When I was a senior in high school applying to colleges, I avoided liberal arts colleges altogether. I swept them aside because I just didn’t know enough about them. But after a year at a large university I started looking for a smaller scale. I then transferred to Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota close to Minneapolis. I loved it and I have to credit this school for largely making me the person and student that I am today. So, to those to whom the term might be unclear, what the heck are these “liberal arts colleges” anyways?
1) They are solely undergraduate institutions.
Liberal arts colleges (LAC’s) in general are made up of only undergraduate students. This means that the only job of professors is to teach and work with undergrads instead of also conducting research with grad students. However, research opportunities are still attainable through professors or other external institutions.
2) They only offer liberal arts and science degrees.
Liberal arts and sciences are the traditional courses – anything from English, history, science, math, computer science etc. They are not pre-professional, (business, communications, architecture, public policy) which means formal training for a specific career. However, a liberal arts degree by no means limits one’s chances in finding a career. A well-rounded education in economics, anthropology, science, and English teaches a student to think critically, speak well, and understand how society works. These are the fundamental skills that would make a person capable of a multitude of careers.
The words university and college are often interchangeable today. But think of a liberal arts college as the College of Arts and Sciences in a larger university. If the humanities, arts, social or natural sciences is what you want (the best choices in my opinion), the LAC is a great place for you!
3) They are small.
The average LAC student body is 1200-3000 students – in comparison with 16,000 undergrads for large universities. Why did this small size work for me? See 4-10 below.
4) Classes are small.
You won’t find lectures of 200 students (understandably, since that would be 10% of the whole school in a single class). I believe the greatest virtue of liberal arts colleges is that the small student body allows them to maintain small class sizes (around 10-25 students) even for introductory and science courses. In the larger school I attended, a typical class had two components 1) a slide-based lecture held by the professor and 2) discussion section held only once a week with the T.A. That’s a little unfortunate because I believe that discussion is the most important part of the class. It is where you learn to convert nebulous ideas into concrete.
The best class I had was composed of only 5 students. We met once a week with the professor from 7 to 10 pm. I never expected to love that class so much. It was discussion-based – in fact the professor rarely lectured for more than 30 minutes. The style was informal but enriching, challenging but exciting, intimate but comfortable. As we delved into the material, we also laughed, joked, and learned about each other. I was never interested in American Studies before, but as I wrote my final paper, I realized how much this one class changed the way I saw everything.
5) Professors want to develop close relationships with the students.
Because classes are small, it is most likely that your professors will know you by face. They will know your personality, your ideas, and your goals. They will want to strengthen your weaknesses, understand if you need an extension on a paper or test, and encourage you to come to their office just to chat. And it won’t be scary.
6) They encourage a cross-disciplinary and interdisciplinary college experience.
So many students I encountered seemed to have no boundaries as to what they were interested in. It was not at all unusual to find a physics major minoring in international relations or a geology and English double major. I have learned to think of the sciences and humanities less as dichotomous disciplines, and more as philosophies that see the world from different perspectives and necessitate the use of creative thinking.
7) They offer a great sense of community.
Chances are you will always know more than a couple other students in all of your classes. From school-wide inside jokes, quirky traditions, to campus events that everyone attends, the community always feels supportive and inclusive. When I speak of community, I don’t just imply professors and students, but also the administration, cafeteria staff, athletic department, etc. The administration was always caring and friendly when dealing with any personal matters and would be willing to make exceptions for individual cases. Additionally, many also liked to keep up to date with the accomplishments of students.
8) You can always find unique courses.
Another class has an interesting story. A course called “Rivers, Humans, and Environmental Justice” was triple-listed among philosophy, creating writing, and environmental studies. It was probably the most unique and unconventional class I will ever have. Not only was the class interrelated in such an unusual way, it was also taught by two professors – one poetry, one philosophy – who would take turns leading discussion. On top of that, we started the class with a two-day camping and canoeing trip along the Minnesota River to gain inspiration for several assignments.
9) They have Division III sports.
If you aren’t a superstar athlete, more chances for you to become involved in varsity athletics instead of being the spectator. Nevertheless, it is never hard to find school pride at games. And for the student to whom athletics is not a concern: school spirit is also derived from great friendships, a supportive and tight-knit community, and the sense of being part of something small but with a distinct personality.
10) Students love their college experience.
For some reason, I have rarely encountered another student at a liberal arts college who wasn’t fanatic about their school. Everything from the caring community, interesting classes, and intellectual atmosphere makes it a little hard to be unhappy. Students often said that the worst thing about Macalester was that it only lasts four years.
In short, the LAC philosophy is that an education is not just about preparing for a future career, but rather to garner the critical thinking skills that will make someone smart and capable for a multitude of careers.
Some links to help you get to know LAC’s:
http://colleges.usnews.rankingsandreviews.com/best-colleges/liberal-arts-rankings. Use this list to learn about some great LAC’s
http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/09/07/intellectual-colleges_n_707087.html. Interesting…mostly LAC’s and universities with an LAC feel.
http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/08/25/bestkept-secrets-10-colle_n_693686.html#s128810 Another list full of LAC’s
http://www.collegenews.org/x14.xml The Annapolis group is comprised of 130 liberal arts colleges. Their mission is to draw public attention to the value of a liberal arts education. Read what they have to say!
http://www.liberalartscollegereview.com/article_what.php For further clarity.
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