The US liberal arts system represents a unique approach to higher learning. It stresses the individuality of the student, prioritizing their academic interests and specific needs, and provides them with a community-oriented culture in which to develop as learners and doers.
Instead of applying for a specific and set academic program, students can take classes from the sciences, social sciences, humanities and arts. This is a system that emphasis the breadth of the learning experience - students learn to digest ideas of interest to them by exploring their interdisciplinary associations.
In most colleges the first two years are dedicated to exploration - students can pick and choose from whatever interests them and leeway is given until they solidify an area of study in which to concentrate. For example, at Sarah Lawrence College, a peer of mine is interested in immigration policy and is therefore taking classes in anthropology, law and political sciences - giving them a multi-faceted understanding of the topic. All students typically declare a major in their third year, and graduate with either a Bachelor of Arts, a Bachelor of Science or even a Bachelor in Fine Arts.
The goal of the liberal arts system is to empower students with the autonomy to pursue what fundamentally interests them, and to provide them with the critical and analytical skills necessary to question and discern truths for themselves.
Liberal arts students are taught to be capable of incorporating a diversity of perspectives - drawing from history, philosophy, art and culture - into their understanding of today’s problems. The idea is that in turn they will be better primed to creatively solve these problems. Wellesley College, for example, states that it “challenges students to explore widely, interrogate closely, and make the creative leaps - synthesizing disparate ideas, perspectives, and experiences - that lead to new levels of understanding”.
Depending on the college, the professor can offer intimate support towards the student’s individualised learning process. I specifically chose to apply to Sarah Lawrence because it offered this feature and because it offered me complete control over the classes I wanted to take each semester. It was exciting to end the term with three finals papers, each from a different area of study, in which the supporting research I employed and the concepts I explored overlapped and solidified the whole. Because each paper was personally interesting to me, I felt motivated to work as hard as I could.
As opposed to large universities with large class sizes (an example being University of California, Los Angeles’s undergraduate class of 31,000 students), liberal arts colleges allow for an inclusive environment (Pomona's undergraduate class is just 1,663 students) in which students can actively challenge and explore what they are being taught beyond the confines of the program through lively class discussions.
The liberal arts experience is structured so that students engage with what they learn in a holistic manner and across multiple platforms. To learn is to participate in an embodied process which may occur in discussion and debate between students, over social media or during a student run teach-in, or even through performance art - for example, the Sarah Lawrence biannual Drag Show, a student-run fashion show celebrating freedom of expression through song, dance and clothes, combines several of these characteristics into an exciting and uplifting event.
As Dexter Gordon, professor of African American Studies at University of Puget Sound, points out, although Liberal Arts Colleges have historically been exclusive, privately owned and relatively homogenous white institutions, their small size has allowed their student communities to lead and rapidly respond to campaigns geared towards the empowerment of marginalised groups on their campuses. “Widespread student mobilisation, against a backdrop of rapid demographic shifts in student populations and a growing sense that change is necessary, makes this an opportune moment for higher education”. Students who feel impassioned to participate in this process could benefit from the close exchanges with individuals from a variety of backgrounds and cultures. In a large university they might not have the same chance to engage as empathetically.
A friend of mine at Vassar told me that “affecting change on campus is a good way to start living what you preach. By organising events, protests, you learn how to deal directly with people, which is a skill you’re always going to need. You can use your identity to amplify voices which may not be heard”. The small and tightly-knit quality of liberal arts colleges empowers students to become active agents in shaping the values and dialogue of their environments, both within their college communities and outside of them as well.
LACs vs large universities
In terms of the quality of the education, there doesn’t seem to be a significant difference between large universities and Liberal Arts Colleges. According to liberalartscolleges.com, one can determine how “effective and efficient” a school is based on their rate of 4-year graduations: “Ivy league schools had an impressive average four year graduation rate of 87%. But in fact, the top Liberal Arts colleges’ rates averaged out to 88%”. In addition, Liberal Arts College students were 25% more likely than Ivy league students to rate their workload as “difficult” to “very difficult”, and reported greater time spent studying each day. “Although the Ivies are known for their difficult academics, students seem to actually have a more challenging academic workload at top Liberal Arts schools”.
Large US universities tend to focus more on how learning specific, technical skills and knowledge, such as engineering or computer science, will pave the way towards a solid employment once they graduate, or will be geared towards high-level research. In this way they are more reminiscent of the UK university system.
As liberalartscolleges.com affirms, the academic environment at a large university will typically be more “competitive”, whereas the academic environment at a LAC will be more “collaborative”.
Applying to LACs
Candidates generally need to write one or two essays, choosing between several proposed prompts.
A lot of focus will be applied to the student as an individual - what excites them academically, and how their academic interests relate to their personal narrative.
Grades are important, but other things that will hold weight include:
- The student’s ability to write and think critically
- Their extracurricular activities (volunteering and leadership experience are helpful)
- Evidence that the student is an active members of their social and academic environments