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Re-thinking Liberal Arts (Updated 11/14/15)

A new take on the structure of liberal arts college structure that adds a substantial internship component.

Photo of Nicole Cote

Written by

Who is the target audience for your idea and how does it reimagine the cost of college?

Our target audience is all-encompassing. The students who would actually participate in this type of curriculum would be current college students; however, we believe that this idea would inspire high school students to go to college, as it would provide an affordable and practical, industry-focused, education. This idea would re-imagine the cost of college because it pairs the student with an industry connection who would then cover the fees for a semester.

The idea that our team thought of for this challenge is rather simple (though we think will lead to effective results); it plays on a current widely-accepted education system: the private liberal arts college, and re-shapes the "liberal arts" aspect. 

Normally at a liberal arts college, there are a set number of general classes that you need to take, in addition to those required for the degree. Typically these are: English, math, a lab science, and perhaps religion, art or philosophy, etc.

Our idea is to:

1) remove these "general education" courses, as they are typically not required elsewhere in the world (which is why other degrees are able to be done in three years, instead of four).

2) replace them with mandatory internships in the industry of the student's intended major. Thus, if we remove those four courses,  we would now have one internship during each year of the degree. 

The importance of the internships:

Through the internships we would hope to have the schools pair-up with companies across numerous industries in order to make this component successful (so that every student has an internship). The internships would be considered unpaid (in that the student wouldn't receive a direct salary); however, the company would agree to pay the student's tuition for that semester. 

Through this process, students would be substantially benefitted, as about half of their tuition would be paid for by a company, and as they would be able to establish up to four industry connections to utilize when they graduate! By means of this new curriculum, students would be able to gain industry contacts for letters of reference/networking, but also industry skills.

It is astonishing how many companies say that the degree is required, but job-specific experience is needed before students can apply for the job, and thus that colleges (on their own) do not provide all of the skills needed for employment. This new system would thus provide students the opportunity to get into the industry more quickly after graduation!

Having a job sooner would allow for financial stability, and the opportunity to pay for any other student loans (if needed) , and over all reduces cost of the degree. 

Who Gains and How?:

- Students: able to benefit from a strong academic/theoretical background in a subject, and real-life industry application, which will boost resumes and job prospects.

- Schools: involved institutions will be able to build relationships/partnerships with local business (large and small). This is helpful as all schools continuously looking for sponsors or donations/development contributions.  Also, having a tight connection between schools and companies allows the careers offices to place more students before graduation, which thus allows the schools to have a better percentage of college graduates with jobs (this makes the school's overall rating significantly higher).

- Companies: businesses are always looking for fresh, creative blood. Getting a new influx of interested students every semester will allow them to put a new set of eyes on everything they are doing - new opinions, new feedback, new creative ideas will all ensue. This will also allow them to view a large number of potential employees and put them to the test. It's almost a recruitment strategy in and of itself. They will be able to see the true work ethics of potential new-hires.

Hypothetical Example:

Jenn is a college freshman attending a small 4-year public college in New York. Her college requires that all students (no matter the major) complete the following liberal arts/core classes: an English course, a math course, a lab science course, and a social sciences course.

Jenn is majoring in English, and so the English requirement isn't a burden, and is easily satisfied through her normal major requirements, but the others do not contribute to her knowledge in her field or her hire-ability after school.

With our option of re-thinking the liberal arts, Jenn can, instead, switch one or all of these courses for internship(s) in local business that can be both more applicable to her academic field and to her needs for seeking employment after graduation.

Jenn has decided that she will swap all four courses for internships (completing one each fall semester). Through this experience she was able to work directly in publishing and journalism (two fields she was thinking of pursuing professionally) through internships with Penguin Books,  Scholastic Publishing, and TimeOut New York. She was also able to explore a field where she could use her language skills and creativity in an entirely different setting through a Public Relations internship at Barney's New York. 

Now, Jenn has both the strong academic background in English literature, and marketable skills for her resume in publishing, journalism, and PR. She has cross-disciplinary applicable experience (unlike what would have been provided with Spanish or Calc) She also, now, can meet the "x years of experience in the field" requirement that most jobs (even entry-level jobs) have. Jenn is now able to present the strongest possible resume on her applications for employment!

Survey (including our Experience Map) for Preliminary Feedback

The group has created the following form for feedback on this idea, which includes a link to a textual experience map explaining the idea in more detail.

The survey can be found here:

We would greatly appreciate your participation in this! 

What early, lightweight experiment can you try out in your own community to find out if the idea will meet your expectations?

- Research potential companies we might pair with. - Create hypothetical models and seek feedback from the public on the models (alternatively, seek individual interviews). - Try to determine the new skills someone might have added versus what would have been taught, pedagogically.

What skills, input or guidance from the OpenIDEO community would be most helpful in building out or refining your idea?

We would appreciate OpenIDEO feedback on thoughts and ideas for dropping the liberal arts courses in exchange for internships. We would really appreciate personal stories if you went to a college and did and internship, or if you went to a college that didn't have these "general education courses".

This idea emerged from

  • A group brainstorm

Are you interested in the Path to Pitching track we've developed for this challenge?

