Why Choose a Liberal Arts College?

With all the options out there, the search for the right college may seem daunting. How will you know what school is the best fit for you and your goals? And with so many different types of schools out there, how will you know whether you want a large school or a small one, a research institutions or a liberal arts college, a state school or a community college? Regardless of what you ultimately decide, you will want to choose a school that offers the best liberal education.

What is "liberal education"? It has nothing to do with a political leaning. The Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) offers the following definition of liberal education:

An approach to college learning that empowers individuals and prepares them to deal with complexity, diversity, and change. This approach emphasizes broad knowledge of the wider world (e.g., science, culture, and society) as well as in-depth achievement in a specific field of interest. It helps students develop a sense of social responsibility; strong intellectual and practical skills that span all major fields of study, such as communication, analytical, and problem-solving skills; and the demonstrated ability to apply knowledge and skills in real-world settings.

This robust, comprehensive educationwhich dates back to the ancient Greeks can be found at many quality campuses of all sizes and types across the country, but for better or for worse, its often associated with liberal arts colleges, whose missions for student learning are often grounded in offer students a well-rounded education in the humanities, arts, social sciences and sciences.

Why are liberal arts colleges so primed for providing this kind of education? These schools tend to have the following characteristics that foster liberal education:

  • Smaller student population (which often means smaller class sizes and higher professor-to-student ratios, so students can expect more quality attention from professors)

  • Private (and therefore have fewer ties to state funding and requirements)

  • Large alumni monetary endowment (which supports innovative, enriching programming)

  • More resources and organizational flexibility (offers more opportunities for out-of-the-box teaching and classroom experiences, opportunities for study abroad and internships, and service-learning and community research)

  • Primarily residential college communities (promotes learning and engagement both in and out of the classroom)

  • More flexibility in the curriculum (students may even create their own majors).

Many people, from politicians to parents, label liberal education and liberal arts colleges as frivolous and only for certain kinds of students, namely ones who come from upper-class families, who want to major in the arts and humanities. These critics state that liberal arts colleges don't prepare students for economically viable careers. But a good liberal arts college or any good college or university for that matter will offer students the capacity to succeed in almost any field or discipline and to reinvent themselves to enter any career field they choose across their lifetime.

In a recent survey of business and employer leaders by AAC&U, 80% of employers agree that, regardless of their major, all college students should acquire broad knowledge in the liberal arts and sciences. Additionally, nearly all those surveyed (93%) say that a demonstrated capacity to think critically, communicate clearly, and solve complex problems is more important than [a candidates] undergraduate major. These are exactly the kind of skills a liberal education can offer. Of course, specific, in-depth training in a particular major, discipline, or trade is often essential to establishing ones career path, but having the skills to think critically and creatively and to communicate well ensures that in the long-run students will be more adaptable and innovative, and compete in a constantly changing workforce over the course of your life time.

Liberal arts colleges are certainly not for everyone. Again, I want to emphasize that students can find a high-quality liberal education at a large research institution or a community college. Google liberal arts and liberal education and you will find websites for many big state schools and other institutions that wouldn't identify as a liberal art college. But whatever college or university best suits you, I urge you to be sure that school offers a liberal education. It is the best way to prepare for a fulfilling, productive career and active, responsible citizenship. As Christopher Flannery, professor of history and political science at Azusa Pacific University writes, a liberal education is concerned not primarily with the acquisition of technical skill job training but with learning how to live well. What more could you ask for from your education?

About the author: Chad Anderson is a Program Associate at the Association of American Colleges and Universities(AAC&U), where he works on faculty and curricular development projects related to civic engagement, diversity, general education, global learning, the liberal arts, and interdisciplinary learning, among others. Chad completed his M.F.A. in Creative Writing at Indiana University, where he taught courses in creative writing, English composition, and literary editing and publishing as well as served as Fiction Editor for theIndiana Review. Anderson received B.A. from the University of Virginia, where he majored in English and in American Studies and graduated Phi Beta Kappa. He has published fiction inSalamander Review and is also a contributing blogger at AAC&Us liberal.education nation.

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