Liberal arts schools are designed to provide the general knowledge needed to become a successful member of society. They are focused on a curriculum that includes arts, humanities, natural sciences, and social sciences to achieve a balanced education rather than one that’s purely technical or career-specific. Liberal arts colleges also tend to be smaller than state schools or universities. Beyond these facts, though, you may be left wondering how a liberal arts experience differs from a university or state school experience. To learn more about what these schools can offer, let’s start by debunking 5 of the biggest myths about liberal arts colleges.
- The job market demands more technical skills than a liberal arts college can offer.
- Liberal arts colleges are too expensive.
- There are limited sports opportunities at liberal arts schools.
- Liberal arts schools are, well…liberal.
- Small means boring.
Don’t be fooled by these myths! Liberal arts schools offer valuable preparation for just about any career, graduate degree, or professional course of study, and they should not be overlooked when completing your college search.
Myth 1: The job market demands more technical skills than a liberal arts college can offer.
If you attended a liberal arts college, it’s likely that you’ve heard at least one joke about majoring in basket-weaving—a nod to the belief that liberal arts students are more likely to choose frivolous or irrelevant majors and elective courses. This unfortunate misrepresentation of the liberal arts philosophy has led to the stigma that liberal arts schools value “fluff” over rigor, but this is completely untrue!
Sure—if you want to become a software engineer, you’ll need to spend a lot of time in front of a computer screen or learning how to code, but technical skills alone will not be enough to make you successful in employer’s eyes. The value of “soft skills” such as communication, organization, and teamwork are just as, if not more valuable in the eyes of potential employers. In fact, according to a 2014 article from Forbes, the top 5 most desirable jobs skills employers named for 2015 were:
1) Ability to work in a team structure
2) Ability to make decisions and solve problems
3) Ability to communicate verbally with people inside and outside an organization
4) Ability to plan, organize and prioritize work
5) Ability to obtain and process information
Liberal arts colleges are structured so that students take a range of courses to immerse themselves in many different areas of study, including STEM, pre-professional programs, business, and more. By also exposing students to philosophy, writing, social sciences, mathematics, logic, literature, and history, liberal arts schools prepare students for the challenges that await them after graduation. Critical thinking, communication, and analytical skills are the primary focus of a liberal arts curriculum, which gives students a major advantage when it comes to job readiness. If you are looking for “harder” skills, not to worry—you can still find plenty of liberal arts colleges that do double-duty when it comes to building critical thinking skills and technical, field-specific skills!
Myth 2: Liberal arts colleges are too expensive.
The sticker price of many liberal arts colleges in the United States can be jaw-dropping, with numbers reaching over $51,000 a year. Compare this to average in-state tuition, where prices range from $4,600 to $14,700 per year, and it’s easy to see why a liberal arts degree may seem out of reach for many American students and families.
But liberal arts students rarely pay the full price of tuition. In fact, when it comes to quality and cost, students may have more luck covering gaps in their financial aid at a small private college than a state college because liberal arts schools are more likely to cover 100% of need-based aid than a large university. For example, Williams College, the top-ranked liberal arts school in the country, meets 100% of need, ensuring that students obtain a rigorous, challenging education that will not cripple them with debt. There are now nearly 80 colleges and universities in the US that cover 100% of need-based aid, but very few of these are large universities. By contrast, almost all of the top-ranked liberal arts colleges in the nation report that between 50% and 80% of their students receive need-based financial aid. Liberal arts schools can manage this flexibility in aid packages because schools do not differentiate between in-state or out-of-state tuition. They attract students from a wide geographic range and a variety of backgrounds, which gives them more bargaining power when it comes to enticing students with scholarships, grants, and other forms of assistance. Many liberal arts colleges are just as selective as the Ivies, meaning the application numbers are high and the applicant pool is competitive. This gives liberal arts schools flexibility when it comes to who they accept and the aid packages they are able to offer, which often means more generous packages for you!
Myth 3: There are limited sports opportunities at liberal arts schools.
