5 Reasons a Liberal Arts College Could Be the Perfect School for You
By Angie Sohn
What images come to mind when you envision what a university looks like? Perhaps you imagine huge lecture halls and auditoriums, or maybe bustling lobbies packed with students commuting to their next class. Traditional universities — also known as research universities — tend to be public, have upwards of several thousand students, and have multiple schools that are field-based or degree-based. But there is another excellent option for undergraduate students: liberal arts colleges.
Liberal arts colleges are also known as LACs. These colleges are known for having an emphasis on undergraduate education with small student populations — many schools have less than 2,500 students. Personally, as a first-generation and low-income student, I did not know about LACs growing up. In fact, it wasn’t until I seriously started my college search that I discovered them. I’m now a student at Colby College, a LAC in Maine where I’ve been greatly enjoying my experience.
As a current liberal art school student, here are five reasons why you should consider attending a LAC and why they might be a good fit for you.
1. LACs offer a multidisciplinary education model. For instance, LACs differ from research universities which may have a more “pre-professional” focus, meaning the education revolves around preparation for a specific career. Instead, LACs emphasize intellectual exploration and breadth (hence “liberal arts”). They tend to be exclusively for undergraduates, and aside from departments, do not have distinguishing schools based on a field (such as engineering or business schools).
A liberal arts education is perfect for students who are unsure about choosing their major. At a LAC, you are given more time to figure out your interests before you declare your major. Typically, you have until the end of your sophomore year to make that decision. However, that does not mean that LACs lack offerings for technical fields. Many students at LACs are on track to pursue careers in engineering, finance, and journalism. However, the LAC model encourages students to have a multidisciplinary, well-rounded education which includes exploring subjects outside their field. As a result, you’ll see students taking courses outside of their declared majors. For example, at a LAC it’s not uncommon for pre-med students to take art courses, finance majors to take literature classes, or computer science students to take a foreign language course. If you have a diverse set of interests or are eager to dabble in a diversity of subjects, LACs will provide you the space to satisfy your intellectual curiosity.
Students at LACs often note how the flexibility in their education has allowed them to approach topics from multiple angles, broaden their scope of study, and add nuance to their perspective. Jake Savoca, a 2018 graduate of Williams College says, “A liberal arts education encourages its students to sample the various flavors of intellectual pursuit and weave through many lanes of thought, a skill that is vital for success and happiness in life.”
If an education focused on intellectual exploration sounds appealing to you, then you should highly consider LACs in your college search.
2. LACs also offer numerous opportunities for career readiness and strong preparation for graduate school. LACS are known for having high medical school and law school acceptance rates. They are also known for high matriculation rates into top graduate schools. Why? There are several reasons. For example, LACs offer pre-law students many classes that are writing, reading, and discussion intensive, providing ample preparation for the demands of law school.
For pre-med students, research opportunities are readily accessible since undergraduates do not have to compete with graduate students. Additionally, the small size of LACs means you gain access to professors who can become your advocates and write you strong letters of recommendation. Top graduate schools will recognize the name value and quality of liberal arts colleges. These are all factors to consider especially if you want to pursue higher education after obtaining a bachelor’s degree.
3. LACs have small classroom sizes. Historically, small class sizes encourage relationship building with professors and peers. For many LACs, the typical class size is less than 20 students. Instead of huge lecture halls, your instruction will likely take place in classrooms with chairs arranged around a table. What does this mean? Many classes are reading and discussion-based. Your professor may be sitting right next to you, facilitating the class while also being completely accessible. Inevitably, you build rapport with your professors and peers fairly quickly. Building such relationships is essential, as your professors can go onto become your trusted advisors, mentors, and advocates on campus. Even if you are intimidated by class discussions — like I was — having a small class size will give you the space to overcome your anxiety in a low-pressure, comfortable environment.
Of course, class sizes vary widely depending on the course level, rigor, and discipline. Additionally, even in research universities, your class sizes will likely whittle down as you progress through college and specialize over time. However, LACs broadly maintain small class sizes, and encourage students to take advantage of this starting your first semester. If you desire small classes where you’ll get to know your professors and establish strong connections, this is a wonderful aspect to consider. In general, it’s also important to remember you are encouraged to visit your professors in office hours to ask questions and establish a relationship outside of the classroom.
4. LACs are also known for having strong alumni networks. Due to their smaller student enrollment, LACs have smaller alumni networks compared to larger universities. Nonetheless, these networks are oftentimes tight-knit. Many alumni want to see their school continue to prosper and are often eager to give back to students. Hannah Thompson, a 2019 graduate of Swarthmore Colleges, notes that “While Swarthmore’s network isn’t huge, it’s definitely close-knit. When I’m introduced to an alum, they are going to do everything in their power to help me reach whatever goal I have in that moment — whether they can look over my resume or connect me to someone at their work.
Ross Kaplan, a 2007 graduate of Colby College reinforces the value of LACs' strong alumni networks by sharing, “I think that the smaller size of the alumni network is made up for by the quality. There definitely is a strong Colby connection. If you see someone with a Colby shirt then you get excited because it’s a rare sight to see. But it’s a reminder that even though we’re not numerous, we’re all out there and willing to help.”
Networking is a huge component of the professional world — even as a college student, it’s extremely powerful to leverage your alumni network and find your mentors. It’s also reassuring to know you have a solid network to support you while navigating your post-grad journey, such as figuring out whether to attend graduate school. Anna Braverman, a Colby 2019 grad says, “Recently, since my Fulbright ended, a lot of alumni reached out to me after I posted about deciding whether to go to graduate school and they responded with a lot of helpful advice. That was recently helpful for me and just because of the feedback, I decided to apply to graduate school and to go.”
Alumni who have gone through similar paths can serve as valuable mentors and offer advice for your journey as well.
5. Finally, LACs often give generous financial support and funding. Of course, this depends on the resources of the school and can vary widely. However, many top LACs are wealthy with large endowments. Coupled with smaller student populations, this means that LACs can invest a considerable amount of money into each student. Many private LACs offer generous financial aid — including meeting 100% demonstrated need. If you are low-income, it may actually be cheaper for you to attend a private institution than a public university.
Moreover, generous financial support may extend to the college providing free textbooks, granting funding for summer internships or global experiences, and financial assistance for other additional needs. There is also less competition for resources and funding. Conversely, LACs have heftier sticker prices compared to those at public state universities. It may not be the best financial choice for everyone. However, if you are Pell grant eligible, you may be surprised to see that many top LACs are extremely affordable due to generous financial aid. If you are especially determined to graduate with as little debt as possible and are a low-income student, definitely look into these schools.
Here’s the bottom line. Liberal arts colleges are fantastic institutions that may be an ideal fit for you. Reflect on your goals, what you want to gain from your college experience, and your financial situation. Choosing a LAC was personally the best decision for me, and I highly encourage you to give them a look as well.
Contributing writer Angie Sohn is an Embolden intern and a government student at Colby College.
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