Skills That Really Matter: A Funder's Pathway to Employment, Paved With the Liberal Arts

George Orwell once said, "To see what is in front of one's nose needs a constant struggle."

He's right. Just take the importance of the liberal arts as it applies to getting ahead in today's economy. As repeatedly noted on Inside Philanthropy, a liberal arts education helps to develop better scientists, doctors, programmers, and more. This should be painfully obvious, yet some funders still equate a liberal arts degree with a one-way ticket to barista purgatory.

The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation has been working at changing the conversation, and one of its recent moves is a case in point.

The foundation awarded $2.145 million in grants to the Foothill-De Anza Community College District and the University of San Francisco for a new transfer program to help underserved and underrepresented students earn four-year degrees in the humanities. The program also provides collaborative teaching and research opportunities for Foothill-De Anza and USF faculty.

There are two important elements at play here.

First, is the view that the business world does, in fact, value critical thinkers and problem-solvers. The Humanities Mellon Scholars Program "responds to a growing need for professionals who are skilled in the practices of inquiry and habits of cultural analysis that lead to innovation, sustainability, and entrepreneurship."

Steve Jobs hit on this way back in 2011. When introducing the iPad 2, he said, “It is in Apple's DNA that technology alone is not enough—it's technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields us the results that make our heart sing.”

Six years later, the incremental merging of liberal arts competencies with technical and STEM-like curricula is very much on the ascent across the higher ed funding landscape. 

Recent Inside Philanthropy coverage looked at a $15 million gift from James and Anne Marie Hynes to Iona College aims to foster the "entrepreneurial mindset," while back in January Spelman College received a $1 million gift from Leonard and Louise Riggio to "encourage creative collaborations at the intersection of the arts, technology, science and other liberal arts disciplines." 

And in early March, a tried-and-true liberal arts school, Orange, California's Chapman University, received a $45 million commitment from alumni Dale E. Fowler and wife Sarah Ann, to launch an engineering school.

Worlds are colliding, fast and furiously.

The second notable element of the Mellon announcement is that it's focused on underserved students, the kind who are typically encouraged to acquire narrow and practical skills. 

Developing such skills tends to be a big focus of community colleges. So it's intriguing to see a funder aiming to broaden the horizons of students in such places, in this case offering a transfer pathway to those who wish to continue their studies for a bachelor’s degree at USF’s College of Arts and Sciences in either the Honors Program in the Western and Global Humanities or the Saint Ignatius Institute Program.

Up to twenty students annually will receive a USF scholarship of up to $10,000 a year in addition to other financial aid they may receive, and will be eligible for research assistant positions, paid summer internships, course materials, conference travel funds, and a special Mellon Scholars graduation ceremony.

Organizers anticipate that 280 Foothill-De Anza students will join the Humanities Mellon Scholars Program over the four-and-a-half years of the grants. That's a huge footprint.

Judy C. Miner, chancellor of the Foothill-De Anza Community College District, sums up the intangible benefits of a liberal arts degree rather eloquently:

Study of the humanities is essential to students’ development as global citizens and can even serve as a countermeasure to the decreased civility in our society. It deepens critical thinking, encourages social responsibility, and contributes to character development—qualities that are so critical in the world today. The knowledge and values that evolve from studying humanities are a good match with the traits that employers say they want in their employees.

George Orwell and Steve Jobs would approve.