The model of a liberal arts education is evolving due to changes in the market. Liberal arts colleges are increasingly offering pre-professional degrees such as business, communications and engineering; encouraging students to study abroad to increase global citizenship; and incorporating experiential learning into the curriculum.

The belief in the value of a liberal arts education is best articulated by the Annapolis Group, an organization of 130 leading liberal arts colleges in the U.S.  Representative members include Hamilton (NY). Pomona (CA) and Williams (MA). The liberal arts experience is defined as highly residential, with an intimate learning environment “where extensive interaction between faculty, students, and staff fosters a community of serious discourse.”  The education fosters collaboration, analytical thinking, intellectual discourse, and a compassionate and ethical foundation. Traditional courses of study include “non-professional” areas of History, English, Philosophy and Economics.

Research conducted by the Hardwick Day Consulting Company found that graduates of the Annapolis Group were more likely than graduates of other private or public universities to:

  • Graduate in four years or less
  • Live on campus for most of their college years
  • Rate their overall undergraduate experience as “excellent”
  • Be “completely satisfied” with the overall quality of their education
  • Benefit “very much” from “high-quality, teaching-oriented faculty”
  • Felt “better prepared” for life after college

There is additional research that a liberal arts education strengthens analytical and communication skills in a way that translates to stronger job prospects. For example, liberal arts colleges produce scientists at about twice the rate as other institutions, according to a study by Nobel Laureate and Grinnell graduate Thomas Cech.

Yet, some students and parents are re-thinking the value of a liberal arts education.  The small class size, low student-to-faculty ratios, and lack of economies of scale of academic, athletic and performing arts facilities, all combine to produce a high sticker price – although liberal arts colleges often offer merit and need-based financial aid.  In fact, of 212 self-identified liberal arts colleges in 1990, only 137 were still in business 20 years later, in 2009 (Inside Higher Ed).

Besides cost factors, some families are seeking a more pre-professional undergraduate education in the hopes that this tack will provide a better preparation for careers.  Over half of college undergrads now choose business, engineering or nursing, and business is the country’s #1 major, with 22% of the bachelors’ degrees awarded.

In response, liberal arts colleges have taken the following initiatives:

  • Added pre-professional majors of International Business (Dickinson), Communications (Muhlenberg) and Engineering (Swarthmore);
  • Added institutes to study specialized topics (Trinity College’s Center for Urban and Global Studies);
  • Incorporated experiential learning to the curriculum in a way that links service with learning, e.g. Amherst’s Center for Community Engagement.