Public Liberal Arts Colleges

Hispanic Community November 2021 PREMIUM
Leveraging Options For Low-Income And First-Generation Students

Cost is a major concern for most first-generation college students and often the most important factor that determines which school a student will attend. Large state universities, with their visible athletic programs and state funding, can help students defray the cost of their education through scholarships. But some students hope to attend schools offering intimate class settings and attractive professor-to-student ratios. In other words, liberal arts colleges. Sadly, many low-income and first-generation college students can’t afford the price tag of a private liberal arts college. They can, however, afford tuition at public liberal arts colleges, usually a fraction of those at private liberal arts colleges.

Dr. Denise Battles, President, State University of New York, Geneseo, says a public liberal arts college offers the same high-quality educational experience that more costly and highly selective private liberal arts schools do, focusing on affordability, accessibility, and inclusive excellence. “They are the enviable intersection of both worlds,” says Dr. Battles. Students at Geneseo receive the same personalized attention as those at private liberal arts colleges, but at a price point that makes education accessible to all.

Comparing Apples to Oranges

Most universities offer their students a comprehensive education. They expect their students to choose a major that will serve as the primary motivating factor, says Dr. Cory Woodcox, executive director at the Council of Public Liberal Arts Colleges. It guides the student through a general education package or core curriculum.

A liberal arts curriculum, on the other hand, offers students depth and breadth. “Faculty and staff expect that students will be investigating issues from multiple perspectives and will bring the perspective they’ve gained from other courses into that content area,” says Woodcox. Those courses interlock and form multi-disciplinary networks of understanding. “What we look for is an inter-disciplinary, polyvalent understanding of material, policies, and issues,” says Woodcox.

Jeremy Nere, executive director of admissions at the University of Wisconsin, Superior, says liberal arts colleges offer a “well-rounded” education, an aspect that Superior promotes while working with students who are weighing their options between a liberal arts school and a large research institution.

Critical Thinking and Job Skills

Surveys and reports in mainstream business indicate that companies have difficulty hiring workers who can think critically and communicate in writing, according to Dr. Milagros Peña, President, Purchase College in the State University of New York system. Conveniently these are among the chief skills taught at liberal arts colleges. “(Students) come out of liberal arts colleges with a solid foundation. When they graduate, they are able to go into (a variety of fields),” says Dr. Peña.

A liberal arts education fosters the competencies that one needs to navigate modern life while providing graduates with the broad knowledge and capacity to accept change. “We understand that we are not educating students for a single immutable job description. Rather we are educating the whole person,” says Dr. Battles. A liberal arts education cultivates future employees who possess critical thinking skills, global awareness, and cultural competencies. “These attributes tend to be highly valued….by employers,” says Dr. Battles.

Companies also value employees comfortable communicating with a variety of audiences. Because public liberal arts colleges appeal to and are attended by students from varied backgrounds, students who graduate from these schools have associated with individuals from a range of cultures. Nere says a Fortune 500 company that needs to fill a marketing position may seek an individual from a liberal arts school because of their background dealing with individuals with diverse backgrounds and cultures.

Sharing a Common Goal

Public liberal arts colleges attract a wide range of individuals who seek a variety of learning options but share common goals. Some attended large high schools and are seeking the individual attention their high school could not offer. Some attended small high schools and are seeking to maintain that type of education. Some are leaving home for the first time and fear they will be lost at a large research university. “Part of what the liberal arts college context does is provide opportunities for students to live, learn and engage in a smaller environment,” says Dr. Peña.

Those looking for anonymity, to attend football games in large stadiums, and sit in the rear of large lecture halls, should not apply to a liberal arts college. Students who attend Superior, says Nere, are not there solely to be student athletes, but are also interested in immersing themselves in a variety of activities and clubs.

Private liberal arts colleges and public liberal arts colleges offer similar programs and thus attract the same type of student. The public school, however, is more attractive to those needing to stay within a budget. Nere, who spent time at a private liberal arts college, says that although the privates have funding routes for students, they can’t bridge the financial gap as well as the public liberal arts colleges. “For many students it’s a big piece that makes a big difference” says Nere.

Many who attend public liberal arts colleges, says Dr. Woodcox, are Pell-eligible, and a large number are first-generation. These are students who earned good grades in high school and are “looking for an affordable education that offers them a quality experience,” says Woodcox.

Support Systems

Many state universities and large research institutions have virtually endless financial resources to create support systems required to help first-generation college students to succeed. Although public liberal arts colleges don’t have the deep pockets of research universities and private schools, they offer smaller class sizes and a more attractive professor-to-student ratio. “Teaching is the driver at the public liberal arts college,” says Peña.

Dr. Battles calls the liberal arts environment “student-focused,” and provides nurturing that is difficult to find at large research universities. Students have ready access to faculty mentoring in research labs, service learning, and leadership. In many ways, says Dr. Battles, liberal arts colleges offer a more robust support system owing to their modest faculty to student ratios. “(Students) are less likely to get overlooked because of the numbers. If you have a close relationship with your faculty, they are likely to notice if you are struggling,” says Dr. Battles.      

Most high school guidance counselors have positive attitudes. They will assure their students there is a spot for everyone in America’s higher education system, as long as they are willing to adjust their expectations. Unlike students from higher income brackets, low-income and first-generation students are required to dramatically adjust their expectations. Knowing that America’s public liberal arts colleges offer a price point well below that of the private schools opens a world of opportunity to them, without lowering their expectations at all. 

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