Liberal arts colleges are too often criticized for not providing an education that prepares their students for the “real world.” Such criticism is unwarranted. Students who have chosen a liberal arts education not only learn “employable skills,” they may also have the opportunity to learn what it takes to lead groups, even larger organizations.
Some schools such as Gettysburg College and the University of Richmond offer leadership development programs that have course materials, mentorship and group exercises similar to offerings that appear in management training programs directed by large corporations.
Why are liberal arts colleges well suited to run such programs?
- The vast majority of their students are undergraduates, age 18-22. The college can design their programs exclusively around students who have had little, if no prior leadership experiences.
- Liberal arts colleges must trust younger students to aid faculty and staff in areas such as residence life, tutoring and peer counseling than schools that can rely on graduate students or recent graduates to perform these services.
- Liberal arts colleges use these programs, especially peer to peer activities, to encourage students to become leaders on campus or pursue more demanding academic programs. This helps the college administration to retain students, do the best possible job at bonding a class, developing values and maintaining a welcoming and inclusive campus culture.
- Corporations that regularly hire students with a liberal arts education have become less invested in offering leadership education to their newest employees. Hiring managers prefer that recent graduates have developed and demonstrated leadership skills during college.
Recently, I took a counselor’s visit to Gettysburg College where our group learned about the Garthwait Leadership Center, a very popular office on this 2,600 student campus. Over 1,500 Gettysburg students take advantage of opportunities to participate in leadership coaching and education ranging from a two-hour Leadership Summit to a one-year process to earn a Leadership Certificate. The college also has a Greek Emerging Leaders program for students in fraternities and sororities. Participation in these programs is extraordinary—considering that they are voluntary and carries no academic credit. Just over three quarters of Gettysburg’s class of 2016 was employed within a year after earning their degrees. Similar liberal arts colleges typically have 60 percent to two-thirds of their most recent graduates working full time within 12 months.
The University of Richmond, another liberal arts college that I have visited, is slightly larger than Gettysburg with more than 3,000 undergraduates. It offers a major and minor in Leadership Studies within its own Jepson School. Prospective students must complete an introductory leadership course during the freshman year or fall of their sophomore year to be eligible to apply to enter the major or minor. A second introductory course is required of those admitted and so are nine other more advanced courses that cover Ethics, Leadership in History and Social/Organizational Leadership. There are also options for internships, an Honors program with a Junior Tutorial and a Senior Honors Thesis, a Science Leadership Scholars Program and a summer program at Cambridge University in the UK. Like Gettysburg, Richmond’s programs engage enrolled students as mentors for their newest classmates. The Jepson School even has its own student government.
Other liberal arts colleges offer leadership development programs that are either voluntary or academic. Occidental College (CA) and Furman University (SC),, for example, operate programs very similar to Gettysburg’s. Whittier College (CA) offers an academic program in Organizational Leadership through its business school. The “best” program depends on the student. Voluntary programs take less time, but academic programs offer more opportunities to learn from professors and professionals, and good grades can be an incentive to acquire more knowledge skills and abilities.
How are these programs valuable to students at liberal arts colleges? Their value goes beyond completed courses or credentials. A good program teaches group dynamics and interpersonal skills that will help a recent college graduate to succeed in the workplace or start their own business or non-profit organization. It could also help when considering new employment opportunities.
Liberal arts colleges, like other schools, admit high school students for individual achievements and awards, but not all members of the incoming freshmen class have had a leadership experience in high school. Some might have been elected or appointed to a leadership position because they were popular or well liked. But they did not have the talents and/or the resources to make their student organizations more effective. A good leadership development program will help students to develop those talents and find the resources they need.
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