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The liberal arts experience: Is it the right fit for you?

Ivy-covered brick buildings. Bright-eyed youths with books in hand. Picnic blankets dotting the quad. These are common images used to represent the ‘liberal arts experience.’ While those features can be a bonus, the term ‘liberal arts’ refers to a specific type of college offering a certain kind of experience. What is that experience, and how do you know if a liberal arts education is right for you?

In a special episode of the Talking College with Admissions and Planning Expert John Dragone, host John Dragone sat down with two professors from Hobart and William and Smith Colleges in Geneva to discuss what defines a liberal arts education, how liberal arts colleges differ from large universities, and what to look for when applying to schools.

Featured in this episode:

Craig Talmage, Assistant Professor of Entrepreneurial Studies and Chair of Individual Majors Committee at Hobart and William Smith Colleges

Tom Drennen, Professor of Economics, Chair of the Entrepreneurial Studies Department and Director of the Master of Science and Management Program at Hobart and William Smith Colleges

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What is a liberal arts college?

A liberal arts college is typically an undergraduate institution that awards most of its degrees in the liberal arts and sciences.

Some larger universities have what’s called a College of Liberal Arts and Science, but generally, “when people mention liberal arts colleges, they’re thinking of a private, non-profit, small residential experience for undergraduate students,” explained Talmage.

Liberal arts colleges offer courses in scientific fields of study like biology, chemistry, psychology as well as humanities programs like English, history, and art. Some liberal arts schools- like Hobart and William Smith Colleges- offer programs beyond the traditional scope of liberal arts, too. To maintain accreditation, however, liberal arts schools must ensure the majority of programs they offer are in the sciences and humanities.

Liberal arts colleges are not meant to be vocational and technical training programs, but students still have plenty of opportunities to gain hands-on, career-applicable experience at these institutions.

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How does the liberal arts experience differ from larger universities?

Students applying to non-liberal arts universities typically apply to a certain program, but that’s not case with liberal arts colleges. You don’t need to declare an area of study when you apply to a liberal arts school.

“What we really teach students how to do is to think critically, and to write, making sure that they can present their ideas in a way that is convincing,” said Drennen.

Another hallmark of liberal arts education is small class size. Hobart and William Smith limits their class capacity to 30 students maximum.

Drennen explained, “[Talmage] and I typically have 20 to 25 students in our classes. We know our students, we grade everything they do, we don’t have teaching assistants. We can focus our energy on helping each student achieve their maximum potential. That’s honestly what I love the most about a small school. We get to know our students really well and we help guide them to a career that they really want to pursue.”

Furthermore, close interaction with professors provides students with opportunities to collaborate on research. Where professors at larger schools typically ask their graduate students to assist in research, a small liberal arts school like Hobart and William Smith puts undergraduate students on the frontline of discovery.

“I published a book on hydrogen with a student a few years ago,” said Drennen. “Most recently, one of my students and I did a research project focused on Bitcoin mining. It’s published in The International Journal of Life Cycle Assessment now, and the student is the number one author. That’s an experience we can deliver.”

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What should students look for when applying to colleges?

Drennen and Talmage agreed: Students and their families should consider finances the most essential component when selecting a college to attend. However, Drennen cautions writing off private school entirely due to the price tag. In some cases, a generous financial aid package may lessen the cost burden of attending a private liberal arts school.

Drennen added, “I don’t want students taking on a huge amount of debt, and that’s something everybody has to consider. However- I’ve said this to my own kids- if you would pay $25,000 for a new car, don’t you feel like you should at least be willing to borrow that kind of money for your undergraduate education? Education is going to last your whole life. That car is not.”

Besides a reasonable cost of attendance, Talmage emphasizes interdisciplinary program offerings as well as “applied experiential learning” as two key components to consider when applying to schools.

Talmage said a school is a good option when, among other factors, “you’re seeing a school that is alive and well, really focusing on students, focusing on the future and really working on those 21st century [issues] now.”

Related: When attending your dream college means massive student loan debt

DiSanto Propane (Billboard)

You can listen to or watch the full podcast episode “TALKING COLLEGE: What is a Liberal Arts College and What Can You Do With a Liberal Arts Degree” here.

New episodes of Talking College with Admissions and College Planning Expert John Dragone are released every Thursday at 4 p.m. Check this page for the latest episode.