This recession, as well as the evolution of the labor market over the past two decades, suggests that success in the labor market depends on having a set of skills that give you an edge across at least four dimensions. First, to be able to change occupations to follow demand. Second, to not be easily substituted by machines or computers, by relying on the creativity and personal relations that humans excel at. Third, being ready to learn, more than to do, so that you can adapt to new technologies. And fourth, realize that there is strong competition from all corners of the globe. All four factors support the value of a liberal arts education at a top university, like Columbia.

Martin Chalfie, Biological Sciences 

I hope that what students learn during their time at Columbia (from their classes, from their classmates, and from the experience of living for four years in New York City) enriches their lives and will continue to do so. I am not sure that the job of the university is to prepare people for the future in any specific sense, but rather to widen their perspective as to what the future can be.

John Kymissis, Electrical Engineering

Students needs marketable skills to be productive members of society (and have a job). Columbia offers many opportunities for students to develop those skills, both through a high level of technical education and through a grounding in writing, critical thinking, and the liberal arts. Even people in the deepest technical areas spend nearly all of their time reading, writing, and editing written documents ― don’t let anyone tell you those skills aren’t important for high level work in any field!

Can we do more? Absolutely. I think that we can provide more guidance, earlier, on what students can do to maximize their education and marketability. We can also do more (and many people at Columbia are working hard on this) to create a local ecosystem for economic development, which would have many benefits. Our graduates are successful, though, because the basic components are here and have been for the past 250 or so years.

Bob Neer, History & Core Lecturer

First, Columbia should educate students to think paradigmatically: to understand the specific issue presented within a broader context of meaning so that they can devise innovative and constructive responses. Second, it should sensitize them to the global implications of virtually every aspect of our contemporary economy. Third, introduce them to fields of thought that are not specifically economic ― for example, science, history, literature, and art ― that will give them a competitive edge over others with narrower fields of vision and, simultaneously, help sustain them as they travel turbulent economic seas.

Gayatri Spivak, English and Comparative Literature 

Students from a world-class university such as Columbia must enter the various economies from which they come and work with them to turn the global economy around in the service of the world, rather than a sustainable underdevelopment which increases the gap between the rich and the poor.

Susan Elmes, Economics

Ideally, a Columbia education does not prepare a student for a specific career but for a range of careers. It is much less common today for a person to stay in the same field for his or her whole working life. Learning how to write and speak well, to think analytically and quantitatively, and to synthesize information are skills needed in a wide range of professions. These are the same skills that students use every day at a liberal arts college like Columbia. Once in an occupation, you will learn the specific responsibilities required in that position. However, it is the skill set that you bring from Columbia that will help you excel in that position.


I believe those of us in college administration who advise students can prepare them to confront the current economy by helping them think expansively about jobs and careers. Most students, because of their relative youth and limited experience of the working world, are familiar with the most visible careers or most visible kinds of labor -- i.e., doctors, lawyers, teachers, retail, finance, maybe jobs related to local or federal governments. But there are a host of jobs and careers out there, many of them in new and growing fields, that students aren’t aware of, or they aren’t able to connect their passions or skills to those potential jobs. For example, I’ve met with students interested in statistics who haven’t yet discovered the vast array of jobs for statisticians, from the field of policy to the field of medicine to the field of higher education and institutional research. It’s up to us as administrators to inform ourselves of the new trends and fields out there, and to let students know that their liberal arts skills are transferable to those fields.

Natalie Friedman, Dean of Studies, Barnard College 

Mary Boyce, Dean of Columbia Engineering 

As articulated in our mission statement, Columbia’s School of Engineering and Applied Science educates and prepares students to go on to become innovative, socially responsible leaders in industry, government, and academia. Our education is grounded in the fundamental principles and creative approaches of engineering, while being critically informed by the broader perspective of a distinguished liberal arts education. The natural integration of the University’s Core liberal arts program with our rigorous engineering curriculum is a tremendous asset for our students. This curriculum is further enhanced by a multitude of co-curricular opportunities. We live today in a global, multi-disciplinary world with very fluid boundaries, and it is essential that our students have broad-based intellectual skills—that they have the ability to think, work, and act in creative, analytic, and synthetic ways, bringing together ideas from diverse fields and merging these into a cohesive, problem-solving approach to world issues. Our students are in the enviable position of being part of a vibrant, creative, innovative community, poised to be adaptive to an ever-changing world and economy and to bring their talents to help shape the future.

