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What Does Liberal Arts Mean Anyway?

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by
Associate Dean of Admission and Coordinator of International Admission, Grinnell College

The small, residential liberal arts college is a uniquely American model for undergraduate study. It is a holistic approach to intellectual and personal growth that encourages active engagement across academic disciplines and within all aspects of campus life. This broad approach is distinctly different from the vocational/professional preparatory model found at large comprehensive universities around the world.

According to the Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education, there are 421 undergraduate liberal arts colleges in the United States. These colleges focus all of their teaching, research, and financial resources solely on the undergraduate student experience. Liberal arts colleges come in different shapes and sizes, but they all share basic characteristics and educational philosophies.

Habits of the mind

The liberal arts approach views learning as an active process of exploration rather than a passive process of absorption. Instead of simply learning someone else’s answers to life’s questions, students are empowered to find their own answers through inquiry, dialogue, and analysis. Alternately guided and challenged by their professors and peers, students discover meaning for themselves, developing critical habits of mind that include the rare ability to unlearn as well as to learn.

The liberal arts also demand that faculty be fully committed to teaching, to guiding rigorous class discussion, and to providing frequent and consistent feedback to help students hone vital tools of self-expression. Faculty members are not just teachers, but mentors.

Smaller is better

In many aspects of American culture, “bigger is better,” but a smaller learning environment can be ideal because it puts everything within your reach. It is an inclusive environment where there are fewer barriers to participation and leadership opportunities in a wide variety of academic and extracurricular opportunities. Liberal arts colleges are where you will find a basketball star that also plays saxophone in the jazz band and presents papers at national chemistry conferences.

To facilitate this access, the majority of liberal arts colleges are intentionally small, with most schools enrolling 1,000–2,500 undergraduates. This means low student-faculty ratios and average class sizes of 20 or fewer.

Always open

At a residential college, the vast majority of students live on campus in what is essentially a 24/7 learning environment. This environment is ideal for liberal arts study because students learn as much from each other as they do from their professors and course work. Learning from roommates, teammates, and classmates, students develop personally and socially, creating lifelong friendships in the process. 

A larger community

An often-overlooked benefit of small liberal arts colleges is their loyal and engaged alumni. Having achieved success in their respective fields, these alumni are often a first resource for experiential opportunities such as internships, research, and career exploration. They can also become professional mentors to students as they begin their careers. Offering such help is a more meaningful and individualized way for them to give back to their alma mater, rather than simply making a donation. 

Impressive outcomes

Through liberal arts study, students realize the seamless connection between ways of thinking, interacting, and achieving. These intellectual and social skills can be successfully applied to any profession. Though only about 3% of all U.S. college graduates come from liberal arts colleges, these graduates are disproportionately recognized as leaders in science and business fields, and among those who earn Ph.D.s. Liberal arts graduates are resourceful problem solvers and visionary innovators. They are uniquely prepared for today’s challenges and tomorrow’s opportunities.  

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