Why a Liberal Arts College?

A. What are the “liberal arts”?

Many, if not most, institutions of higher education in the U.S. (universities and colleges) offer some form of a “liberal arts” education. The education in its original form derived from the Greeks and Romans, who thought that one could only be a free and truly liberated citizen if one had an education that covered mathematics, logic, philosophy, the arts (broadly defined), the letters (humanities), the sciences and history. Over time, this template has evolved and includes the study of social institutions and structure in fields like psychology, sociology, anthropology, economics, politics, etc.

The general idea is to offer an education that provides both breadth, through the ability to study a wide range of disciplines, and depth, with an academic “major” which requires a large number of courses concentrated in one area. In the best scenario one makes connections between what one has studied in depth to the broader range of issues, societal problems and perspectives that humans confront.

“Liberal arts” does not refer to one’s political beliefs (liberal vs. conservative), and nor is it a focus on the arts, specifically. It is an effort to educate one’s self for a lifetime – to be able to make one’s own decisions, to distinguish between good and bad information, and to learn how to be a good citizen. To put it another way, you will spend the rest of your life thinking and deciding, so a liberal arts education allows your brain to be an interesting place to spend the rest of your life.

B. Why a Liberal Arts College?

There are many different types of institutions to consider in the U.S. While there are many exceptions, liberal arts colleges tend to have the following characteristics:

  • They are relatively small. This allows for greater interaction with fellow students and professors.

  • They tend to be privately operated as opposed to being controlled by a state government. This allows them to be independent and to react quickly to the needs of students.

  • They are residential – you will live on campus. This also means that you will join a community of people who have made an intentional decision to live and learn together. This community includes not just other students, but the faculty and staff of the school who try to ensure that you will be safe, challenged, supported, and aware of opportunities to grow as a person and as a scholar.

  • They focus on undergraduates. The persons who can help the professors with research are undergraduates, and the professors usually do ALL the instruction. This is a huge difference between “Research 1” institutions and liberal arts colleges.

  • They tend to offer small classes marked by a lot of personal interaction, including a preference for seminar courses where small numbers of students help each other learn. There will be some lectures, but the preferred method of teaching and learning will be interactive discussions where ideas are shared and valued.

  • They are liberal arts and sciences schools. These are great places to study science because the teaching tends to be excellent and the students have sufficient time, space and resources to do meaningful research.

  • Communication is critical. There will be many courses that require a lot of writing and discussion, and possibly public speaking.

  • Professors at liberal arts colleges must be excellent teachers and they are rewarded (pay raises, promotion, tenure) based in large part on their teaching and mentoring, but also their research. At “Research 1” institutions the research must be the most important activity so the teaching might be a lower priority.

  • These schools tend to be very attentive to the individual. It makes sense, then, that liberal arts colleges tend to provide an atmosphere where the students are more likely to be satisfied, and this often contributes to high graduation rates and student success.

  • Liberal arts and sciences colleges send their graduates to graduate schools (PhD) and to professional schools (MBA, law, medicine) at rates significantly higher than graduates from large public universities.

  • The students are educated in a way that makes them well prepared to adapt as needed to changes in society, technology and innovation. They may be the innovators themselves.

  • Many liberal arts colleges allow you to explore the curriculum for several terms, requiring you to select a major by the end of the second year. Other types of institutions may require you to declare a major when you apply for admission or early in your first year./p>

  • From the perspective of a parent, it may be attractive to send one’s child halfway around the world to a place where the child will be looked after, will be safe, will get the full attention of the faculty and staff, and where it will be easy for the child to make friends.