Debunking Five Popular Myths about Liberal Arts Colleges

Large research institutions like Boston University, University of Southern California, University of Michigan, and New York University are perennially popular with my students, and for good reason. Yet I have consistently found that equally prestigious small schools, like Amherst College, Pomona College, and Wesleyan University do not generate the same interest or, indeed, rabid fan following among my clients. I think many students and parents avoid these and other great schools due to a plague of misinformation about liberal arts colleges (or LACs).

To set the record straight, a liberal arts college is simply an institution of higher education with an emphasis on undergraduate study in the arts and sciences. As a rule, LACs do not have graduate programs, though there are some exceptions. Liberal arts colleges are institutions largely unique to the United States, and pride themselves on their small size, broad-based learning philosophy, and a strong focus on undergraduate education.

I believe that liberal arts colleges offer a great value proposition and are worth considering for many students. In this two part series, I will first debunk the top five misconceptions about LACs that I encounter and then discuss why they might be right for you or your child.

1. Liberal arts means I can only study the humanities / arts.

This is probably the most common and fundamental misunderstanding of what liberal arts actually means. A lot of international students and parents see the word “arts” and get instantly turned off, because they (or their children) are looking to pursue careers in business or the STEM fields. Yet as I outlined above, liberal arts refers to a broad-based curriculum grounded in the arts and sciences.

To be clear, biology, chemistry, physics, math, economics, and computer science majors abound at liberal arts colleges. Yet in the interest of producing well-rounded graduates, an English major might have to take some courses in lab science, while a Physics major may be required to take a literature class.

2. I won’t get a job if I attend a liberal arts college.

Firstly, as survey upon survey of employers has revealed, professional skills like critical thinking, problem-solving and written communication are more important than any one major. These broad skills form the cornerstone of liberal arts education, and do have a long-term pay off. In a study published in 2014, the American Association of Colleges and Universities found that by their fifties, college grads who had majored in liberal arts were earning, on average, about $2,000 more per year than those who had majored in pre-professional subjects.

Furthermore, if graduate study is your objective, liberal arts schools dominate the list of the top 10 institutions that produce the most students who ultimately earn doctorates. Per capita, liberal arts colleges produce twice as many student who earn a PhD in science than other institutions.

3. There are fewer research opportunities at liberal arts colleges.

On the contrary, smaller colleges often offer more opportunities for research, since students do not have to compete with graduate students for research opportunities. Liberal arts colleges provide the sort of research experiences that universities often reserve for grad students, which explains why graduates of LACs have such a strong track record of acceptance to graduate school.

4. All liberal arts colleges are in snowy New England.

The highest concentration of LACs is certainly in New England, but if you look hard enough, there are gems to be found in all corners of the US. At this point, there are few people who have not heard of the Claremont University Consortium, made up of five colleges, and located just 45 minutes from downtown Los Angeles. Similarly, there are numerous excellent LACs in the Midwest.

Oberlin College is tops for budding musicians and writers, while Carleton College has one of the most rigorous core curricula in the country. Davidson College is the undisputed liberal arts leader in the South, while Colorado College offers students a more outdoorsy experience in its stunning Rocky Mountains setting.

5. All liberal arts colleges are in tiny towns in the middle of nowhere.

Not so! There are many excellent small colleges in exciting urban environments. Check out Barnard College in New York City (if you are a woman) as well as Occidental College in Los Angeles. Other great schools, including Haverford College, Wellesley College, and Swarthmore College are just a hop, skip and jump away from major cities — Philadelphia, Boston, and Philadelphia, respectively.