The college athlete is a celebrated figure in the American academic tradition. At the Division I level, these athletes are viewed as celebrities and near-professionals for the excitement they bring to the screen and the income they generate for their schools. There is another side to athletics, however, that is less flashy and more focused on the balance between the student and the athlete. That side is what you are likely to see at a liberal arts school.
There are several liberal arts schools that fall into the Division I category, but at most liberal arts schools, the scale is much smaller. Whereas a school in the Southeastern Conference (SEC) may boast a football field that seats more people than a professional stadium, liberal arts schools tend to have smaller facilities and teams. Because of their smaller size, however, liberal arts sports actually offer more opportunity to play because their schedules are less demanding and the stakes for performance are lower. Athletes at these schools can participate in more than one sport if they choose because their schedules are balanced against the demands of their academics. They receive more chances at playing time and are not pressured to put athletics before academics. The majority of liberal arts colleges are Division III, which means they are strictly prohibited from awarding athletic scholarships. As a result, DIII athletes are under significantly less athletic pressure and can choose to focus on academics, or even take a break from athletics as needed, without penalty.
If you love the sport for the sake of the sport and not for the sake of going pro, a liberal arts school may be the best option for you!
Myth 4: Liberal arts schools are, well…liberal.
Because of their name, you may think that liberal arts colleges are full of students for whom the shortlist of post-college options includes the Peace Corps, world travel, or campaigning for a local Democrat. After all, where else does the term “liberal arts” come from? For starters, it’s not an indication of any outward liberal bias or any particular political affiliation. The word “liberal” in this context means “free,” and it originates from the belief that a liberal arts education provides the foundation that any free man or woman would need to be a contributing member of society (the phrase goes all the way back to Ancient Greece). In a modern context, think of liberal arts as an educational path that gives students freedom to explore and freedom to choose—you are never locked into any particular academic mold.
While college campuses tend to be more liberal in general, this doesn’t mean that there aren’t healthy pockets of conservatives at liberal arts colleges across the country. This is because the benefit of a liberal arts campus is that everyone—from professors to students to administration—values and encourages diversity of thought. Students from many different backgrounds are attracted to the school and are given space to share their views and values. On just about any liberal arts campus, you are likely to find clubs that represent all sides of the political debate, course offerings that examine an assortment of social or religious theory, student groups that represent a range of beliefs and faiths, and an administration that actively seeks out ways to make the campus a more inclusive laboratory of thought.
Myth 5: Small means boring.
The average liberal arts school enrolls between 1,000 and 2,500 students. They are often residential, which means that all or most students are provided campus housing and that they stay on campus for much of their college career. Compared to large universities, where enrollment can reach 30 or 40 thousand students, this is tiny! In addition to a walkable campus, there are many other advantages both socially and academically to smaller numbers.
Most importantly, a small student body means a lower student-faculty ratio. At some liberal arts colleges, the ratio is as low as 6:1 (although the national average for liberal arts schools is around 11:1). Compare this to a large university, where the ratio can be as high as 31:1, and you can see the difference that small size can make. At a smaller school, students get more attention because class sizes are small and are rarely held in lecture halls. Because of the more intimate setting, students are held accountable for attendance, preparation, and participation, which can increase the rigor of their education.
Additionally, liberal arts undergraduates rarely have to compete with graduate students for research positions, so they often have the opportunity to conduct research alongside their professors as part of their undergraduate coursework—an experience reserved almost exclusively for graduate students at larger schools.
Finally, small schools offer more opportunities for leadership and involvement. At a large school, students are one of tens of thousands. It can be difficult to stand out, more competitive to win leadership roles, and often more daunting to even think about getting involved. Because liberal arts student bodies are smaller, students are more likely to have peer-to-peer or student-faculty connections, both of which increase their likelihood of getting involved in or leading an extracurricular activity.
As you can see, there is a lot more behind the term liberal arts than many people realize—an opportunity rich in experience, thought, and collaboration; professors who are given the space to focus on teaching, not just publishing or research; a variety of majors that offer the skills needed for career readiness; and finally, a student body that’s curious, creative, and passionate about learning. Apply to a liberal arts college and see what you can offer the world.