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Liberal Arts Colleges
The Essence of American Higher Education

Nothing better embodies the essential American undergraduate experience than the liberal arts college. While liberal education can be traced to European forbears like Cambridge and Oxford, American liberal arts colleges have developed their own distinctive educational formula, merging teaching, research, and community life into powerful educational settings.

The best liberal arts colleges are as sought-after and rigorous as the finest universities. In particular, liberal arts colleges attract faculty who want to be both scholars and teachers, and students from around the world who want to work directly with those professors while living in a close-knit residential community.

Liberal arts colleges are predominately undergraduate institutions, with student bodies typically between 1500 and 2500 students. Despite their deliberately small size, liberal arts colleges offer four-year bachelor's programs comparable to those at larger universities, in disciplines across the sciences, social sciences, arts, and humanities. Most students live in campus housing, and community life is rich. While tuition can be expensive, significant financial aid is often available for international students.

Whether a liberal arts college is coeducational or single sex, urban or rural, religiously-affiliated or secular, each is rooted in the same well-established educational tradition. The liberal arts are the philosophical core of American higher education, in which students are exposed to a broad range of fields and modes of inquiry, and through which students develop the fundamental habits of mind to succeed in the fields of their choosing.

In particular, liberal education develops students' abilities to think critically, to reason, to analyze and assess information, to solve problems, to argue, and to communicate. Students usually choose one "major" area of study in addition to taking a range of other courses across the curriculum. Most classes are small and built around speaking, arguing, and writing, or hands-on research.

Research shows that of all institutional types, American liberal arts colleges offer students distinctive benefits:

  • Liberal arts colleges produce a disproportionately large number of eventual Ph.D. recipients. Unlike a large university with various competing priorities, liberal arts colleges have only one focus: educating undergraduate students.  Students have direct, personal access to faculty, who in turn are able to propel them into the finest graduate programs.

  • Liberal arts colleges produce a disproportionately large number of future scientists. Science faculty at liberal arts colleges maintain active research agendas, and they rely on their students as partners in their labs and with their fieldwork. It is not unusual for science majors to graduate with co-authored scholarly papers already on their resumes.

  • Liberal arts colleges provide access to the top professional schools. There are many routes to professional education, but law, business, and medical schools seek out graduates of liberal arts colleges in particular for the breadth of skills that will lead to exceptional careers: they may become lawyers who are fluent in statistics, doctors with powerful communication skills, or corporate executives who appreciate the cultural and ethical contexts in which they do business.

  • A degree from a liberal arts college opens doors across virtually every industry. From business and finance to biotechnology and pharmaceuticals to non-profits and the arts, the liberal arts curriculum helps graduates learn on their feet, move fluidly through organizations, and find connections among various ideas that might not be evident to someone less well educated. Recent employer survey data compiled by the Association of American Colleges & Universities indicates that the learning outcomes of liberal education make job candidates significantly more attractive than those who have only narrow technical skills.

  • A liberal education provides the flexibility to succeed in an unknowable future. The most important careers of the next half-century have not yet even been imagined. The only way for students to prepare for them is to learn how to learn, to adapt, and to apply the fundamental intellectual capacities that a liberal education develops.

  • Liberal arts colleges educate students for fulfilling lives. Most students want their lives to be about more than just a career. Liberal arts colleges expose students to the breadth of human experience. Whether it's by engaging in the arts, athletics, public service, or any other personal interest, students at liberal arts colleges can find balance in the many co-curricular offerings and areas of community engagement.

For all these reasons, liberal arts colleges have long occupied a central place in the world of higher education. They continue to be emulated around the globe and are a popular destination for students in the U.S. and from abroad.

Despite the many similarities they share in form and function, each liberal arts college has its own distinctive history, identity, and character. Each college also has its own relative strengths, and any one college will likely feel substantially different from another. While there are only three all-men's colleges, such as Wabash College (Indiana), there are many women's colleges, like Spelman College (Georgia), which is also one of the many Historically Black Colleges & Universities in the United States. Mount Holyoke College (Massachusetts), also a women's college, has a long history of enrolling high numbers of international students. Harvey Mudd College (California) has an emphasis on engineering, while Bard College (New York) is best known for its programs in the arts.

How do you know if a liberal arts college is right for you? Visit the institution's website, make personal contact with an admission representative or faculty member, and, if possible, visit the campus in person. You can also learn a lot "off the record" from current students on websites like Facebook and YouTube.

Notable former students of liberal arts colleges
Dan Brown, Author Amherst College
Elaine Chao, U.S. Secretary of Labor Mount Holyoke College
Chevy Chase, Actor/Comedian Haverford College, Bard College
Steve Jobs, CEO, Apple Computer Reed College
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Poet Bowdoin College
Martin Luther King, Jr., Civil rights leader Morehouse College
Richard Nixon, U.S. President Whittier College
Gloria Steinem, Feminist Smith College
Meryl Streep, Actress Vassar College
Barbara Walters, Journalist Sarah Lawrence College
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