What is a Liberal Arts College?

For individuals choosing a college or university, there are more options than ever before, whether the prospective student is a recent high school graduate, a current or former member of the military or a mid-career professional looking for a fresh challenge.

Among the questions to consider: two-year versus four-year school, traditional campus or online degree program and multidisciplinary approach versus professional or vocational skills?

The increasing globalization of the marketplace is fueling demand for a better-educated workforce, one that is able to adapt to evolving challenges and new technology.

As far back as the mid-2000s, a report commissioned by the U.S. Department of Education noted that employers were finding that many new graduates were “lacking the critical thinking, writing and problem-solving skills” required in the workplace.

Today, some advocates point toward the promise of liberal arts colleges in helping meet the needs of the 21st century marketplace.

The Association of American Colleges and Universities (AACU) defines a liberal education as “an approach to learning that empowers individuals and prepares them to deal with complexity, diversity, and change. It provides students with broad knowledge of the wider world (e.g. science, culture, and society) as well as in-depth study in a specific area of interest.”

In 2005, the national association launched Liberal Education and America’s Promise (LEAP), a project aimed at boosting achievement levels of all students by incorporating aspects of a liberal education. That includes setting benchmarks and utilizing appropriate assessments.

Addressing Individual Student Needs

Traditionally, liberal arts colleges have been known for their smaller class sizes, which allow students more access to professors and, therefore, offer more opportunity for individual attention. That can mean the possibility of a more enriching curriculum and liberal arts students may find themselves assisting instructors with:

● Research

● Campus-wide projects

● Community-based and volunteer involvement

Other ways liberal arts colleges may cater to student needs include:

● Flexible curriculum

● Accessible support services

● Emphasis on personal growth

Liberal arts colleges can provide students with opportunities to gain real-life experience. Through participation in activities such as sustainable design challenges, renewable energy competitions and community partnership initiatives, students can build their skill sets and sharpen their leadership abilities.

Holistic Approach to Learning

Students at liberal arts colleges typically are taught to examine an issue from multiple viewpoints and to engage in critical thought processes. The goal is to broaden their knowledge from a global perspective.

The AACU states that a “liberal arts education helps students develop a sense of social responsibility, as well as strong and transferable intellectual and practical skills such as communication, analytical and problem-solving skills, and a demonstrated ability to apply knowledge and skills in real-world settings.”

This approach can incorporate a range of activities and opportunities designed to nurture a lifelong love of learning and support the pursuit of personal development, including:

● Engage in hands-on learning

● Participate in classroom debates and in-depth discussions

● Attend guest speaker lectures

● Travel abroad, intern or volunteer


Although the range of higher education options available today may seem overwhelming, it is imperative that prospective students survey the entire educational landscape when weighing options.

With their historical focus on broad-based learning, individual development and community involvement, liberal arts colleges can offer students an opportunity to earn a top-notch education while gaining the so-called “soft skills,” such as communication and problem-solving, often sought by employers.

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