College Students Shouldn’t Have To Choose Between Career Skills And Liberal Arts

A look at how one small college is attempting to help close the skills gap.

For too long, college students have been forced to make a false choice between a life-shaping liberal arts education or a pre-professional education that gives them valuable career skills.

The reality is that schools need to provide students with both. This requires moving from an “either/or” approach to a “both/and” mindset. Denison Edge is one of the ways we’re making that happen.

Located in the middle of downtown Columbus, about 30 minutes from Denison University’s main campus in Granville, Ohio, Denison Edge provides stackable skills and certifications that cater to the needs of today’s job market. The offerings cover practical areas ranging from sales and marketing, to finance and analytics, to supply chain and logistics.

As an extension of Denison’s Knowlton Center for Career Exploration, Denison Edge serves current liberal arts college students, recent graduates, and professionals. The goal is to provide the skill sets, direction, and networking opportunities to help them succeed in their career journeys.

For example, an undergraduate who’s been majoring in economics might enroll in an Excel certificate program to improve their odds of landing the desired internship. In one case, a young alumna working in real estate completed a marketing credential to support her business aspirations.

Since its launch in January 2021, nearly 350 students have taken advantage of Denison Edge programs. Currently, about 70% of participants are college students, and 30% are working professionals. Approximately 15 instructors—a mix of Denison faculty and local business experts—provide in-person instruction to intimate classes of 10-20 students.

While online and virtual skills programs have their place, the in-person approach offers several advantages. There’s a cohort effect, a small classroom effect, and a mentoring effect that comes into play. Perhaps because of these intangibles, there are also much better odds for course completion than many online programs.

Despite what the name might suggest, Denison Edge isn’t just for Denison students. Kenyon College, Otterbein University Marietta College, and Ohio Wesleyan University are just a few of the institutions whose students have taken advantage of our courses. We want to be a home base for anyone in the region who wants to pick up some “last mile” skills.

There are several signature course areas that Denison Edge uses as “delivery mechanisms” for skills and certifications. The first one is credentials. Like a typical college course, credentials are a deep dive into a topic requiring 30 hours of in-person learning over a 10-week period. For those who need a quicker path to top off their skillset, Denison Edge offers accelerators, which require 4-12 hours of content time over the span of 2-6 weeks.

And this summer we’re launching a summer immersion program that will enable a small group of 20 students to work full-time directly with a company here in Columbus for 6 weeks helping them solve a real-world business problem. That’s a terrific way to make valuable use of the full calendar year, given that students are only in classes for 60% of the year.

We’re serious about making these skills, certifications and experiences stackable, too. We work with a digital badging company that provides unique identifiers to anyone completing our programs; students then place these badges on their LinkedIn profile or resume. Companies can verify the program that the students or the professionals participated in, what the content of that program was, and how grades or marks were assessed.

Crucially, we can keep a finger on the pulse of the business community in Columbus to ensure that the programming we’re offering is relevant and that students are gaining the skills that companies are looking for. Columbus is humming these days, so it’s important to make sure the talent pipeline is firing on all the right cylinders.

If we’re going to serve our students in helping them successfully launch, and if we’re going to serve the larger world in providing talent that can drive economies forward, we must get out of this “either/or” bind that requires students to choose between a liberal arts education and technical pre-professional skills.

They need both. And with Denison Edge, we feel like we’re tearing down the old paradigm and building a model for where education needs to go.

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