Why Choose a Liberal Arts Education?
Liberal arts colleges educate the whole person and are uniquely different, offering students a smaller campus size, transferable job skills, a diverse student body, and graduation in four years at an affordable cost
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Senior Adam Johnston feels so at home at Georgetown College, he “couldn’t envision going anywhere else.”
Johnston is just one of the more than 25,200 students across the state—12% of the total graduate and undergraduate enrollment in Kentucky—who’ve decided that a liberal arts education is the best fit for them.
At a time when many educational systems are becoming increasingly specialized, often geared toward learning with a specific certification or job training in mind, liberal arts colleges have an altogether different aim.
They’re committed to “educating the whole person,” says Gary S. Cox, president of the Association of Independent Kentucky Colleges and Universities (AIKCU). That means offering a type of learning environment and educational opportunities—both inside and outside of the classroom—that may not be available in quite the same package anyplace else.
So, whether there’s a high school senior in your family currently searching for his or her own “best fit” college, or you’ve been giving some thought to going back to school yourself, liberal arts institutions offer many amenities worth considering.
The smaller size of independent liberal arts colleges and universities is, perhaps, the attribute that sets them most apart from their public counterparts. For many students like Porter Houston, it’s the determining factor in choosing a liberal arts education.
“I like walking past people on campus and their knowing my name,” Houston, a senior at Georgetown College, says. “I wouldn’t like being swallowed up in an anonymous sea of 25,000 people.”
With their small size, liberal arts colleges can foster close relationships between students and professors. Instructors get to know about their students’ lives outside the classroom, taking time to get to see them as a “whole person,” says Centre senior Amanda Richardson. The relationships are enriching for both parties: after 19 years of teaching music at Kentucky Wesleyan College, Diane Earle still exchanges Christmas cards with some of her earliest students.
Moreover, many students feel liberal arts schools’ small size fosters tight-knit, caring campus communities. When Cumberland College junior Chris Wilkes’ father passed away during his freshman year, professors were supportive and gave him extra time to complete his assignments. “It’s really like a family here,” Wilkes says.
Training for Your Last Job
“Many people think college is about learning skills for your first job, but what’s more important are skills for your second, third, fourth job, and so on,” says Richard Ekman, president of The Council of Independent Colleges.
It’s those “transferable” skills—communication, teamwork, and analytical abilities—that liberal arts schools are especially adept at instilling, says Susan Rayer, director of Career Development at Transylvania University.
Plus, many liberal arts advocates point to the value of a broad-based education, particularly in today’s highly interconnected, global world. To succeed in the workforce, or even just follow the nightly news, they say, requires knowledge of culture, politics, environment, and the economy—the type of broad understanding a liberal arts education emphasizes.
Understanding the World
In addition to building job-friendly critical thinking and communication skills, a liberal arts education provides you with a wide range of knowledge and education—from biology to history to human nature —that helps you understand and make sense of life and the world.
Bellarmine University English professor Carole Pfeffer says, “In addition to preparing for jobs, a liberal arts education is about equipping people to make sense of the great questions in life—to make sense of wars, the world around us, losing people we love. We find our way through life’s journey with those large questions.”
A liberal arts education, Pfeffer says, challenges students to find answers for these questions for themselves, rather than relying on their professors to provide them.
Freedom to Explore Your Own Career Path
Liberal arts schools give students an “opportunity to explore a variety of educational and career paths before deciding on one,” says Houston.
And if the path they decide on isn’t there, they can forge it themselves, like Adam Johnston did. A business major, Johnston created his own musical theater minor at Georgetown College by taking advantage of the college’s topical major and minor option, which allows students to design unique programs of study.
Liberal colleges’ small size also lets students take part in activities like music, art, or theater even if it’s not their major, says Sarah Coen, director of Admissions at Transylvania University. “The beauty of a small campus is that it’s so easy to get involved in whatever you want to do,” Coen says.
Educational Opportunities Outside the Classroom
As part of their aim to educate the “whole person,” liberal arts schools encourage their students to take part in extra-curricular activities like studying abroad and leadership programs. Though similar programs are offered at larger public institutions, participation rates are often lower there, officials say.
“In any given year, the national average of liberal arts students who study abroad is 10%, but if you include all college students—including community colleges and public universities—the number participating is less than 1 percent,” says Kathy Culligan Simon, director of Special Programs and Study Abroad at Transylvania University.
Programs like Kentucky Wesleyan College’s “Leadership KWC” let students enhance their leadership skills through course work, service work, and training. “If they’re invested in the program, they leave here with an understanding of what leadership is,” says Jim Welch, the program’s director.
Though it may not be a primary criterion for every college student, many liberal arts students are drawn to their institution because of its religious or community-service traditions.
Philosophy professor Michael Peterson believes Asbury College’s Christian tradition helps provide a theological framework for its liberal arts mission. For him, learning and faith help inform one another.
At Berea, though non-denominational, values-based learning and community service have long been cornerstones of the college’s mission. Through Berea’s Center for Excellence in Learning Through Service (CELTS) program, students like Gyude Moore, a sophomore from Liberia, are working with teen mentoring programs, supporting environmental causes, and visiting retirement communities.
Graduation in Four Years
The National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities reports that all types of students—regardless of race, gender, family income, SAT score, high school GPA, or number of Advanced Placement Tests taken—are as likely to earn their degree in four years at a private college or university as they are in six years at a state institution.
This means that when considering the cost of a private education, students should factor in the two years of earned income they may lose by going to a public institution, Ekman says.
