This is a phrase I frequently hear in regards to why a student isn’t applying to any liberal arts colleges. I get it: with typical populations ranging from 1,000 to 2,5000, they really are small. But that can be a very good thing. Knowing what I know now, I wish that a teacher or counselor had pushed me to seriously consider small liberal arts colleges.
These schools are defined not only by size, but also by major choices—most, if not all, are in the humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences (think English, international relations and physics), as opposed to career-based programs (like business and engineering). As high schoolers increasingly cite more materialistic reasons for going to college (e.g., training for a specific job, making more money), the liberal arts are ever more dismissed. The fact that the names of these schools may not be as recognizable as some of the larger universities is another reason applicants frequently—and misguidedly—disregard them.
It pains me to see students overlook these institutions, which are such amazing places to learn. Here are a few things to consider before you make the same mistake:
- Better teaching: True, there are more Nobel Prize winners on large university campuses. But those types of schools pull big-name academics in a dozen different directions. The research projects of the professors and their graduate students usually trump the instruction of undergraduates, who may only see these academic celebrities in large lectures, if ever. But at small schools, there are no graduate students, and there is less emphasis on an academic’s publishing record. At a liberal arts college, teaching the freshman-through-senior bunch is absolutely a professor’s primary goal.
- Residential community: All schools will say that learning continues outside of the classroom. However, their living environments aren’t typically crafted to ensure that that means anything more than you doing your homework in your dorm room. The residential experience at a liberal arts college is designed so that the time spent at school and at home is more continuous. Plus, your fellow students are not only smart, but extraordinarily passionate and curious: they wouldn’t come to a tiny (and frequently less-desirably-located) school if they weren’t. Together, you can’t help but continue to develop your love of learning and passion for community 24/7.
- Hard books: College should be difficult. The books you read should be challenging. You should know Aristotle and Augustine and Rousseau, and why they matter. It should sometimes be brutally painful to dismantle their works, and to talk and write about what they mean. But once you learn how to do this, you’re going to have the training to analyze and communicate difficult concepts anywhere in life, including in your future career. These sorts of mental acrobatics are unique to the liberal arts, and valuable in a different way than the career-oriented training that is frequently more useful if picked up later on, whether that’s in law school or at your first job.
If you’re at all curious about liberal arts colleges, I’d recommend checking out these websites for more information:
- Collegenews.org (http://www.collegenews.org): News and perspectives on the nation’s top liberal arts colleges.
- Colleges That Changes Lives (http://www.ctcl.org/): A non-profit organization dedicated to the advancement of the most student-centered colleges; they’ve identified about forty of the lesser-known small liberal arts colleges that they think fit the bill.
Post by Shannon, Committee Member
I’ll offer a few thoughts to Shannon’s.
I had the smaller school experience and loved it. My wife had the large state school experience and we occasionally get in the discussions about how different our college experiences were. (She now wishes she had attended a smaller private college.)
My encouragement to college-bound students is not to let the current economy deter you from looking into liberal arts colleges. Many have great scholarships and grants to offer. That being said, I always caution students to consider the amount of debt they take on in comparison with their chosen major/profession. If you want to be a teacher and you have to wrack up $100,000 in debt to get the degree and credential, you will be paying that off for a VERY long time. However, if you receive generous grants and will graduate with only $20,000 in student debt, then you will feel much more open in your options after graduation.
I completely agree with Shannon’s statement regarding “hard books” – if you learn those critical thinking skills, you can apply them to any career.
Finally, if you are interested in building a network to help support your post-college life, you are much more likely to develop a larger number of personal relationships with smaller classes, smaller dorms, knowing your professors, and staying active on campus.
Gillespie, The Admission Committee, LLC