If you’ve ever taken a college tour, you’ve probably heard a line similar to this:
“Our college will change your life. It will build habits of mind that will stick with you forever. You’ll get individual attention unlike anywhere else. When you graduate, you won’t just be a student – you’ll be a scholar.”
These are just a few of the promises that small, private liberal arts colleges use to sell students on attending. The implication is that colleges like this are worth the hefty price tag, since you can get things unavailable at large state universities.
But do these schools really live up to all the hype? Are you any better off at them than at a state university? Most of all, is it worth the extra money?
I can’t speak for every liberal arts college (there are around 200 in the U.S., according to LiberalArtsColleges.com), but I can speak to my own experience of attending such a school for the past three years.
Since Thomas went to a fairly representative state university and has described what it’s like pretty thoroughly, I thought I could kick in my own different, yet complementary experience.
This post will cover the pros and cons of small private liberal arts colleges, with the ultimate hope that after reading you can make a more informed college choice.
Let’s do this!
First Things First: Controlling Costs
Before we go into the specifics of attending a liberal arts college, we need to get one thing straight: do not go to a school that you have to take private loans to afford. It’s up to you and your parents to make the decision you think is best, but we at College Info Geek are strongly against going to a school that requires any loans beyond the federal Stafford/Perkins.
If you’re not familiar with the ins and outs of federal financial aid, have a listen to Part 2 of the Path to College series. In that episode, Thomas and Martin break down everything you ever need to know about the topic.
The important point, however, is this: federal loans have protections on them and reasonably low interest rates. No amount of student loan debt is ideal, but private loans (i.e., loans given by a bank or other institution) are the worst. Avoid them at all costs, since they usually have astronomical interest rates and fewer protections than federal ones.
There’s nothing wrong with aiming for your “dream school.” By all means, apply to anywhere you like. Generous scholarships exist, and it’s very possible you could attend a high price tag school for little to nothing.
But if you need to borrow any more than Stafford/Perkins will cover, you should attend a less expensive (but still no doubt awesome) school. Your choice of college has much less of an effect on the course of your life than your parents, teachers, and prospective schools would lead you to believe.
With that said, what if you find yourself in the enviable position of having your pick of schools? Your financial aid amounts are effectively equal, and you have the choice among several fine institutions. Some are large state universities; others are medium private institutions; and still others are small private liberal arts colleges.
Which should you choose?
The rest of the article will give you some information to help you decide.
The Liberal Arts Experience: Academics
The biggest selling points for most liberal arts colleges are the small classes and large amounts of individual attention from professors. The argument goes that smaller classes and more attention from professors translate into a superior educational experience.
But is this really true? Are the classes really smaller and the professors more attentive? And does this necessarily mean your education is “better” than at an institution with large classes and less individual attention?
Well, it depends.
At my college, it’s certainly true that most of my classes have been small. Twenty people is probably the average, though I’ve had classes as small as eight. This is great…most of the time.
When you’re dealing in classes this small, it really exposes the professor’s teaching ability. If they’re a brilliant lecturer and discussion leader, then small classes are awesome. But if they’re less than gifted in these areas, it makes boring classes that much more painful.
Similarly, small classes mean that the quality is dependent on the motivation and interest levels of the students in the class. Often you end up with a situation where 3-5 people do most of the talking in discussions, while everyone else sits in quiet silence…or sleep.
In that way, it’s not much different than a large lecture, where the percentage of engagement is much the same. The difference is that with a small class these differences among students are much more noticeable.
I’m not saying it’s always this way. I’ve had classes where everyone was engaged and it was wonderful. But I’ve also had ones where no one cared and the professor wasn’t able to get people engaged.
On days like that, I found myself wishing that we were in a giant lecture hall where you could just blend in and absorb what information you needed from the lecture.
As to individual attention from professors, that really depends as well. I’ve had professors who required everyone in the class to meet with them individually during the semester (something that’s much easier with a class of twenty than a class of two hundred).
But I’ve also had professors who only wanted you to meet individually if you had a very important question.
And everything in between.
Generally, I think it works this way: if you take the initiative, you can get as much individual attention as you need. It’s up to you to take the initiative, though. As with any college big or small, no one’s going to hold your hand.
I don’t want to make it sound like there are no advantages to the small size. Being in classes this small has let me do things like go to professors’ houses for dinner, work as a departmental assistant, and even house sit for a professor during the summer. There’s a kind of access that you can’t quite get at a large university.
Even then, though, the class size argument doesn’t really hold for large universities beyond a certain point. While it’s true that you may have giant lectures your first couple years of college, the more specialized upper level classes in your last few years are likely to be just a small and personal as those you would find at a small liberal arts college.
