What does an American college look like? Usually the image coming to mind is a large campus populated by energetic young students, grand buildings, and giant sport complexes. Indeed, American universities are typically celebrated throughout the world by their lofty research achievements and hefty sport prowess. Yet away from all the celebration fireworks and scientific breakthroughs, there are also sanctuaries, called Liberal Arts Colleges, where in a tranquil environment young people huddling around their professors debating the current events and pursuing higher learning. Liberal Arts Colleges originated from ancient Europe as educational institutions where “free men” engaged wide-ranging pursuit of philosophy, art, rhetoric, and logic.
Vocational, technical, and scientific studies were in the domain of “non-free men” (commoner) who need to earn a living through trades. A liberal arts education strives to nurture wholesome human being by engaging students in a vast spectrum of subjects in a Socratic format. Questions and dialogues are posted and debated among professors and students. Arguments are challenged and defended. Critical thinking is cherished and nourished. The role of professor is not the beholder and arbiter of superior knowledge but instead enabler of student’s creative energy, critical analysis, and constructive debate. A liberal arts education aims to produce “free men” who uphold the civic duty and value of a free society. Yet more or less a university education is to bestow baskets of knowledge (through lectures) into young brains for the purpose of producing a strong work force that power the nation’s economy.
The history of American higher education traces all the way back to colonial times. The first college, Harvard College (founded in 1636), is much older than the United States as an independent country. Modeled after great British institutions of higher learning, the early American colleges were frequently small in size and religiously sponsored. Initially all colleges were liberal arts colleges by heart. Yet the advances of science and technology put increasing pressure on colleges to expand curriculums and embrace those formally “trade” disciplines. In 1828 a faculty committee of Yale college issued a staunch defense of existing classical themed university curriculum (the Yale Report of 1828). As the debate raged over the next few decades, many new colleges were created to maintain the liberal arts education tradition. According to Wikipedia and Encyclopædia Britannica, modern liberal arts colleges in the U.S. are “undergraduate institutions of higher education” whose “curriculum aimed at imparting general knowledge and developing general intellectual capacities, in contrast to a professional,vocational, or technical curriculum.” Today there are several thousand higher education institutions in the U.S. Among them roughly 200 or so colleges meet the definition of liberal arts college. Nowadays most liberal arts colleges offer some science and technology majors, with a couple of them even concentrating on science and technology education, while at the same time most elite universities mandate their students to take wide ranging liberal arts coursesoutside of any chosen major.
Typical difference between a liberal art college and a university
|Liberal Art College||University|
|focus on well-rounded education at undergraduate level||focus on research at graduate level|
|small student population||large student population|
|undergraduate only or with minor graduate level presence||both undergraduate and graduate levels, sometimes with more graduate students than undergraduate students|
|small class size||class size can be very large|
|emphasize interactive class discussion and feedback||lecture centric, emphasize knowledge acquisition and retention|
|limited number of majors||large number of majors|
|broader but shallower requirement for a major||more narrowly focused yet deeper requirement for a major|
|no TA. all courses taught by professors||lots of graduate student TAs|
|name recognition among certain social economic groups||nationwide or worldwide name recognition
|few grant research opportunities||many grant research opportunities|
|powerful and close-knit alumni network||loose and less effective alumni network|
|tend to be in rural areas||tend to be in cities or suburbs|
How to decide if you want to send kids to universities or liberal arts colleges?
Although young people in both kind of colleges graduate with Bachelor Degrees after four years of education, the range and depth of education they received are very different.Stereotypically, more thinkers walkout of liberal arts colleges, while more doers come out of universities. At the point of graduation, students from universities tend to be more prepared to enter work force, yet larger percentage of graduates from liberal arts colleges go on to graduate schools. In a sense, liberal arts colleges are better if students aspire to advance the social ladder and become mover and shaker of a free society; and universities are preferred if students aim to ascend the income ladder and become highly accomplished professionals.
For decades the US News & World Report has been giving liberal arts college rankings using the same methodology as it calculates the university rankings. The result has always been less than desirable. With only around 200 colleges to collect data, the methodology suffers inherent defect of too little data points. Worst of all, most liberal arts colleges hate the idea of college ranking. In 2007 during an annual meeting of liberal arts college presidents, there was a major revote against the US News ranking. For the last ten years most liberal arts college presidents have resolved not to participatein the US News “reputation survey”. In addition, many liberal arts colleges have made standard testings (SAT and ACT) optional in college application requirement, further damaging the US News type of data collection. Yet every fall the US News & World Report still dutifully post its annual liberal arts college ranking, relevance be damned.
The operation of liberal arts colleges is relatively simple. Everything is revolving around actual teaching of undergraduate students. Unlike those major universities, liberal arts colleges receive very little outside research funding or government appropriation. There are also no hospitals or sport teams bringing in significant revenue stream. As a result, liberal arts colleges must rely exclusively on student tuition and endowment (alumni donation). Just like any other operation, a good college has to possess strong financial wherewithal to hire great faculty, build adequate facility, and attract top students. Since top tier colleges essentially charge the same nominal tuition rate, the size of college endowment becomes not just a great measurement of alumni appreciation but also the best indicator of college’s financial strength.
The table below is a liberal arts college ranking based on each college’s endowment per student. These 43 colleges each has at least $200k and as much as $1.2 million endowment per student. Since colleges usually take5% of total endowment each year to be used in school operations, $200k endowment per student means $10k per year to be devoted on each student’s education in addition to student tuition. Of course, the richest colleges can almost devote more than $50k endowment per year toward each student, practically matching the student tuition rate.
|Rank||College||No Undergraduate Students||Endowment (million dollars)||Endowment / undergraduate Student|
|5||University of Richmond||2101||2190||1.042|
|7||Washington and Lee University||1830||1472||0.804|
|12||Claremont McKenna College||1347||709.1||0.526|
|13||Bryn Mawr College||1708||803.9||0.471|
|24||Harvey Mudd College||829||272.6||0.329|
|31||Mount Holyoke College||2199||667.6||0.304|
|37||Agnes Scott College||927||223.1||0.241|
|39||College of the Holy Cross||2941||679.4||0.231|
|40||St. John’s College||434||95.6||0.22|
|42||Sewanee–University of the South||1731||357.8||0.207|
Every liberal arts college has its unique set of believes, campus culture, and sometimes religious doctrine. The decision to attend a college is a very subjective and personal one. However, finding out a college’s financial strength does establish a solid floor on which you will conduct further researches to find out the colleges that are the best fit for your child.
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