It’s been a little while since my last post, but I have a few surprises in store for readers in the coming weeks on EducatedQuest. The first, following a glorious Memorial Day holiday in my New Jersey home, is based on a visit to one of the next colleges I will profile, Randolph College in Lynchburg, Virginia. There I learned about a former women’s liberal arts college and the challenges it has taken on during the early years of going co-ed.

I also took part in listening to two presentations on the future of the liberal arts college including one by S. Georgia Nugent, former President of Kenyon College (OH) and Senior Fellow for the Council of Independent Colleges. Politicians on both sides of the aisle are questioning the “value: of the liberal arts college, as are too many in the education press. There are some interesting comments about the current state and future of the liberal arts college that I find inappropriate and silly. But since you get to read them in the media, I hope you will take a moment to read my replies.

  • A liberal arts college does not “include the sciences.” You would be hard pressed to find a liberal arts college that does not offer majors in mathematics and the “hard” sciences such as biology, chemistry or physics. Some also offer education in areas such as biochemistry, computer science and neuroscience, subjects once only offered at larger research universities. The reason? The cost of technology has gone down, especially software development. And technology has become more important for all of higher education. In addition, there are liberal arts colleges where more than a third of the student body earns a science, math or engineering degree, such as Allegheny, Bryn Mawr, Bucknell, Lafayette and Union.
  • The liberal arts college is “liberal,” as in liberal politics. This presumes that a college education is intended to restrict discussion and viewpoints, which it should not. The idea of freedom in a democratic republic such as the United States is to encourage an open discussion of ideas. Not to be forced to step in line and agree with the opinions of humanities and social science faculty members. If a liberal arts education were strictly “liberal,” students would not hear the conservative viewpoint or views from less familiar parts of the world. The same would be true for a school that had a faculty largely comprised of conservative scholars. Politics on a campus may depend on the views of a faith, when the school has a religious affiliation, and the direction set by the college’s trustees. A good liberal arts college, and there are many, encourages “small d” democracy, as in open debate and discussion. It also encourages exploration by forcing students to take courses in not only humanities and social sciences, but mathematics and science as well. Finally, there are liberal arts colleges led by conservative presidents and trustees including Grove City College (PA) and Hillsdale College (MI), among many others. Students who are more comfortable with a conservative world view can find a liberal arts college when they will be happy.
  • The liberal arts college teaches no “employable skills.” Here lies a problem; few people know what employable skills are these days. There are agreements about communications skills, being able to speak and write well, as well as basic competency in mathematics and computers. When you go into the working world you may manage people, data and things, which may be business processes, products or services. Very few academic courses in any major prepare a student to serve an employer’s immediate needs. A good liberal arts college might not offer as many “business” courses as a larger school, but most employers do not seek undergraduate business school majors aside from accounting and information systems. You can succeed in fields such as business consulting, financial analysis, market research and supply chain management with a degree in economics or mathematics. If you love science and understand economics, your options are even greater. The key is to know that as early in your education as possible, and work with key people at your college (faculty, advisors, career services) to gain exposure to possible fields of interest through academics, internships and volunteer opportunities.
  • The liberal arts college will send a family into deep debt. Debt can be avoided, if you do your homework early when building your list of schools. If finances are a concern then families should reach out to schools that are most likely to award scholarships that reduce their costs. Sadly, most schools cannot meet a family’s full financial need. But that problem is not limited to liberal arts colleges. In addition, there are excellent public liberal arts colleges that are truly liberal arts colleges such as New College of Florida and St. Mary’s College of Maryland.

The leaders of liberal arts colleges, however, need to do a better job to sell the importance and value of the education they offer. Too often I hear phrases such as “critical thinking,” that do not resonate well with high school students or their parents. The better selling points of a liberal arts college are:

  • Students receive more attention from our faculty, especially students who are not sure of a major. The liberal arts college emphasizes teaching over research. Professors rarely have armies of graduate assistants to “protect” them from inquiring or struggling students. The key here is good advising at the start. A liberal arts college offers more of an opportunity to design a degree program than a university with separate colleges of business, education, engineering and the like. It is also easier for students to double major or carry more than one minor. The time that faculty and other advisors share is a student’s best resource.
  • We will help you to not only find your strong points, but also to strengthen your weaknesses. Few students enter college “good at everything.” Walk on the campus of any school and you will find students who needed help to get through a subject that they struggled with in high school. The advantage of the liberal arts college is that the faculty is more likely to help you conquer those struggles than the faculty at a much larger school or one where research and the production of graduate degrees is a priority.
  • We challenge you for the greater rigors of  further education. Reality is that you need not only college to enter many fields, but a graduate or professional degree as well. When you take smaller classes, as you do at a liberal arts college, you are more likely to be exposed to more questions, more assignments, even harder grading. The professor is also more likely to ask why you are not coming to class. In addition, the opportunities to do research as an undergraduate are better at schools where you don’t share the professor’s time and resources with graduate students. In addition, the fellowship committee at a  liberal arts college is more likely to be approachable than its counterpart at the larger school.
  • You won’t feel “lost” here as you might at a much larger school. The idea behind going to a good liberal arts college is that you become part of an undergraduate community that is supposed to care about you for four years. Caring is the reason why the best of these schools succeed.

I’ve come to appreciate the liberal arts college over the course of my working life. There are times that I wish I had chosen one over a large state university. I would have been more ambitious academically, less shy about seeking help in the areas that I struggled. I will even go as far to say that my computing and mathematics skills would have been better because I would have had better teachers. Unless you’re totally sold on a pre-professional major that requires some specialized training to qualify for immediate entry-level employment, the liberal arts college may be the wiser investment over such larger schools.

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