Personalized Service and Labor Market Ties Enhance the Value of Small Liberal Arts Institutions
As educators with over 40 years of combined experience with private liberal arts institutions it is safe to assume that we are biased when it comes to our belief that there is great value in attending and graduating from a liberal arts college. But do students feel the same? Do they feel that a degree from a smaller, maybe lesser known, liberal arts institution is worth the investment? In addition, the argument is often made in the media that a college degree may not be worth the cost, and that is simply not the case, compounding the challenges of proving our value to both prospective and current students.
Students often challenge the value of a degree from liberal arts institutions based on cost. After all, an educational experience at liberal arts institutions often requires a larger financial investment than public institutions. We use the word investment because students need to understand—and we as educators need to ensure that they understand—that their education is an investment in their future. In communicating our value to students, both in terms of their time investment and financial investment, we need to rely on outcome-based facts. For example, liberal arts skills are valued by employers and graduates of liberal arts institutions are promoted more often than their counterparts from public institutions.[1, 2] An additional selling point for liberal arts colleges is that their graduation rates are typically higher than publics, allowing students to enter the labor market with a conferred degree rather than a smattering of postsecondary courses.
The cost question also comes to bear when it comes to student loans. Prospective and current students often hear negative statements when weighing the pros and cons of taking out student loans to help finance their investment. In fact, some media stories have the average student debt as high as $85,400 while the real average is around $29,400. While $29,400 is still quite a bit of money—and higher than the GDP of a great number of countries—the reality is that college loans today take half the time to pay off than they did in the 1970s: down from 20 years of loan repayment to 10. Not only are degrees worth it for students at liberal arts institutions, but also the return on their investment generates, on average, almost $18,000 more per year than students who just have a high school diploma.
Getting past the value of the degree, and the leg-up a liberal arts education provides graduates in the labor market, there are some unique aspects of a liberal arts institution that add additional value for students. For one, a large part of the allure of a liberal arts education is that fact that professors, on the whole, exhibit personal concern for students and provide both affirmation and mentorship to students, encouraging them during their studies and after graduation. Because these schools are not research institutions and maintain a focus on teaching, faculty tend to be more invested in their students’ success, not their own. Further, liberal-arts institutions place an emphasis on project-based learning, allowing students to learn in a hands-on environment where considerable extracurricular participation is encouraged and typically occurs. Though there is a perception that non-traditional students will avoid such extracurricular opportunities, the project-based approach to education and participation in relevant extracurricular opportunities helps all students immediately apply what they are learning to their lives. Finally, staff at smaller liberal arts institutions are able to be more inviting than they are at larger colleges and universities. Students often only have to work with one or two people to solve a large majority of their problems, including financial aid issues, parking issues and student services concerns, among others. This close-knit “family” atmosphere establishes an environment of inclusiveness that resonates with most students.
Hopefully, we have educated our students enough to realize the impact the value of a college degree has over their lifetime. If you work at a liberal arts institution hopefully you can take these findings to show students, in a concrete way, how an educational experience at a liberal arts institution is worth the investment. It is never too late to obtain a degree and it is never too late to help students finish what they may have started years ago. Let’s take this new knowledge and help educate adult learners as they seek a better and brighter tomorrow.
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 Association of American Colleges & Universities. (2014)
 Roche, M. (2013). Why Choose the Liberal Arts?
 IPEDs Data Center. (2014).
 Hamilton Place Strategies, (2014). The Plural of Anecdote is Data.
 Abel & Deitz. (2014). The value of a college degree. Federal Reserve Bank of NY.
 Pew Research Center tabulations of the 2013, 1986,1979, & 1965 March Current Population Survey (CPS) IPUMS.