James Valentini, Dean of Columbia College 

The role of a liberal arts education is to teach you how to think and to prepare you for any career that you choose. The skills that you hone in the Core – to analyze, to communicate, to understand big ideas – will be valuable in whatever career that you pursue. Whether you become a filmmaker, an entrepreneur, or a research scientist, you will have to express your knowledge, share it, and explain it. You will have to present ideas, propel plans, and communicate your accomplishments. You will have to challenge and critique, persuade and convince, judge and assess. You are learning to do these things in Lit Hum, CC, and your other Core courses. You are learning about human interaction, human communication, and human motivation. You are learning to take chances, to be creative and productive, and to challenge yourselves and others. These skills will help you succeed in whatever economy, in whatever path you choose.


Any humanities professor will tell you that there are plenty of employers looking for workers skilled at critical reading and writing. Far fewer have had a conversation with those employers to get a sense of the specific skills and competencies they’re looking for. And I’m not sure if any have incorporated that feedback into the way they structure and teach their classes.

By contrast, my discipline, economics, has adjusted to meet the needs of its students without sacrificing intellectual vitality. Academic economics is an incredibly mathematically sophisticated field: A major in math is practically a prerequisite for admission to most Ph.D programs. But advanced math isn’t necessary to understand the fundamental economic concepts at work--and the techniques of academic economics are useless for the finance/consulting jobs that most undergrad majors desire. By jettisoning the trappings of academic rigor in favor of a focus on core concepts the Economics department has given itself the flexibility to teach those concepts in a way that emphasizes the skills that employers want to see―an example other departments can and should follow.

- Rishab Guha, President, Columbia Parliamentary Debate

Kevin Zhang, President, Columbia Organization of Rising Entrepreneurs (CORE) 

I believe that the future of the economy includes two interesting and potentially powerful trends. First of all, more and more, students, particularly at Columbia, want to feel that they can take on significant and impactful responsibility immediately. Secondly, the economy of the future looks less guaranteed, more fluid, and broadly more entrepreneurial. Columbia should prepare students for the implications of these trends. The Business Management concentration was a step in the right direction, but the program remains underdeveloped, unloved, and deeply lacking in resources. Experiential learning is also critically important. In contrast to the vibrant programs at Princeton, Harvard, and Stanford, the Columbia Student Enterprises are small, lethargic projects. Columbia is at heart a liberal arts institution, and that will not change. Over the past few decades, great entrepreneurs have come from all walks of life, and the University has been exceptional in producing those leaders. But as the skills needed to succeed in the workplace and economy become ever more complex and specific, the University should loosen the curriculum a bit and admit, at least to some small degree, that practical education can be paired with the liberal arts.

Zack Newman, President, Application Development Initiative (ADI) 

As somebody who is fortunate enough to be passionate about a highly employable field, I have the luxury of being able to say that I wish I focused more on skills and topics that were less directly relevant to jobs during my time at Columbia. That said, I also don’t think that Columbia should just kick you out after four years and expect you to figure your life out on your own. The problem, I think, is that a lot of talented students emerging from Columbia don’t know about opportunities that are out there. Our Center for Career Education is awesome if you want to go into finance or consulting, but to my knowledge their résumé editing services are tailored to these fields. Columbia’s job is to educate you, not to hold your hand into the real world. But a little help never hurt.

Sarah Durham, Head Logistics Coordinator and Max Marshall, Veritas Forum 

Could Columbia achieve better post-graduation employment metrics? Sure. Our University could shunt MFAs into computer science classrooms, make sure all our Philosophy majors are Excel certified, and hold a mandatory “networking skills” seminar during NSOP. But—at least for now—Columbia still prides itself on providing a seemingly more economically aloof brand of learning through the Core and the liberal arts education it embodies.

One of the routinely ignored display cases on Hamilton’s ground floor records the goal of the whole enterprise. Those whom the Core educates “must have learned to feed their souls upon good books, pictures and music.” In return, they will “possess an inner life of sufficient richness to withstand the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.”

That was written in 1938, surely a time of “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune”, and of economic ruin even greater than our own. 1938 may speak to 2008: let’s accept their thesis and let humanizing habits—instead of marketable skills—save us.