Thrive at the Intersections

The Overlooked Value of a Liberal Arts Education

Prior to embarking on a term abroad at the end of my junior year, I had to part ways with a dear friend who would be gone when I returned to campus as a senior. As I’m sure everyone can attest, saying goodbye to genuine, caring friends is never easy.

But this friend was not a fellow student; it was my professor and mentor.

To those unfamiliar with small undergraduate colleges, this may come as a shock. “Professor… friend?” Yes. Hear me out.

I would drop by the office of my Anthropology advisor nearly every week. We’d chat about classes, of course, but we’d also talk about life. About how I was doing, about how I was managing my stress, about her vacation plans as well as my own. We’d sometimes do this in her office, and other times over at a local coffee shop, or even over dinner downtown.

I would not be the person I am today had it not been for this professor.

This is not an uncommon experience at my college, or other small undergraduate institutions. My peers across all disciplines can tell you about how inspirational and enthusiastic their professors are. They can even tell you about how they’ve babysat their professors’ children or had dinner with them and their spouses. My experience with my professor is by no means an isolated incident. And it is why I encourage everyone swept up in the college application season to apply to at least one liberal arts school.

I come from Silicon Valley — a global hub of technological wonder, where what was impossible yesterday is being done today before being improved and replaced tomorrow. But there’s a caveat to this.

In this region of innovation, children of tech superstars are repeatedly exposed to the (mostly) good fortunes that come with a degree in the fields of computer science and engineering. Of those who attended my high school, the majority of students had parents who worked in tech. In addition, most of my fellow students were children of immigrants — if not immigrants themselves. We come from a culture that continuously emphasizes the prestige and financial security of jobs in tech and medicine. Obviously, among these children, some — if not many — will have genuine interests in these fields. And that’s fine.

However, conventional wisdom in the region suggests that to do well in these fields, students must pursue higher education at large research universities, preferably with high name recognition. In fact, even students who deviate from the STEM fields tend to only look at such schools. I argue this could be due to what has been engrained into many students’ minds early on. This has led to a disproportionate number of applicants to large universities.

In my graduating class of approximately 550, of which 99% have pursued higher education, exactly 8 students (≈1.5%) chose to attend a liberal arts institution.

There is an underhanded stigma that often comes along with any mention of liberal arts colleges in my home community — as I’m sure there is in many others. It is a stigma associated with wasted money, useless degrees and low prestige. In fact, when I accepted admission to my college, many of my peers would jest, “Why are you going to community college all the way in New York?” To which I would reply that I was attending a liberal arts school and would sometimes receive a response along the lines of, “Even worse.”

I do not mean to suggest that all (or even most) people think this way. But this stigma exists and it likely draws students from many communities away from pursuing a liberal arts education.

This needs to change.

For many students like myself, a large university is fairly unhelpful. In a classroom of over 300 others, many students are deprived of the individual attention they need to excel. Many become content showing up to class only for exams. Is there anything wrong with this, per se? Not necessarily. If that works for you, more power to you. If you are not one of these students, a liberal arts school may be for you, regardless of your major. Here’s why:

  • Liberal arts schools focus on undergrads and undergrads only. Unlike large research universities that tend to focus on graduate students and faculty research, professors at liberal arts colleges interact with students on a daily basis, both inside and outside the classroom. Class sizes range anywhere from 5–50 students, with most falling in the range of about 12–35. Professors at liberal arts institutions are generally paid to teach, whereas the focus at large universities is on research — hence research university.
  • Liberal arts schools are not void of research opportunities. As an undergraduate, the opportunity to work with faculty one-on-one is a coveted experience. Many liberal arts colleges offer a wide array of research opportunities in both the sciences and humanities. Many of my peers have already been published in academic journals alongside their professors, something most students wait until graduate school to do.
  • Liberal arts schools produce the most students who ultimately earn PhDs. In fact, liberal arts colleges produce about twice as many students who earn a PhD in science than other institutions. This also shows that liberal arts schools are not just for students interested in the humanities.
  • Liberal arts schools prepare you to be a leader in the workplace. With small class sizes, liberal arts students can expect to write countless research papers and prepare numerous presentations. Doing so allows them to fine-tune their writing skills and increase their comfort levels as public speakers. If you think that these are skills students should master in high school, I implore you to take a look at budget cuts to public education nationwide over the past decade.
  • Liberal arts schools offer programs in a wide array of disciplines. For the physics or computer science student reading this who finds this article irrelevant to them, pause. Most liberal arts colleges offer programs in the STEM fields. It is a common misconception that these schools only offer programs in the social sciences or humanities — or that these are the only strong programs at liberal arts schools. At my college, some of the most popular majors are Biology, Political Science, Mechanical Engineering and Psychology. This leads to my next point.
  • Liberal arts schools present students with a well-rounded education. By definition, liberal arts colleges provide students with an overview of the arts, humanities, natural sciences and social sciences. Most of these colleges require students to take classes across these disciplines, in an effort to utilize and integrate different ways of thinking — to “Thrive at the Intersections,” as my college so aptly puts it.

Still not sold? Check out this quote by U.S. Department of Education Under Secretary Martha J. Kanter in 2010:

Just 3 percent of American college graduates are educated at a residential liberal arts college. Yet the alumni of liberal arts institutions account for almost 20 percent of all U.S. presidents. Roughly 20 percent of Pulitzer Prize winners from 1960 to 1998 in drama, history, and poetry earned their baccalaureate degrees at liberal arts colleges and universities … And by some estimates, about one in 12 of the nation’s wealthiest CEOs graduated from a liberal arts institution.

Those of you who I’ve managed to keep engaged thus far are probably thinking: “But small colleges are so expensive.” True, most liberal arts schools in the United States come with a hefty price tag.

However, many of these schools meet 90–100% of need-based financial aid. Don’t disregard a school because you think you can’t pay for it without first looking at their financial aid stats. I’ve also come to find that faculty in general tend to be willing to meet with students, both matriculating and prospective. Send an e-mail inquiry, make a phone call, or even schedule a meeting if you can. Colleges are also required to provide a Net Price Calculator on their website to help families determine the cost of an education at their institution. Use one of these resources. It can’t hurt.

Personally, had it not been for generous grants from my own college, I would not be able to afford to attend. My total cost of attendance is less than in-state tuition at the University of California. So it can be wholly possible — even cheaper.

Others may protest that today’s job market calls for technical, specialized degrees to achieve economic success. Nobody is stopping you from getting that degree in computer science or biology. I am merely hoping that you open your mind to the possibility of pursuing that degree at a smaller institution. Well-roundedness, I’m sure we can agree, is not a waste of time.

Can I back up my assertions about the value of a liberal arts education through personal post-graduate anecdotes? No; I still have one year to go. But I consider my college career thus far a success. I am a more informed, aware, and engaged academic and citizen than I have ever been. If your sole measure of the success of a college degree is monetary, then I think that says something sad about the state of how we value education today. Is it important to make money after you graduate? Yes. But there is also something valuable in education itself.

Are small colleges for everyone? No, of course not. But neither are large universities. So to all students (and parents) out there, I implore you to not write off some small college in some town you’ve never heard of just because its not a “big name” school. Do your research, visit if you can and see if you like what it has to offer.

It might just be the perfect fit. And it might just change your life.

This piece is dedicated to Linda Cool, Professor Emerita, Union College Department of Anthropology.
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