Could liberal arts colleges become America's finest export?

Courses are said to offer a wider educational grounding and development of critical thinking skills

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 01 November, 2015, 8:01am
UPDATED : Sunday, 01 November, 2015, 8:00am

One feature of US higher education that has struggled to catch on abroad is the concept of small, campus-based, liberal arts colleges.

These tiny private institutions may seem vastly different from Britain's typically large, research-intensive, state-funded universities. But with its focus on both teaching and research, holistic admissions processes and flexibility for students, the liberal arts model is catching on all over the world.

Swarthmore College is a classic example - highly selective, expensive and set on an idyllic campus just outside of Philadelphia. Jim Bock, its vice-president and dean of admissions, says: "It's a college education where you get to study a mixture of humanities, social sciences and the natural sciences. "It's traditionally for 18- to 22-year-olds who want a bachelor's degree in arts or in science. We don't have a graduate school."

The term "liberal arts" does not relate to either politics, or arts. Instead it refers to the range of subjects students study - in the first year they take three humanities modules, three social science modules and three natural science modules.

"Typically, liberal arts colleges do not offer technical subjects or pre-professional qualifications such as business or medicine," Bock says. "Most don't offer engineering, but Swarthmore has done since the 1880s because when the college was set up, they thought it would be good to have engineers who are well rounded."

So what are the benefits of such a diverse roster of subjects? For the many 17-year-olds who don't know exactly what they want to do, the approach keeps their options open. And even for those who do have a career path in mind, Bock says, liberal arts offer a wider educational grounding and development of critical thinking skills.

"This type of education can you make you nimble in the job market," he says. "We did a survey of our alumni about what they were doing now - 95 per cent said they felt their education was relevant to what they did, but only 25 per cent were doing something directly linked to their major.

"It's not right for everyone. Of course, we need people with specialist knowledge and training - for manufacturing, medicine, all sorts of jobs. But in business, particularly, we do get CEOs saying that they want people with a whole range of skills. They want people who can write analytically, think creatively, collaborate, solve problems … and you can get that in this type of course."

Global appeal is starting to build. The universities of Exeter, Winchester and King's College London have all launched liberal arts bachelor's programmes in the past five years, New York University has opened a liberal arts university in Abu Dhabi, Yale has launched one in Singapore and interest is growing in Asia.

This type of education can you make you nimble in the job market. We did a survey of our alumni about what they were doing now - 95 per cent said they felt their education was relevant to what they did, but only 25 per cent were doing something directly linked to their major
Jim Bock, vice-president and dean of admissions at Swarthmore College

At Swarthmore, 13 per cent of its student body of 1,534 is made up of international students, and Bock says it is on the rise.

For British students, still reeling from their tuition fee increase to £9,000 (HK$107,000), the upfront cost of US colleges can be eye-watering - one year of tuition at Swarthmore costs US$44,368. But Bock stresses that the selective college can offer grants and scholarships to those who get in. He says about half of its students receive grants, and the average is for about US$38,700 dollars a year.

"It is a lot, but it costs more. The majority of students live on campus and take their meals there. The student to staff ratio is 8:1 and students are always taught by full-faculty - a typical academic will see the same student at least four or five hours a week in seminars and lectures." As a result, he says, drop-out rates are low, and graduation rates are among the highest in America.

As its admissions process isn't just based on grades, the college is able to attract a more diverse range of students.

"We take the high school grades, but we don't just look at that," he says. "We do standardised testing and essays, we require recommendations from teachers and friends, we also look at what students do out of the classroom. If you are good at football, the oboe or if you dance … all those things count.

"We want bright students, but we also want diversity - geographically but in the talents and interests that young people can bring to the table. We want people to take advantage of the resources that are on campus."

For staff to get a tenured job, he says, they have to be similarly well rounded: publishing in their field, sitting on committees and taking an active role in university life. They also get reviewed by students on their teaching.

Students and staff are encouraged to "give back" to the community and more than 60 per cent of students are involved in voluntary work. The result, Bock says, are graduates who have a lifelong passion for academic inquiry and a keen sense of civic duty.

"It's not just about going to college in order to get a good job and high salary," he says.

Bock says what sets colleges like his apart is their receptiveness to different skills and talents: "We take a holistic view, looking at the non-cognitive skills and critical thinking. It's not just about knowledge; grades are a starting point but not an ending point."

The Guardian