For many students, choosing a college or university usually starts with the state’s flagship university and other institutions with a famous sports team. These are wonderful places and work well for thousands of students. However, only some students feel comfortable at a big university. For students looking for a different experience, I would encourage them to check out a smaller liberal arts college (SLAC). For most students and families, the concerns about SLACs are connected to myths surrounding the smaller student body, potentially fewer opportunities, misunderstanding about what liberal arts means, and cost. But what actually is a small liberal arts college?
Let’s first start with the size. With most public flagship universities having over 20,000 undergraduate students and thousands of graduate students, a smaller college is a place with fewer than 5,000 undergraduates. This means the average class size is less than 30 students and typically smaller. This is an excellent opportunity for students who love to learn through discussion with other classmates, interactive labs and presentations by faculty, and project-based learning. Most SLACs only have undergraduate students. That means an actual professor will teach the students rather than a graduate assistant. It also means students can ask questions in class, and faculty can be creative with how they teach by providing real-world experiences in the classroom, field trips to local companies or outdoor activities, or assigning creative projects involving real-world scenarios. Also, every research opportunity at a SLAC is filled with an undergraduate student because no graduate students are fighting for the same spots. This research opportunity is an excellent way to prepare for medical school or graduate studies. But doesn’t this mean that you will know everyone on the campus?
You may think that a SLAC is smaller than your high school and you don’t want to know every student at your college. I completely understand this way of thinking, but that is rarely the case unless you choose to attend a tiny liberal arts college with fewer than 500 students. (Yes, those do exist.) For most students, you have been in the same school district your entire life. This experience means that many of your high school classmates were also your classmates in middle school and all the way back to kindergarten. For most students attending a SLAC, you may be the only student from your high school there. Everyone at the college will be someone new for you to meet! Also, SLACs recruit from all 50 states as well as countries around the world. Your future SLAC classmates will differ significantly from your high school study buddies.
The size also means that the overall student body is more connected to each other. Students often are highly involved in clubs, organizations, volunteering, athletics, performing arts, and more! Yes, there may be technically fewer “options” at a smaller college. It is also easier for students to start new organizations, get involved in institutional leadership and campus change, and gain essential leadership skills. Those experiences will be helpful for future job applications or graduate school opportunities. But why are they called “liberal arts”?
The name is not connected to political ideology, music performance, or artistic expression. It comes from Latin and ancient Greek civilizations. According to Merriam-Webster, the roots of the modern usage of liberal arts “can be traced to the Latin word liber, meaning ‘free, unrestricted.’ Our language took the term from the Latin liberales artes, which described the education given to freeman and members of the upper classes, and involved training in the mind (grammar, logic, geometry, etc.).” The goal of a liberal arts education is to help students experience a broad range of educational topics to understand how they are all interconnected and impact each other. At most SLACs, a student will take about one-third of their classes in their major, one-third of their classes in the liberal arts, and one-third of classes as electives. For the liberal arts portion, students are usually encouraged to select courses from the natural sciences, social sciences, humanities, fine arts, world language, and other categories, depending on what a specific institution requires of its students. There are very few electives in high school, and courses are typically pre-selected for students. A small liberal arts college will still require that a student fulfill certain categories or learning goals, but very few specific classes are required to graduate at most places.
Think of liberal arts classes as a buffet table overflowing with courses of various styles, ingredients, and flavors. In high school, you had to have certain classes on your plate: four years of English, three years of science, math, social studies, etc., and the options were minimal, more like a menu at a small restaurant. At a SLAC, you may be expected to complete a literature course, for example, but the college may offer twenty different courses that fulfill that requirement. You get to choose which one you want to put on your plate! Also, many SLACs allow students to create their own courses or majors, meaning that the options are unlimited. A large university may offer more courses overall. Still, your specific area of study/major may restrict which courses will fulfill a specific requirement, leaving you with only two or three options to choose from instead. A smaller college does not necessarily mean fewer course offerings.
At this point, it’s time to talk about the price tag. Most parents and students will look at a SLAC’s price tag and walk away. The price tag listed on the website only tells part of the story about the actual out-of-pocket cost. According to a recent study, the average student received more than a 50% reduction in tuition costs from scholarships and grants. The majority of SLACs offer scholarships to the majority of admitted students. The only exceptions are SLACs in the highly-selective admissions category, where students will only receive need-based financial aid instead of scholarships typically. How can you find places where your student will receive one of these scholarships? Contact any member of our C3 College Consultant Consortium. As Independent Educational Consultants, we can help you find those SLACs where the cost of attendance may be lower than your state's public flagship university.
Still unsure if a SLAC is right for you? Let me share a bit of my own story to help paint the picture. I graduated from a smaller public high school where I could easily name every member of my senior class. While most of my friends were off to college at large, public universities, I decided to attend a college with less than 1,200 students in another state. I was the first person from my high school to attend my SLAC in over 25 years! No one at the college knew who I was, and I loved that idea. I lived in a residence hall on a floor with thirty other first-year students. I was the only person on the floor from my state. Yes, I was nervous and got homesick, but all of us were in the same boat, so we made the best of it. I am still in contact with almost every one of those guys to this day. I went to college to major in Spanish and Choral Music Education (and I was one of the very few that never changed my majors). My largest class in college was choir, which had 70 singers. My smallest class during my first year was the required First-Year Seminar which had fifteen students.
Throughout my college years, I joined several student organizations, and I served as a vice president for one and as president of another. These experiences gave me incredible leadership and organizational skills. I also attended numerous social and fundraising events put on by other clubs. My social calendar was always full of home football and basketball games, concerts, poetry readings, volunteer experiences, theater performances, and even the occasional party. Because of the smaller classes, I knew people from various majors and backgrounds. I never felt alone or disconnected. During spring break, I visited my friends from different states and even brought a few home to experience my hometown. As a choir student, I went on tours around the country and performed at incredible locations. For my Spanish major, I studied abroad in Seville, Spain, for five months, and the college helped pay for most of it.
Because of the connections I made during college, I had three different campus jobs, created my own internship in non-profit management at a local organization close to the college, and even participated in Americorps during my senior year. I was also asked to serve on the hiring committees for several faculty and staff positions, participated in feedback sessions on how to improve the campus for future students, and gave campus tours to some of our college’s most famous alumni. I felt supported, empowered, and challenged every day at my college.
As part of my major in Spanish, I spent my senior year working one-on-one with the department chair on a research project I created for my senior capstone. I met with my professor weekly over coffee to talk about my research and my final paper, which was over sixty pages of original research written in Spanish. This experience was invaluable when I applied to graduate school a few years later. As a music major, I completed an independent research project for my voice professor, which he used with his future students. I was creating new knowledge that helped others! I also had over thirty of my professors attend my senior recital. I had only had most of them for one class, but they came to hear me perform and cheer me on, even though most were not from the music department. In fact, I am still in touch with most of the faculty I had during my college years. My faculty were not just my teachers. They were my mentors and cheered me every step of the way.
Could all of this happen at a larger university? Sure, but I rarely find alumni from large universities that are as connected with their classmates and professors as I was at my SLAC. My college experience truly changed my life, and I would do it all over again in a heartbeat.
Now, many years later, as an Independent Educational Consultant, I have toured over 100 different SLACs around the country. Each is a unique place that challenges and supports its students, but the overall experience is similar to mine. I often hear students say they are bored in high school, wish they could have classmates that cared about their learning, or have the opportunity to explore various topics. I often encourage them to check out a SLAC because sometimes a smaller experience opens you up to a world of possibilities.