Why a Small Liberal Arts College Could Be Your Kid's Best Choice

By Joy Castro

[NOTE: This work was published first in Hip Mama, a progressive parenting magazine.]

Scared off by the reputation of liberal arts colleges as elite and expensive, a lot of broke and semi-broke parents hope their college-bound kids will go to a state university or rely on distance-learning: both promise low-cost education with clear job possibilities. But for many kids, the best option could be a liberal arts education at a small residential school -- the kind of education that was once the exclusive province of the rich.

Wealthy, educated families have refused to follow recent trends. William Durden, the former vice president of a distance-learning program and now the president of Dickinson College in Pennsylvania, pointed out in a recent article that well-off families keep sending their children to small residential institutions because they're familiar with the doors that a liberal arts education opens.

"Yet every time poor, minority, immigrant, first-generation, or otherwise disadvantaged college students stand to benefit from a liberal-arts education," Durden writes, "the rules of the game change." New financial aid programs have now made many private liberal colleges affordable, but disadvantaged students are still urged (by high school counselors, the media, and anxious parents) to go the low-cost route that emphasizes job training rather than to pursue liberal arts degrees, just as immigrants, minorities, and the poor were pushed into vocational education in the early twentieth century.

"The outcome has been clear," Durden says. "The rich have remained rich and powerful. And the poor have remained poor and disenfranchised because they have been diverted, yet again, from obtaining the type of education that has served as one of the primary avenues to leadership and power for generations."

His essay, which appeared in the October 19, 2001 issue of The Chronicle of Higher Education, concludes: "It is time to let the secret out beyond the privileged." But Durden didn't let the secret out very far: the Chronicle is read primarily by professors and academic administrators, not the general public; an online subscription costs $80/year. The average working parent wondering about college options won't be picking an issue up anytime soon.

So Here's the Story

Small liberal arts colleges -- with their small class sizes, personal attention from professors, opportunities for hands-on independent learning, and strong bonds with other students -- can seem like the adult equivalent of Montessori.

"The more intimate environment of a small college can provide a nurturing environment which cannot be reproduced in a large university," says surgeon Richard Miyamoto, who graduated from Wheaton College in Illinois.

In fact, the balance of challenge, support, and freedom that characterizes liberal arts colleges looks a lot like higher education's version of attachment parenting: the support and nurturing that enable risk-taking, exposure to a broad range of new ideas and experiences, and the trust that students will ultimately pursue their own interests and goals.

Small liberal arts colleges provide face-to-face interaction in small discussion classes with teachers who know students by name -- and with students who know each other by name, since they eat, live, and socialize together as well as attend class. Rather than a talking head at the front of a huge lecture hall, students known only by their ID numbers, and assignments graded by graduate assistants, as is often the case in large research university settings, students get the full benefits of a professor who knows them as individuals and cares about their work, their ideas, and their passions. Classes emphasize conversation and debate, which help students interrogate for themselves the concepts and texts.

A liberal arts education pushes students to explore a variety of fields, rather than to specialize narrowly in a job-preparation track. This flexibility will be key to students who, experts predict, will change careers -- not just jobs, but careers -- an average of eight times during their working lives. A student who has learned how to think like a historian thinks, like a biologist thinks, and like a poet thinks is much better equipped to solve complex problems in shifting environments than a student who has mastered a quantity of narrowly defined technical information.

Learning to analyze the phenomena around us through multiple lenses is the core of a liberal arts education. Thinking through multiple lenses enhances flexibility of mind, critical thinking abilities, tolerance of ambiguity, and ethical complexity.

In a complicated and conflict-laden world, such qualities can't hurt. Articulating our ideas clearly and understanding other points of view are crucial skills, and no collegiate experience prepares students to communicate actively the way a residential liberal arts education can. The classroom emphasis on dialogue is a major part of this, and because students live on campus, institutions can also create forums for communication outside the classroom, like the kosher/halal dining hall at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts. The kitchen follows the dietary laws of both Islam and Judaism, so observant Jews and observant Muslims can come together for meals and conversation. The liberal arts are "those special arts of mind and spirit that," in the words of Mt. Holyoke's course catalogue, "can free people -- at least from ignorance, and perhaps from other poverties."

The Kind of School that Changes Lives

Even a liberal arts school that's not super-prestigious -- a college with a regional reputation, for example, rather than a national one -- can offer huge benefits: the opportunity to be treated as an individual, to speak up in class and debate ideas with peers and professors, to work one-on-one with respected intellectuals and artists. Students get to be big fish in little ponds, the way kids are in a loving family. At small schools, athletically inclined students have a much better shot at making the team (and getting playing time), and the same goes for students interested in journalism, activism, student government, and a full slate of other activities. Small schools tend to support the formation of student-initiated clubs, as well. At a small college, individuals get to shine.

That kind of personal attention can catapult a student into a different life. Internationally known today for her award-winning fiction, Helena María Viramontes is a professor of creative writing at Cornell University and has taught at the prestigious Bread Loaf Writers' Conference in Vermont. Her fiction, which blends feminist, race, and class consciousness to critique U.S. government policies, is widely anthologized and taught in college literature courses. But Viramontes was born and raised in East L.A. where, as one of ten children in a working-class family, she grew up all too familiar with poverty and violence.

Immaculate Heart College in Los Angeles changed her life. "I am a firm believer in the small, four-year liberal arts colleges like Immaculate Heart College," she told me, "because it provided education that lasts a lifetime." Particularly motivating, she remembers, was the focus on class discussion rather than lectures: "The critical thinking skills I learned, I learned by the constant challenging of non-lecture teaching, of genuine inquiry. We were given texts to read, to comment on, to digest, to question, to reject, etc. We had to provide sustained and logical arguments that kept us on our toes."

The professors at Immaculate Heart worked to make the course material clearly relevant to their students. "Again and again, I felt that what I was learning was directly connected with my life," Viramontes remembers. "I engaged with energy the ethics, philosophy and literature courses as if my life, my future depended on it. And the instructors certainly convinced me of that." Immaculate Heart closed its doors in 1980 due to financial difficulties, but Helena remembers the college as a crucial, life-changing catalyst of her development as a politically engaged writer. "I have never had such a worthwhile and exciting experience as I did in my undergraduate years at Immaculate Heart," she recalls. "I suppose the school made me feel seriously about being a citizen of the world. Moreso, the instructors taught with this same energy and belief. We, therefore, were not only students, but people ready and qualified to impact our culture, our government, our world."

Her experience matches up with the original meaning of the term "liberal arts," which has a long history. In ancient Greece, it was used to mean the arts necessary for a full life as a free citizen -- which, for the Greeks, meant active participation in the political process. The liberal part of the term, associated with liberty, concerns freedom in a number of ways: the knowledge necessary for free citizens to live well; the freedom to devote time to study, rather than to labor manually; and the kinds of study that will free the mind from ignorance and increase freedom in the world. Despite the injustice embedded in its history -- as in ancient Athens, where the freedom of male citizens depended on the work of women and slaves -- the idealistic sense of the term operates in liberal arts colleges today.

Read “Your College Kids Best Choice: Why I'm Totally Biased When I Talk About This" and the rest of the article on the Hip Mama web site.

Castro is Associate Professor of English at Wabash