Diverse Student Bodies
Though small in size, Kentucky’s liberal arts colleges draw students from throughout the world. Scott Martin, a 1999 Lindsey Wilson graduate, met friends from Cameroon, Liberia, Denmark, Japan, and England on campus.
“You’d miss that diversity at a larger university,” Martin says. “Although they have international students, the campuses are so big, you wouldn’t get the same chance to meet them and learn about their cultures.”
Moreover, contrary to a common misconception, liberal arts schools aren’t only for “rich kids,” says Cox. “Many of Kentucky’s independent colleges are in some of the most economically depressed regions in the state.”
Many, like Midway College, are also branching out to older, nontraditional students through evening and weekend programs.
Recipe for Success
A growing number of alumni surveys has shown that graduates of liberal arts colleges tend to be more civically involved—as indicated through voting records, charitable giving, community participation, etc.—and report themselves as happier than do graduates of public institutions, says Ekman.
Moreover, Kentucky’s liberal arts colleges are respected nationally. Many are ranked repeatedly among the top Southern liberal arts colleges academically, and several—think Georgetown football, Lindsey Wilson soccer, and Kentucky Wesleyan basketball—are perennial powerhouses in their athletic conferences.
Whatever criteria you may prioritize, Cox feels confident that students searching for a college match can find a “fit with one of Kentucky’s independent liberal arts colleges, no matter what type of student you are.”
USEFUL WEB SITES
www.kentuckymentor.com—Includes financial aid and admissions information for 19 Kentucky independent colleges and universities. Also provides a comparative view of the institutions and a matching assistant to help students find schools that meet their preferences.
www.aikcu.org—Association of Independent Kentucky Colleges and Universities. Includes facts and figures about independent colleges in Kentucky and links to member institutions.
www.kheaa.com—Kentucky Higher Education Assistance Authority. Includes information about federal financial aid and financial aid programs for Kentucky residents.
www.cic.org— Council of Independent Colleges. Includes information about the role of independent higher education in America.
www.naicu.edu—National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities. Includes fact-filled publications such as Independent Colleges and Universities: A National Profile and Twelve Facts That May Surprise You About America's Private Colleges and Universities.
www.collegenews.org—Annapolis Group, a national association of leading liberal arts colleges. Includes information and commentary on the benefits of a liberal arts education.
www.cpe.state.ky.us—Kentucky Council on Postsecondary Education. Includes information about higher education in the state.
MORE AFFORDABLE THAN YOU MAY THINK
It’s important not to get sticker shock when comparing the price of private and public educations, say liberal arts advocates. Many parents and students fail to consider the “discounting” they’ll receive on the listed tuition through scholarships and financial aid.
“If you look nationally at the net tuition, the difference between the average public and private tuition is not between $5,000 and $25,000 per year, but between $2,700 and $8,900 per year,” says Richard Ekman, president of the Council of Independent Colleges.
For Joliet, Illinois, native Jonathan Samford, scholarships and financial aid actually made attending Centre College as an out-of-state student cheaper than attending the University of Illinois as an in-state student.
Two colleges in Kentucky, Berea and Alice Lloyd, offer students free tuition in return for participation in their campus’ work programs. As two of only six work colleges in the nation, these institutions give students an opportunity to graduate with little, if any, debt.
“Tuition at Berea is fully covered, so students only need to pay for room and board, books and supplies, and fees. Typically, this money comes from federal aid or family contributions, or from the students’ work dollars. Often, our students do not have to borrow any money to attend,” says Bryan Erslan, director of Berea’s Student Financial Aid Services.
Berea admits students based on academic merit and financial need. Alice Lloyd’s program is open to any resident in a designated 108-county service area covering counties in eastern Kentucky, West Virginia, Tennessee, Ohio, and Virginia.
One additional, comforting fact: the average annual tuition and fees at Kentucky’s four-year independent colleges and universities in 2000-2001 was $10,638—35% below the national average, according to Association of Independent Kentucky Colleges and Universities.
When it’s all said and done, though, “It’s important not only to look at the price tag, but also to look at the value of the education you’re getting,” says Sarah Coen, director of Admissions at Transylvania University.
10 TIPS PARENTS CAN GIVE THEIR COLLEGE BOUND CHILDREN
The following list is adapted from the book The Educated Student: Getting the Most Out of Your College Years by Richard Labunski.
1. Attend all orientation sessions and meet right away with academic advisors.
2. Get a copy of the school bulletin and study the requirements for admission to majors they may be interested in.
3. Visit professors outside of class and get to know at least a few teachers who are likely to be in their major department.
4. If they don’t know what to major in, they should visit classes in departments they are interested in and talk to professors there.
5. Let them know that although grades are important, they must study and learn for the long term and not just memorize for the next exam.
6. Become involved in campus activities such as the school newspaper or clubs that bring together students with mutual interests.
7. If they are full-time students, they should limit work at a job to no more than 15 hours a week. Any more than that will interfere with the quality of their college experience.
8. Find the right balance between socializing and studying.
9. They should keep you informed about what they are studying, how they spend their time, and how you can be helpful and supportive.
10. Encourage them to enjoy college. They will learn a lot both inside and outside the classroom, but the four years go by fast.
Labunski is a professor at the University of Kentucky. For more information go to the Web site at www.theeducatedstudent.com. To order, phone (800) 343-6075.
KENTUCKY'S LIBERAL ARTS COLLEGES
For an exclusive list of 19 Kentucky institutions that make up the Association of Independent Kentucky Colleges and Universities, just click liberal arts colleges.