Furthermore, it also depends on what you want and value. If you’re going to college just to get a specific certification or degree to pursue a specific career, you may not care too much about small classes or individual attention.
You should ask what’s important to helping you learn the best, not just what college admissions officers or your parents tell you.
Now that we’ve covered class sizes, let’s move on to an area that a lot of people overlook when choosing between small and large colleges: resources.
What do I mean by that? Everything from services such as career counseling to meal plans to facilities available for recreation and research. Depending on your major, this can make a difference in your choice of school.
For instance, as an English major the only academic resources that I considered when choosing a college were the libraries and the professors themselves. I didn’t worry about specialized equipment or facilities.
But if you wanted to study, say, sports medicine, the academic resources available at a small liberal arts college would likely be inadequate. You’d probably want access to a large university with a well-funded athletic program and the facilities to train you for your intended career.
It’s worth mentioning here as well that if you have a very specific career in mind, a liberal arts college (of any size) may not be the right fit for you.
The whole philosophy behind the liberal arts is that you get an education, not just a degree. The thinking habits and broad body of knowledge you encounter matter more than the technical skills you learn. If you’re not sure what you want to do after college, this can be a great environment to figure it out without the pressure to specialize.
Beyond academic resources, there are other areas to consider, but I would suggest that you don’t get too caught up in them. Remember, you are going to college to study. It’s not the only thing that matters, but it should be your foremost consideration.
Things like the size of the swimming pool and the quality of the dorms will not make much of a difference in the experience you have. Furthermore, these things don’t tend to vary that much with the size and type of the school.
How do the scholarships and financial aid available at small liberal arts colleges stack up against larger universities? As with most things addressed in this article, it depends.
On paper, private liberal arts colleges are more expensive than state universities. Heck, private colleges of any kind are more expensive. But you shouldn’t just look at the sticker price. The fact is, most students attending these colleges are not paying the full price.
You should instead look at what the price will be if you get the maximum amount of scholarship money available. Then, look at how much you can expect to be able to cover with federal loans. Optimistically, this is what attending the college will actually cost you.
What you’ll sometimes find is that when you do all those calculations, the cost would be much the same as in-state tuition at a state university. Particularly because the costs for room and board can be much the same.
And if you can “hack” these costs by living off campus (at least after your freshman year) and cooking your own food, the costs may become equal.
Don’t get me wrong: what I’m describing above is an ideal scenario. Very often the in-state university will be the cheapest hands down, and you’d have to borrow absurd amounts of money to attend the private college.
Still, it’s worth doing the math and checking. There’s no harm in applying, that’s for sure.
I’ve saved discussion of this topic for last, as it’s the area where I think there is the most meaningful difference between small liberal arts colleges and large universities. This assessment is based on the realities at my school, as well as the time I’ve spent visiting friends at large state universities.
The best summary of the campus culture at small liberal arts colleges came to me from a professor I talked to while touring Sewanee, as small liberal arts college in my home state of Tennessee.
The professor (whose name I don’t recall) put it this way:
“When you’re at a school this small, it’s like being under a magnifying glass. Everyone can see what you’re doing, and it’s hard to blend in.”
I’ve found this to be more or less true at my own school. When you go to a college with less than 2,000 students in a town of less than 20,000 people, there is little privacy and anonymity. Everybody knows what everyone else is up to. To say it’s like high school would be incorrect, but it’s much less anonymous than “real life.”
Not that this is always a bad thing. Another way of looking at this would be to say that there’s a close sense of community and that you know most of your classmates (and certainly everyone in your major).
People come together in times of joy (filling “the arch” with snow my freshman year) and times of grief (the unexpected death of one of our chemistry professors a little over a year ago). You get to know the people in the local shops and develop relationships with the people who make your food and deliver your mail. In the best possible way, it’s like stepping back in time.
But it would be wrong to claim that large universities lack these things inherently. It’s just that the communities are larger in number and the atmosphere slightly less personal…some of the time.
You can find everything I’ve described above at a large university (though hands off the arch filling tradition – that’s ours!). It just may take a little more effort.
I want to leave you with this thought:
Where you go to college will not decide your future.
You decide your future. Your choice of college is just one decision of many. It’s what you do with the college you attend (if college is even the right decision for you) that matters.
College marketing brochures, admissions officers, and maybe even your own parents may claim otherwise, but where you go to college matters far much less than what you do with your time there.
Still, I hope that this article has encouraged you to at least consider a small liberal arts college…or helped you decide it’s not even worth the look.
Wherever you end up, make the most of your time there. I start my final year in less than a month, and damn if the past three years haven’t flown by.
What questions do you have about attending a private liberal arts college? If you attend one right now, does your experience align with what I described?
I’d love you to share your thoughts in the comments section below or start a discussion in the College Info Geek Community.