Wednesday, July 04, 2007

An Introduction to the Residential Liberal Arts College

The following article was written by Yap Yaowen, currently a sophmore at Kenyon College. You can access his personal blog here. Frankly, I think that more Malaysians should apply to and study in liberal arts colleges. It's a great place to find a great education and to expand your horizons.

An Introduction to the Residential Liberal Arts College

I dread it whenever someone asks me where I am studying in.

“Kenyon College? Why do you want to go to a college instead of a university?” people usually give me that concerned look, as if I am wasting four years of my time in a college. Many Malaysians fail to understand that the word “college” is used very much interchangeably with the word “university” in the United States, so much so that you can be in Princeton and still be going to a “college”.

In the US education system, colleges are broadly classified into two categories: a two-year college, or what normally known as a community college and a four-year college. Both big, research universities (i.e. Princeton, MIT and Stanford) and liberal arts colleges belong to the category of a four-year college. In this article, I will seek to explain what a liberal arts college is, what makes a liberal arts college distinctive and how to finance a liberal arts education.

A liberal arts college is primarily a college that focuses entirely (usually) on an undergraduate education. Most of them provide a high quality undergraduate experience. You may or may not hear of colleges like Amherst, Williams, Swarthmore and Wellesley. But you might want to know that these liberal arts colleges ranked side-by-side with top research universities like Yale, Princeton and MIT.

Distinctiveness of a liberal arts college

A difference between a liberal arts college and a research university is its size. A typical liberal arts college is small, with a school population ranging from 850 (Wabash) to 2700 (Wesleyan). This also translates into small classes. The average class size at Kenyon for instance is 14 and the faculty to student ratio is 9:1.

Another difference of a liberal arts college, as mentioned before, is the fact that the school devotes entirely of its resources on its undergraduates. You will be taught solely by professors, people who have earned a PhD and people who can probably inspire you and make you want to be like them. Teaching is central at liberal arts colleges and professors are rewarded based on their teaching ability as opposed to the number of research publications they churn out. They are also highly accessible and diligently keep to their office hours.

Liberal arts colleges also tend to be fully residential. Everyone lives on campus and eat at the dining hall. You will form close relationships with your friends as you meet them everyday in residential halls, classrooms, athletic center, dining hall, parties, at a lecture or a play etc. Being fully residential also means that learning can take place beyond the allocated classroom time. At Kenyon for instance, there are German, French, Japanese, Spanish, Chinese and Italian tables at the dining hall each week, giving students an opportunity to practice their newly acquired language skills.

The foremost distinction of a liberal arts college however, is the majors they offer. According to the American Heritage New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy, liberal arts is defined as “The areas of learning that cultivate general intellectual ability rather than technical or professional skills. The term liberal arts is often used as a synonym for humanities, although the liberal arts also include the sciences. The word liberal comes from the Latin liberalis, meaning suitable for a free man, as opposed to a slave”. You probably wouldn’t find business or engineering in most liberal arts colleges (Note: there are always exceptions though. Smith and Swarthmore do offer engineering!). A liberal arts education does not equip you with vocational skills, but rather life, analytical and critical thinking skills. Simply put, a liberal arts education teaches you how to live your life to the fullest.

Financing a liberal arts education

Let’s face it, a liberal arts education isn’t going to be cheap with all the small classes, close faculty interaction and superb facilities one enjoys. The 2006-2007 cost of attendance (inclusive of tuition, room and board) at Kenyon amounts to USD 44390. But fortunately, liberal arts colleges also tend to be well endowed (i.e. RICH)! Most international students at Kenyon are on some sort of need-based financial aid which can go up to full cost of attendance. Many of the top liberal arts colleges are committed to the principle of diversity and ensuring that qualified students are granted access regardless of one’s financial circumstances.

Discover US Education Fair ‘07

At this upcoming Discover US education fair, a total of nine liberal arts colleges will be represented. Some are all male while some are all female. Some are located next to cornfields while some are closer to civilization. They are: Bates, Kenyon, Mount Holyoke, Oberlin, Smith, Swarthmore, Wabash, Wesleyan and Wellesley. So be sure to check us out!

Yaowen is a rising sophomore at Kenyon College, a four-year private liberal arts college in Gambier, Ohio. He loves the school and the cornfields surrounding it.


Anonymous said...

The problem or what appears to be, with these colleges is the location. If you are from KL and is used to a big city life, you might find it awfully dreadful to live in the middle of nowhere.....I know I would...

Anonymous said...

