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Liberal Arts Colleges Are Still a Great Choice for Many Students

Student studying in her liberal arts college library.

By Chris, IvyWise College Admissions Counselor

The cost of attending a four-year college continues to grow and is already one of the largest investments a family can make, with many private colleges and universities charging upwards of $70,000 a year in tuition, room, and board.  Given the scale of that investment and the potential stakes of a poor choice, many students and parents focus on post-college prospects for employment and want their investment to pay off in the form of solid, and hopefully lucrative, career options.

For some students, this means trying to decide what careers they are interested in while still in high school and engaging in a college search they believe will propel them to success in that field. Unfortunately, liberal arts colleges have fallen victim to this thinking. Liberal arts colleges (LACs) in the United States tend to offer majors and programs in more traditional academic subjects rather than pre-professional preparation—think economics instead of business. However, liberal arts graduates have many skills that employers are seeking.

What Are Liberal Arts?

What exactly are the liberal arts? First, it’s important to note that curriculums of this kind were originally known as the liberal arts and sciences, and LACs offer incredibly strong and diverse STEM programs. Advocates of this educational path believe in exposure to a broad range (hence the “liberal”) of ideas, opinions, philosophies, and beliefs across the humanities, sciences, and social sciences.

LACs are not solely populated by devotees of Nietzsche and Socrates. Over the last 20 years, LACs have seen a huge shift on their campuses from a preponderance of humanities students to a majority of students majoring in the sciences and social sciences. Admission officers at LACs are more likely to be on the lookout for students with genuine and demonstrated interests in literature and philosophy than for biology majors who want to go to medical school.

What Are the Characteristics of an LAC?

There are about 200 LACs in the U.S., and virtually every large university offers a college of liberal arts as well. Even Harvard, a paragon of higher education, boasts of “a liberal arts and sciences college nestled within a world-class research university.” But standalone LACs have some specific characteristics that define them and the experience they offer.

  • They focus on undergraduate education and not on graduate studies.
  • The faculty focuses on teaching first and research second, the opposite of a large research university.
  • All classes, including introductory levels and first-year seminar requirements, are taught by faculty. At large universities, these classes are often taught by graduate students whose main focus is their own degree program.
  • Classes tend to be smaller and more discussion-based, and it is a point of pride to have a high percentage of classes with 20 or fewer students.
  • LACs are primarily residential colleges for full-time students, with most living in campus housing, eating in campus dining halls, and directing their extracurricular and social energies towards campus activities, from activism to athletics, student government, and sustainability. This fosters a strong sense of campus community where students feel ownership of their school and offers myriad opportunities to engage in and develop leadership skills across a variety of campus organizations, cultivating personal as well as intellectual growth.

Academically, LACs offer surprising breadth to go with the depth of their majors. It is very common for students to augment their primary interest with a minor or two, or to double major — sometimes in disparate subjects like biology and theater, or in more closely aligned areas like political science and philosophy.

How Does a Liberal Arts Education Prepare Students for Their Careers?

Regardless of their ultimate major choice(s), students studying the humanities, sciences, and social sciences in relation to each other develop a broad skill set in effective communication, critical thinking, logical reasoning, research abilities, creativity, ethical decision making, and intercultural fluency. Countless surveys of top employers in all fields, as well as graduate and professional programs, indicate these are the most desirable skills in the job market.

A 2018 survey of business executives and hiring managers by the Association of American Colleges and Universities found an overwhelming majority agreeing that the above skills are more important than one’s major, and most agreed that students should acquire broad knowledge in the liberal arts and sciences. Simply put, it is the ability to teach yourself new things and use your intellectual toolbox that leads to success in most areas.

Demographers predict that current high school students will have three or four completely unrelated careers in their lifetimes. How best to prepare for that lifetime of challenge, opportunity, and change?  Proponents of the LAC experience would argue an education that instills broad, intellectual skills and abilities is preferable to deciding what you want to be when you’re 17 years old and pursuing a college education narrowly tailored to that goal.

Who Should Consider a Liberal Arts Education?

For the undecided student, LACs offer the chance to explore a wide range of disciplines, try new things, and distill that period of discovery into one or two primary interests or majors. For the already-directed student, they are great places to do a deep dive into that interest, augmenting that focus with an education that allows for the discovery of new ideas and passions. LACs are great incubators for law and medical school, and many boast terrific admission rates to those programs, as well as to business schools and other graduate programs.

Liberal arts colleges offer a wide range of academic programs, opportunities to explore new ideas and participate in meaningful dialogue with one’s peers, develop close relationships with faculty mentors, and experience a strong sense of community. Students and families can be assured that it is a great return on investment and a solid way for students to prepare for their future careers.

Considering a liberal arts education? At IvyWise, we work with students through every step of the college admissions process — including helping them to build a best-fit list of schools where they will thrive. Contact us today to learn more about how our admissions counseling services can help you reach your academic and personal goals.

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