Civic-Rich Preparation for Work

Recent headlines indicate that many hybrid and electric car owners are trading their automobiles in for sports utility vehicles now that gas prices have dropped significantly. Such is the consequence of using primarily an economic rather than a public interest rationale to justify purchasing hybrid cars in the first place. Are we making the same mistake in our defense of liberal education? We assure students and their parents that liberal education produces a perfect match for capabilities that employers seek. Liberal education thus becomes a means to a greater end: economic security. In so doing, are we selling students short and undermining deeper values and dispositions critical for the workplace, the world, and the vibrancy of our democracy?

Propelled by our collective work on A Crucible Moment: College Learning and Democracy's Future, Derek Barker from the Kettering Foundation approached the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) about creating a joint civic project. Elizabeth Minnich and I took the lead for AAC&U. We decided to explore the intersection of civic engagement, liberal education, and work. Now in our third year, we have narrowed the focus to a simple question. What if we rethought what higher education counts—and students understand—as preparation for work and made civic learning a centerpiece? How might that alter both liberal education itself and students' commitment to sustaining the public good? How might a deliberately civic-enriched liberal education prepare students for good jobs and for exercising civic muscles and democratic values while doing their work?

What Kind of Workers Does the World Need?

With college access now widely available to formerly excluded people across class, race, and income, we should embrace the fact that college leads to greater economic and social mobility. Such trends strengthen our democracy, economy, and social cohesion. Obtaining a college education is a smart employment strategy. In Working in the 21st Century, the US Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics, reports that "college graduates age twenty-five and over earn nearly twice as much as workers who stopped with a high school diploma." We are not therefore backing away from how important college is in securing decent jobs. Instead we are taking that end very seriously by asking: What kind of workers does the world need higher education to develop, given the fact that its academic and public missions are intertwined?

At the moment, we are settling for too little. According to a series of important AAC&U research surveys of employers over the past five years, five capabilities rose to the top in almost every survey: (1) critical thinking, (2) written and oral communication, (3) teamwork skills, (4) ethical decision making, and (5) the ability to apply knowledge in real-world settings (Hart Research Associates 2010, 2013, 2015).

Of these, only the fourth one is uniquely important to a democratic society. Except for ethical decision making, the other four outcomes were part of what made financial lending in the subprime mortgage scheme so wildly profitable. The one troubling drawback—not to the lender, but to others—was that what earned some financial workers dazzling private incomes sent the rest of the world into financial chaos on a scale not seen since the Great Depression.

The five liberal education skills above therefore leave unanswered to what ends these capabilities will be put. Applying knowledge to real-world settings in order to do what, exactly? This is where AAC&U's third pillar in the LEAP Essential Learning Outcomes—personal and social responsibility—is key. With it in place, a much stronger case can be made for liberal education's intellectual, democratic, and economic value. But too few in academia make social responsibility a priority. Too often it is optional—or assigned to student affairs alone. Yet it is the outcome that couples liberal education inextricably with public ends. When attentive to social responsibility, students gain necessary context to evaluate what their ends might be, who is served or left out, and how to work with others to invent, create, imagine, and construct the public ends that serve democracy's purposes most effectively and justly.

Instead of the usual assumption that citizenship is only practiced outside of work, we posit it as integral to preparation for work. These democratic questions include, among other things, how the workplace is organized, who has a say in how things are run, how wages and perks are dispersed, how ethical practices are encouraged or stifled, the social purpose of what is produced, who has access to purchasing it, what the affects are on the people and the planet producing it, who benefits from it, and whether there is exploitation.

Education for Social Responsibility

What we are suggesting, then, is to turn the tables a bit. We propose that colleges make education for social responsibility a non-negotiable, sought-after outcome for every student, whatever the specialty. Such a stance would require that we specify the public democratic dispositions that we can incorporate in courses, campus life, pedagogies, and institutional policies. It might then prompt students to turn to questions about the public's welfare as a civic compass when they are at work. All employers might not seek this, but higher education can—and should.

What a civic-rich liberal education looks like in practice is visible on many campuses. It is not yet routine, however, for all students across their college years and across all majors, despite compelling evidence about how to foster it. In "Advancing and Assessing Civic Learning," Sylvia Hurtado, Adriana Ruize, and Hannah Whang offer evidence of the power of service learning as a predictor of five civic outcomes: critical consciousness and action; social agency; integration of learning; civic engagement; and political engagement. But in Hart's 2015 survey, only 23 percent of students had done service learning in two-year schools, 41 percent in four-year publics, and 56 percent in four-year privates (16). Similarly, Hurtado et al. report that the more students engaged with others of different racial/ethnic groups whether in or out of class, "the higher their scores or change on all six civic outcomes" (12). That same article also showed that an inclusive curriculum is associated with contributing to a pluralist orientation so important to a diverse democracy like ours.

Other high-impact pedagogies can improve student learning, provide useful work skills, and develop civic capacities. These include action projects in which students work in diverse groups to tackle messy public problems; participatory research assignments; civic-rich, problem-centered internships; or sustained community-based partnerships, whether in the United States or beyond its borders. AAC&U's next generation of work in LEAP iteration calls for every student to do a Signature Work Project that occurs over a semester. If such a culminating project embeds civic questions within it, liberal education will be cultivating not just good learners but good citizens, in and outside of the workplace. Finally, A Crucible Moment also recommends that all departments, not just some, define with and for their students "the public purposes of their respective fields, the civic inquiries most urgent to explore, and the best way to infuse civic learning outcomes progressively across the major" (32). Were this routine across all disciplines, as AAC&U's new publication Civic Prompts suggests is possible, higher education would indeed be transformed into an intellectual civic commons (Musil 2015).

With such a civic-rich liberal education, students could achieve private goods without abandoning public ones. Rethinking preparation for work as deliberately incorporating a civic lens in students' studies could be the single most valuable college outcome for the workplace and the world. This is a degree that no owner will want to trade in. 


Hart Research Associates. 2010. Raising the Bar: Employers' Views on College Learning in the Wake of the Economic Downturn. Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities.

——. 2013. It Takes More than a Major: Employer Priorities for College Learning and Student Success. Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities.

——. 2015. Falling Short? College Learning and Career Success. Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities.

Hurtado, Sylvia, Adriana Ruize, and Hannah Whang. 2012. "Advancing and Assessing Civic Learning." Diversity & Democracy 15 (3): 10–12.

Musil, Caryn McTighe. 2015. Civic Prompts: Making Civic Learning Routine Across the Disciplines. Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities.

National Task Force on Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement. 2012. A Crucible Moment: College Learning and Democracy's Future. Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities.

US Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics. Working in the 21st Century: A Chartbook. Retrieved July 8, 2015 from

Caryn McTighe Musil is a senior scholar and director of Civic Learning and Democracy Initiatives at AAC&U.

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