I’ve often remarked about my own undergraduate college experiences in this blog, so if you’re a longtime reader, you probably know the following:
- I attended a small, liberal arts college where I majored in English. My roommates majored in English, psychology, and biology/neuroscience.
- I am enthusiastic about liberal arts education as a direct result of my experiences as an undergraduate.
- Through my ten years of work in higher education, I have come to understand that liberal arts education isn’t a good fit for every student – but it is a good fit for a lot more students than people think!
As such, you can imagine my delight at receiving an invitation to the 2015 Heick Symposium at Randolph College in Lynchburg, Virginia – especially when I learned that the central topic of the event was “Affirming the Value of a Liberal Arts Education” and the keynote speaker would be Georgia Nugent of the Council of Independent Colleges (and former president of Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio).
An entire symposium dedicated to liberal arts education in America?! Early Christmas for Randi!
One of the main topics of conversation was that, for a large part of the American college-going public, the idea of education in the liberal arts is confusing because they don’t know how to define it. Some think it’s a political mindset because of the word “liberal;” others focus on the term “arts” and mistakenly believe that anyone who wishes for a career in a science-oriented field won’t get the sort of education they desire. Neither assumption is true – which is the first step in the uphill battle that liberal arts colleges and universities must fight as they seek to enlighten prospective students and families.
A second hot button issue in both higher education (and for liberal arts colleges) at present is the heightened focus by state and federal government authorities on career preparation. Career training has never been so talked about or focused on at the university level, yet many families fear that a liberal arts education will not equip their students to move directly into fields like engineering, technology, business, or primary/secondary education. They believe instead that liberal arts education will doom their students to a high debt load post-graduation (coupled with more debt for required graduate programs) and that the student will lack real world skills that employers seek.
As someone who accepted a position in marketing directly after graduating from a liberal arts college (remember, not a marketing major!), I understand full well the effectiveness of a liberal arts education and how it plays not only into one’s first career out of college, but for the inevitable career changes that follow. (I’m on my third career right now.) The idea of learning how to learn is at the core of liberal arts education and is what helps people make transitions from career to career over the course of their working lives.
What other liberal arts myths did we discuss and dispel over the course of our three day symposium?
- All liberal arts schools are small and rural. Are there a lot of small liberal arts colleges in small town America? Sure! But just as many are found in urban and suburban locations (Richmond, VA; Spokane, WA; Boston, MA are a few examples) and though they typically aren’t LARGE schools with tens of thousands in their undergraduate ranks, you can find many that have four and five thousand students – which isn’t exactly tiny. What’s more, if you want to see the world on an internship or study abroad experience, recent research shows that more students at liberal arts colleges have better odds of having those experiences than their non-liberal arts counterparts.
- Liberal arts schools aren’t good if you want to go to medical, vet, or law school. Not only will you need top grades and exam scores to land places in graduate school after college, you’ll also need strong recommendations from faculty who can attest to your academic abilities. Thanks to small class sizes and requirements for students to write and communicate well in order to earn high marks, liberal arts colleges are uniquely situated to set students up for graduate school acceptance and (ultimately) success. At schools where the majority of low level (and even some high level) courses are taught by teaching assistants or by professors who stare onto lecture halls of more than 100 students each week, it’s more challenging for them to know students as individuals and share important anecdotes that might be the difference between the student getting in or getting pushed to the side.
- Liberal arts schools might let you major in my favorite subject, but you won’t get a job after graduation. Oh contraire, my dear readers – it’s very easy to get a job with a liberal arts degree (even if you want to be an engineer or work in the tech world)! In particular, liberal arts colleges tend to do a good job at pairing their students with internships that can open doors to job interviews after graduation or at the very least can give students the type of hands-on experience that builds on their classroom knowledge and helps to build a resume that is sure to impress most hiring managers. In addition, a lot of liberal arts colleges are finding ways to insert co-op programs into their curriculum so that students gain more immersive (and even well-paid!) work experiences before graduation.
- Liberal arts schools are too expensive. The sticker price of higher education at all institutions is a hot-button issue in the media at present (and deservedly so) but in most cases, unless your parents fall into the so-called “one percent” thanks to a substantial degree of wealth, you’ll find that a liberal arts college won’t necessarily cost you more out of pocket than your state public institution down the road – and in fact, it might actually be cheaper! How? Recent economic examinations show that the cost of private education isn’t necessarily skyrocketing the way you might think, but more than that, graduating from a liberal arts college can be cheaper in two specific ways:
- First, liberal arts graduates are more likely to get in and out of school in four years – or less! Compared to a five or six year degree at a large research school, this can easily help you save money in the long run.
- Second, student loan default rates are the lowest for liberal arts grads, thanks to generous merit scholarships, institutional grant aid, and those previously mentioned job opportunities available to liberal arts students.
As I have stated previously, a liberal arts education isn’t for everyone (just like a college education isn’t a great fit for every high school graduate). But as you survey the college landscape and think about what you want your life after high school to look like, you would be remiss not to at least look at some liberal arts colleges and see if they might have the sort of educational and campus community you’re looking for. (Also of note – liberal arts schools are home to some of the nation’s top equestrian programs!) And if you want more information, be sure to visit the Power of the Liberal Arts web site or follow their ambassadors “Libby and Art” on Twitter (@SmartColleges).