  • No


Join the conversation:

Photo of Irene Kien

Hi there!
I think you have a great idea. I am currently a college student and I never knew the real purpose of taking core classes that I know for sure that I do not need in my future job. However, I was wondering if you knew why there is a core curriculum in place to begin with? Do you think it is because having those classes in place before taking major courses helps students find what major they want to pursue?

Photo of Nirbhay Shah

Hi Irene,
Thanks for your interest in the idea. From my understanding and back background, I kind of agree with the statement that the core classes rarely help with the future job, but I assume they are added to the curriculum for the students to get little bit of an insights into those subjects which kinda help create a base for other electives. Thats just one reasoning, I assume there would be few more reason for them to be part of the package. My solution for this would be lowering the credits for these courses. For example, if 3 Core classes are for 3 credits each, they cost you about 9 credits worth. But instead, if they are combined into a single class worth 3 credits (one core class worth one credit), then you end up with 6 credits to spare for your internships. As a results you save money and time. I hope this helps. 

Photo of Elisabeth Mart

I think this is an interesting idea - although I didn't declare a major until halfway through college, so I guess it wouldn't have necessarily worked well for someone as undecided as I was! Seems like the biggest struggle would be to figure out how a system like this would actually be implemented - do you think the incentive is great enough for the companies to agree to help pay for tuition?

I could see this working for a specific internship/fellowship program with a company that has a longstanding relationship with a university (like an established Penguin Press Fellowship or something), but if each student is going out and finding whatever internships they want from random companies, that's a lot of organizations that will have to be persuaded to get on board.

Intriguing, though!

Photo of Nicole Cote

Thanks for your comment, Elisabeth!

You make a valid point with the major situation. We did consider that as a potential conflict, however, for this idea our mindset was that the way to make education more affordable is to make a program more functional: i.e. really more job-oriented. I would generally argue that someone who doesn't even know whether or not they can afford to attend college, at all, would only benefit from having a clear end goal (and job in mind afterward). That return on investment idea.  There is the feeling that one needs to have financial security, in some sense, to be able to dither, as it appears un-doable for low income students in particular. 

For the companies, as we mention, we believe it will be a useful tactic for them to get fresh blood without having to commit to hiring people. They can almost use it as their own pre-scanning of applicants in a sense. If they like them, they can offer them something after they graduate, if not, then there is no contract that they have to. 

I hope this helps to explain some of our group's thoughts!

Thanks again for writing!


Photo of Patrick Moraitis

Hello everyone,

The team and I have created the following form to get feedback on this idea. The form includes a link to a textual experience map explaining the idea in more detail.

The survey can be found at:

Please take a moment to check it out, we appreciate it!


Photo of Nicole Cote

Thanks for posting this for us, Patrick! I have added this, too, to the post just to increase potential visibility!

Photo of Anne-Laure Fayard

Nice idea Nicole and team, which speaks to a lot of the points that emerged in the research phase around getting professional experiences and possible partnerships with the industry, while also providing some financial support.
You might want to build upon some ideas posted during the research phase that illustrate part of your idea:

This will also let people who posted these research posts that you posted an idea connected to their research and invite them to come and give you feedback. :-)

In terms of prototyping, I think a first step might be to articulate the experience journey for your potential user. It can be visual and / or textual. See for example:

Good luck in developing this idea further.

Photo of Nicole Cote

Thank you so much for the praise and advice, Anne-Laure! We will definitely look into these topics to develop our ideas and prototyping!

Photo of Shane Zhao

Great references Anne-Laure! The user journey is a great way to bring this idea to life.

Nicole, as you continue to develop this idea, it'll help to think about some first steps that can be taken to implement this idea with an existing institution. Which colleges and companies can you start reaching out to for real-life feedback? What are the incentives for institutional stakeholders to participate? Learning forward to how this will evolve!

Photo of Nicole Cote

Thanks for the advice, Shane! It will definitely be useful to strategize in terms of usefulness for already existing schools. We will have to look into this further.

Photo of Nan Yu

That is a brilliant idea! I believe students could get more professional working experiences and cover their tuition fees at the same time.

Photo of Nicole Cote

Thank you so much! We agree. It's a really distressing concept for students that 1) college is so expensive to begin with, but also 2) that once they graduate employers feel that they do not have any usable skills for the job, until they gain experience. We are hoping to mitigate this issue by providing a dual academic-professional balance in education. Thanks for your comment!

Photo of Rafe Shaw

But the question is what kind of students are eligible for your solution. I assume it only benefits very limited amount of students.

Photo of Patrick Moraitis

Hello Rafe Shaw,

The team & I originally contemplated that their would be some application process involved whose acceptance rate would only be limited by the number of internships offered. Or if a student finds a company willing to participate in the internship program, that is an option as well.

You are right that in reality it benefits a limited amount of students, but in theory it's intended to be as flexible and as open as possible so anyone can participate.

Thanks for the feedback!

Photo of Nicole Cote

Thanks for the comment, Rafe! We think that our idea would have the potential to assist an infinite amount of students, as it is a plan to re-define an entire system of education. It could theoretically be implemented in any liberal arts colleges, or perhaps even large universities with the same general requirements. I hope this helps your understanding of our idea! Thanks again for posting!