What Makes Liberal Arts Colleges Unique?

As a current high school student, you have more pressure on you than any previous generation has had when it comes to finding a college and thinking about career.

Take a deep breath. Try taking a break from the endless messages you’re getting about college – from the web, peers, adults in your life – and think about what’s really important to you.

  • What do you value most?
  • What do you want to do with your God-given abilities, interests and energy?

Your values, your desire to “make a difference,” will – or should – play a huge role in your choice of college, much larger than in choosing a college for its “name” or prestigious reputation.

Consider: Martin Luther King Jr. graduated from then-tiny Morehouse College in Atlanta, Ga., with a bachelor’s degree (in sociology), as did filmmaker Spike Lee (in mass communication). Dan West, the founder of Heifer Project International, graduated from Manchester College, a small college in Indiana affiliated with the Church of the Brethren. For these social-change pioneers, the personal attention they received at their colleges, along with the nurturing of their values, shaped their lifelong work.

Your values, your education

Small liberal arts colleges, many of them faith-based, offer an overall college experience that will uniquely equip you to pair your values with your long-term goals.

Education writer Loren Pope, who studied colleges from 1952 until 2008, wrote in his bestselling Colleges That Change Lives that well-established, no-brand-name liberal arts colleges tend to excel in creating future winners in life, because :

faculty and students work closely together, learning is collaborative rather than competitive, students are involved in their own education, and there is much discussion of values, and there is a sense of family.

Personal mentoring

One-on-one interaction with professors is one way that college students are mentored and shaped to make the most of their unique values, interests and gifts.

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Small liberal arts colleges often provide an atmosphere where students have a chance to interact with professors not only in class, but in the coffee shop, on the sidewalk and even in professors’ homes. Few, if any courses, in these colleges will be large and impersonal, or basically taught by graduate assistants.

When you need letters of reference for graduate school or jobs, your PhD-holding professors will know you personally and be able to provide references that don’t sound generic.

I love Liberal Arts

The advantage of liberal arts

A liberal arts education prepares graduates for life. When you pursue a rounded, multi-disciplinary education through the liberal arts, you learn to think critically, write effectively, listen well, and apply yourself in a variety of areas. This is critical to your future, because in today’s fast-changing world, most college graduates will find themselves within 10 years of graduation in jobs that didn’t even exist when they were undergraduates. So flexibility, imagination and confidence, supported by a broad education, are important attributes for success.

These qualities tend to be cultivated in the small liberal arts colleges, where the success of each student, with his or her individual strengths and weaknesses, is more important than the research and books of famous professors or the nationally ranked sports team with its star players.

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Programs tailored to you

  • Do you care about the environment?
  • Do you want to be a peacebuilder or a disaster-management specialist?
  • Want to pursue your sports or pottery interests while staying on a particular career track such as business or nursing?

Do a Google search for your interests. Many small colleges offer programs in areas that will prepare you for specific fields such as environmental sustainability, art preservation, or peacebuilding. And studying those at a small liberal arts college often allows you to pursue other interests – such as music, sports, drama, student leadership – along with your other studies.

Faith-based study

Christian colleges offer an opportunity to be educated in the context of your most deeply held values. Not all Christian colleges are the same, however. Some encourage faith exploration. Others offer prescribed assumptions. Learn everything you can about a faith-based institution on your short list. Find out if it’s a place that will best fit your style and personal growth needs. To be sure of the fit, visit it.

Can I afford it?

Small private colleges are often more affordable than people realize. The number one rule of thumb:

Don’t make assumptions based on published tuition costs. Many small private colleges offer significant aid, which you can learn about only by completing the financial aid application process.

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No web site, video or phone call can replace the value of a campus visit. Plan now to join a scheduled group visit, or explore the possibility of an individual tour. The visit will tell you a lot about what your student experience might be.

  • Were the hosts friendly and helpful?
  • Did professors make time to answer your questions?
  • Was the atmosphere safe and friendly?

You don’t need to be overwhelmed with the pressure of choosing the “right” college. You only need to be true to yourself, your values, and your aspirations.

Take time to consider what you really want and need, including a serious look beyond the obvious brand-name universities. If you do this, you will be on the right path for you to develop your fullest potential and to have a successful life, whether you end up as the leader of a social movement, as Martin Luther King Jr. did, or as a filmmaker and owner of your own film production company, as Spike Lee became.