There are liberal arts colleges in the city. One example is Barnard College in NYC. Living in the middle of nowhere is not so bad, probably a unique experience you will only have at this one time in your life, before you move back to the big city. Schools also usually try to bring in entertainment for you during the year, but it is true that shopping options are at a minimal.

Anonymous said...

Dude, Barnard is for women only ...

Anonymous said...

I was Mount Holyoke '01. (I wonder who the alum is at the fair...) Some comments:

1. The best teaching in the US is to be found at the LACs. Stanford, Harvard etc. are famous, but they are famous for research and the quality of teaching is on the whole noticeably worse than at the LACs. I say this having been at Stanford for six years, TA-ed three classes and discussed this with people in 'my batch', some of whom are in teaching positions now.

2. Some of the LACs give out very good financial aid packages for international students. I am very grateful to MHC for funding the bulk of my undergrad education. Without them, coming from a lower-middle-class background and a relatively ulu area, I would not be where I am now. One thing I particularly appreciated about MHC was the economic diversity of the student body.

3. Having said this, engineering is not usually offered at LACs (there are exceptions and 3-2 programs) and most professional degrees are second degrees, but if you want to be a serious scholar, they are among the best places in the US to get your undergrad education.

To anon about the rural location, c'est vrai, but I really enjoyed the open spaces of Western Mass (was on the cross-country team etc.), coming from Ayer Tawar (Perak). Palo Alto is a bit too crowded for me. But, yes, if you are from town and are not very adaptable, it will be something to worry about.

chia said...

this has quite changed my perception of a liberal arts college. thanks for sharing :) question: what is scientific education there like? since there is no research, it would probably be very theoretical? but in the US i guess one could always take an internship in a lab elsewhere. i'm an engineer by training (UK) and think that having lecturers who know/are involved in the latest research can be quite important. that has been the obvious difference between my undergraduate degree (Bath) and my current studies (Zurich).

i don't think i'll mind too much being in the middle of nowhere :) i studied in KL and prefer it nice and quiet!

Anonymous said...


It's not true that there is no research at LACs. Most of the better ones expect their academic staff to be doing some level of research - obviously not as much as Yale and MIT, but probably about the same as a second tier research uni. The teaching load in the sciences is usually 1-1 when you start and 2-2 later on. (That is to say one class each term etc.)

I would say about half of the physics deparment at MHC does an undergrad thesis on average. You can look up the most recent numbers on the website.

At a LAC, as an undergrad, you probably won't be working on the most expensive experiments in your field, but you can acquire very good lab skills because you will most likely play a major role in your experiments and not just be helping a post-grad with their experiment. Also, you'll have more interaction time with your prof. In a large research uni, you may be doing your thesis with a famous person but never actually see them.

In my experience, very few undergrads are capable of making use of the 'one of a kind' equipment etc. at major research unis. In my whole career, I've met maybe two such people. So those people shouldn't go to LACs, but everyone else...

Having said that, one of the drawbacks of the LACs is that you taking post-grad classes as an undergrad is not as convenient or may not be possible. When we started here, most of my classmates had done so. I could have done at UMass, but instead chose to leave early partly because of finances. So one thing to check is whether the college allows you to take classes at nearby universities.

My undergrad lab, just as an example. I wouldn't say it's 'average', but there are quite a few labs of similar calibre at LACs. One just has to look and do one's research. :-)

Anyway, to sum up, a LAC education is not an impediment to a career in science. It's different, but not worse. There are lots of respected academics who went to LACs.

I was just in Z├╝rich earlier this year (visiting ETH). Very nice place. :-)

Anonymous said...

Kian Ming, thanks for posting this up. I wish I knew the distinction years ago but the information given now could prove useful when it comes to my kids' college education in about 8 years time.

Anonymous said...

I am an American citizen and a recent graduate of Williams College, who is currently living in Singapore and looking for a job in Malaysia and Singapore.

The trouble I find is that while liberal arts colleges provide an excellent education, they don't have the name recognition required to get interviews at top entry-level jobs. Furthermore, there is no such first class honours scheme like the UK system, so it is hard to differentiate yourself from the local candidates. Finally, many HR directors I have interacted with think a liberal arts "college" is a college rather than a degree-awarding university. Therefore, they always assume I am underqualified. All these factors combined with the high tuition costs make it very hard for me to believe that Malaysians will be attracted to a liberal arts college.

As for research opportunities, there are plenty at liberal arts colleges. Students don't have to compete with graduate students for professors' attention or scare research resources. In most cases, all students have to do is express interest, and professors will find the funding for you to conduct part-time research or summer-time research.