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VOL. 133 | NO. 32 | Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Rhodes’ Hass Defends Liberal Arts Education

By Bill Dries

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The president of Rhodes College says trade schools, associate degrees and certification in specific skills can’t be the city’s only economic driver.

“I think we can all agree that we do not and cannot foresee an economy in which the trades are the only drivers,” said Rhodes president Marjorie Hass on the WKNO/Channel 10 program “Behind The Headlines.”

“When we are looking at the kinds of higher orders of complexity, the kinds of problems we need to solve, the kind of educated young people that businesses want to hire to be their future leaders, we are looking at students who have studied these kinds of things in college,” she said.

Marjorie Hass

Hass said her comments, and those given at her January installation as president of Rhodes, do not mean that associate degrees and trade skills certificates are not “an important part of the fabric of our country.”

Her defense of small liberal arts colleges like Rhodes comes as Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam has made workforce training a major thrust of his second and final term in office. That includes a goal of 55 percent of the state’s workforce having some kind of degree or certification and the Tennessee Promise scholarship program guaranteeing two years of free tuition to state community colleges or Tennessee Colleges of Applied Technology.

And three of the five Republican contenders for governor – former state economic and community development commissioner Randy Boyd, U.S. Rep. Diane Black and Franklin businessman Bill Lee – have called for a renewed emphasis on trade skills education. Black and Lee have said they think there is too much emphasis on four-year colleges and universities.

But Hass said schools like Rhodes are also being portrayed as something less than practical.

“The comment about philosophy majors can’t find jobs or the liberal arts being a sort of old-fashioned luxury,” she said. “That’s just not true and the data bears that out.”

Part of the push for a quicker path to the workforce includes the idea that high school students can begin to earn credit toward associate degrees or certification in trades with dual credit courses in high school. That could theoretically mean a quicker path through a pursuit of a bachelor’s degree.

“I think there is sometimes over-promising,” Hass said when asked about students with associate degrees going from there to four-year colleges. “It is not the case that many of those courses and credits you’ve earned at a technical college or while in high school will actually prepare you to take the next level of courses at a college like Rhodes College.”

Based on her career as a teacher and leader of several liberal arts colleges, even a student who takes pre-calculus or calculus can find the transition difficult.

“They are not truly prepared to succeed in second-level calculus at a college like Rhodes College,” she said. “So, when we work with students and they are bringing in transfer credits, we certainly are happy and willing to award the credits they’ve earned. But we really try to make sure that they understand that they need to take the courses that will be best prepare them to complete their degree.”

The pursuit of degrees increasingly means crossing disciplines and learning how to collaborate.

“We need to be able to prepare students to be problem solvers at a very deep and sophisticated level,” Hass said. “The problems we face today – whether they are issues of climate change, whether they are issues of how our economy will thrive with the rise of artificial intelligence – any of those difficult problems, there is no single discipline that will have the answer to those. You need to be able to think very broadly.”

“Behind The Headlines,” hosted by Eric Barnes, publisher of The Daily News, can be seen on The Daily News Video page, video.memphisdailynews.com.

Most of the 2,000 students at Rhodes receive some form of financial aid from a combination of money raised from donors, federal programs like the Pell grant and the state’s HOPE scholarship program, Hass said. Rhodes graduates have an average student debt of $25,000 when they graduate.

“Which is more than I would like to see,” Hass said. “But it, to me, is a reasonable number particularly given what we know data-wise about their potential earnings and the kinds of careers they will have as a result of that education.”

With money from donors on several fronts, Hass announced last month a new master’s degree program in education as well as the Lynne and Henry Turley Memphis Center.

The goal of the master’s in education at Rhodes is “teachers with a passion for teaching in our city schools and with the skills to not only teach but to lead eventually,” Hass said.

She defined the Turley Center as “a focal point for our interaction with Memphis.”

“So, all of the many programs that we have now that help our students engage with the city and also that bring the city onto our campus – those will all be housed within the center and it really will allow us to double our commitment to that,” Hass said.

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