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  • Writer's pictureDr. Thom

Should You Consider a Liberal Arts College?

Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash

My college education and professional higher education career was spent at research universities, a type of college that emphasizes two major aspects of education:

  1. Learning and societal advancement primarily through research

  2. Academic specialization

This type of education is credited to Prussian philosopher and founder of the Humboldt University of Berlin (Germany), Wilhelm von Humboldt, whose educational theories became known as the Humboldtian model of higher education. Under this educational philosophy, German universities, and later American Universities starting with the University of Virginia and Johns Hopkins University, emphasized the advancement of knowledge through a unity of research and teaching. But as many higher education historians have noted, as institutional research became increasingly viewed as a revenue source for universities, the emphasis on undergraduate teaching at these universities lessened. In fact, at many of these universities, top faculty may not even teach undergraduates, focusing instead on teaching and mentoring graduate students who can assist them in managing a research practice. In addition, these universities emphasize a more narrow academic specialization as opposed to a more generalized, and some would argue, more versatile education.

But there are a collection of universities that were founded on, and remain true to a commitment to undergraduate teaching and educational flexibility: liberal arts colleges. At these universities, students are encouraged to explore the connection points between various fields of study in small classes, led by professors who are incentivized first to teach, and then to engage in research, not the other way around.

We recently hosted a live GEC webinar entitled Liberal Arts and the Colleges That Change Lives (which you can watch here) hosted by Christine Bowman, Dean of Admissions and Enrollment Services at Southwestern University and former College That Change Lives Board Chair and GEC’s own Jen England.

If you’re like me and never attended a liberal arts college, I highly recommend you watch the session and share it with your student.

What struck me the most from the session was the discussion around employability and how current employers were prioritizing liberal arts graduates.

This might run counter to what you might have heard (or assumed) that liberal arts college degrees are “useless” and graduates of these programs are doomed to the Starbucks counter. Quite the opposite in fact, and don’t take my word for it. Go ask Mark Cuban who advised college students to not “go to school for finance — liberal arts is the future.” Cuban is seeing what the CEOs of Slack (himself a former philosophy major), YouTube, and Whole Foods, all know, that the nature of the workforce is evolving and that the jobs of the future will emphasize communication and critical thinking skills - both of which are primary characteristics of a liberal arts graduate.

A former colleague of mine who was a Chief Technology Officer at a software and data company put it to me this way: “Given how quickly technology changes, I need software developers who know how to learn and self-teach.” As a graduate of a Liberal Arts College himself (Occidental) he understood the importance of understanding people because after all, if you are building software that is to be used by humans, you kind of need to understand them. He also understood that companies are first and foremost, collections of people, who must communicate with each other to accomplish their highest goals.

If you believe that education is first and foremost and opportunity to prepare for a future career, and you, like Mark Cuban, acknowledge that these careers are experiencing massive changes, then a liberal arts education may be the best fit for your student.

For more reasons your student should consider a liberal arts education, check out our session entitled Liberal Arts and the Colleges That Change Lives.

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