Let’s be honest: The job market can be a scary place for college students these days.

Right now, we’re living in a bubble, mostly shielded from the harsh realities of life after graduation. But as soon as we take off our caps and gowns, we’ll be faced with an economy still recovering from recession and unsettling anecdotes of college graduates living in their parents’ basements for years trying to pay off student loan debt. That’s the conventional wisdom, anyway.

Luckily, reality isn’t as depressing as the conventional wisdom suggests. There’s no question that we will face many challenges after graduation, but we should feel optimistic for two reasons.

First, numerous studies have shown that college graduates make more money and have a lower unemployment rate than people without a college degree. The latest job numbers reflect this trend; The U.S. Department of Labor found that college graduates faced a 3.7 percent unemployment rate in January. About half the number of unemployed people had no more than a high school diploma.

Second, our university is teaching us many of the skills we will need to be successful in the modern economy. Right now, we’re living in a “knowledge economy,” in which a “global focus, the skills of critical thinking and problem solving, communication skills, teamwork skills (and) technology skills” are important, according to Constance Cook, executive director of the University’s Center for Research on Learning and Teaching.

Cook said that LSA is doing a good job of teaching the skills that are necessary to succeed in the knowledge economy. For example, the college is “helping students learn to do critical thinking and problem solving,” which are particularly important components of a liberal arts education. Also, there is “an increasing focus on active learning and engaged, immersive experiences for students” such as study abroad and internship opportunities as well as undergraduate research opportunities through UROP. LSA has many learning communities to help students develop “teamwork and collaboration skills,” and some LSA faculty members are trying to “build technology into their classes so that students are using technology for their learning.”

Unfortunately, the liberal arts have been pushed to the sidelines in recent years as politicians and policymakers have pushed for a greater emphasis on science, technology, engineering and math skills and careers, often called STEM. For example, in his State of the Union address last week, President Barack Obama announced that “we’ll reward schools that … create classes that focus on science, technology, engineering and math, the skills today’s employers are looking for to fill the jobs that are there right now and will be there in the future.”

It’s true that there is a large role for STEM jobs to play in the modern economy and for teaching the skills to be qualified for those jobs. However, while STEM jobs are highly sought after right now in the wake of the recession, we need to think beyond the present moment. Unlike skills taught in humanities classes, for example, STEM skills may be “easily computerized and tradable” in the future, Daniel Jelski, a chemistry professor at State University of New York at New, wrote in an article for New Geography.

“I’m really sad about the lack of public understanding of the value of a liberal arts education, including the humanities and social sciences,” Cook said. “This incredible consumer focus and recession-related job focus of students and their parents I think is skewing our education system away from the humanities and social sciences, and that’s at a time when countries like China are moving toward the liberal arts because they see that innovation and creativity are very important.”

LSA is not the only college at Michigan that is helping to prepare students for the knowledge economy. The School of Engineering, for example, is working on teaching “teamwork” and “communication skills” in its courses, and is “putting a lot of effort into study-abroad opportunities and entrepreneurial opportunities for students,” according to Cook. Additionally, the School of Art and Design website states that all of its students must complete some kind of “international travel and study” experience.

The bottom line is that if we take advantage of the opportunities at our university that relate most closely to our interests and career goals, we will be prepared to succeed in the knowledge economy. We also should make sure that everyone understands the value of a liberal arts education in preparing us for our participation in the knowledge economy, especially at a time when the status quo says otherwise.

Yes, the economy is still struggling, but life after graduation isn’t quite as ominous as it sometimes seems.

Michael Spaeth can be reached at micspa@umich.edu.

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