Over the last few weeks, we’ve introduced you to a number of college admissions counselors on the College Coach team. Today we take a break from that format to share something different: an email correspondence between Becky Leichtling and Ian Fisher on their educational backgrounds, college search processes, and thoughts on small liberal arts colleges. We hope you enjoy following along and maybe asking a few questions of your own in the comments below!

Ian: When we first met a few years ago, we instantly connected through shared experiences at liberal arts colleges. You had attended Carleton College (in Minnesota) and I had attended Reed College (in Oregon), and so it wasn’t long before we bonded over many mutual passions. You might be surprised to hear, however, that I might never have applied to Reed had my dad (a college professor) not made sure it was on my list. Actually, most of the schools that received my applications were big research universities. I was this close to going to school somewhere bigger and closer.

Becky: I’ve actually made a decent number of friends in similar situations; at social events I often find myself knee-deep in conversation with the only other liberal arts college grad in the room.  But like you, my decision came down to a liberal arts college and a big research university.  I was lucky enough to have a place at my state’s flagship university, which is an amazing place to go to college.  However, friends who’d matriculated the year before had spent the year in introductory survey (lecture) courses of the same subjects we’d been exposed to in high school – just bigger and less engaging.  They were looking forward to junior year, when they would have access to more dynamic upper-level courses in their majors.  I didn’t yet know what I wanted to study, but I knew that I didn’t want to wait until junior year to take eye-opening courses.  So I ended up at Carleton, where my first term I took Environmental Geology, Russian History, Israeli Literature, and African Drumming. I remember walking home from an afternoon in the lab testing our creek water samples for contaminants, clapping my hands in an attempt to master a very difficult syncopated beat, while thinking about Palestinian culture pre-British Mandate.  This was exactly what I’d hoped college would be—more of everything, more deeply, all the time. To me, that’s what the liberal arts is all about.

Ian: Does being at a liberal arts college require a special kind of personality? Is it even fair to lump all those “liberal arts” schools together with one another? In my ever-present cheerleading for the liberal arts, I don’t ever find myself interacting with a student and saying, “you really shouldn’t consider a liberal arts college.” But at the same time, I’m very aware of the fact that a place like Reed is right for a particular kind of student—one who is passionate about learning and unafraid of an aggressive and challenging curriculum. Not everybody would be successful there—and that’s okay—but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t a lot of students who would enjoy another liberal arts college as much as I enjoyed Reed or you enjoyed Carleton. I think the common understanding of the liberal arts needs a little broadening. Yesterday, I was looking at the website for the University of Oregon and was surprised—and excited!—to see that they described themselves as a liberal arts institution. Maybe the goal among educators should be to move the conversation so that “liberal arts college” isn’t solely a descriptor of a small-population undergraduate institution. Or maybe I’m making a mountain out of a molehill.

Becky: I do think many people think “liberal arts college” when they hear “the liberal arts,” and you’re right that this confusion is an unfortunate wording problem. It can be a challenge to separate these two distinct ideas that share a name, but I think most families should consider both environments for their distinct (but often overlapping) characteristics.

The research university I mentioned earlier also offers a liberal arts education, and does a great job of it.  In my view, a “liberal arts education” teaches students to ask probing questions, consider multiple views or approaches to problems, and apply their knowledge to a broad set of real-world issues.  While some people may assume a liberal arts education minimizes exposure to technical content knowledge, in many ways it’s just the opposite – students are expected to be able to solve an equation in chemistry, analyze trends in economics, and interpret themes in poetry.  And especially at public universities (funded by taxpayer dollars and educating the state’s future workforce) there’s a big incentive to ensure students in the College of Arts & Sciences are prepared to be innovative and productive contributors in all future endeavors, rather than providing a singular skill set that may be outdated or even unnecessary five years later.

I think the liberal arts college can be a great place for a certain type of kid to find greater access to opportunity, more easily make connections with adults, and get involved across the board.  A bigger campus might contain more opportunities overall, but that doesn’t mean each individual student will have increased access to the opportunities they desire. Different students will join, engage, and branch out in different ways.

Ian: You’ve done a nice job of separating those two terms in a way that makes sense. The liberal arts certainly doesn’t have a monopoly on the small college experience (look at a place like Cooper Union, for example, or Olin and Babson, next door to one another), it just happens to be the most frequently encountered type of small college. And the liberal arts are (is?) everywhere, including Reed, Carleton, Stanford, or Arizona State.

So which do you think was more valuable in your development? The liberal arts or the small college experience? Or are you going to cop out and say the two are inextricably linked in your case?

Becky: Ha! Yup, my gut feeling is to meet in the middle and say they are inextricably linked. And while this is true, I do think that for me personally, it was the small school environment that allowed me to grow and thrive in and out of the classroom.

There were 12 students in my major, so all of my classes were small. This meant I got a lot of faculty attention and needed to be fully prepared for every single class – it’s easy to tell in a group of 8 if someone hasn’t done the reading.  There were only 3 professors in the department for my minor, so I was able to develop relationships with each. One in particular was a great resource for me when I was applying to grad school – she knew me well enough to give much-needed advice during my search, critical feedback on my personal statement, and a positive recommendation letter.

Being at a small school also opened up more opportunities beyond the classroom – which might surprise folks who think bigger schools automatically provide more opportunities. I was captain of my club ultimate Frisbee team and my sketch comedy troupe; in both organizations I ran try-outs (developing marketing/PR skills as well as the unfortunate responsibility of making cuts) and figured out how to stretch a very tight budget to meet our needs. This is not to suggest I was particularly good at Frisbee or comedy or being a leader; rather, our small campus had lots of clubs and activities and they all needed bodies, so those experiences were accessible.

For me, a small college provided an opportunity to build relationships with more people (both faculty and students), get involved more deeply and in more places, and actually see the effects of my efforts. That built my confidence, my network, and the actual skills I then went on to use in my first job. I don’t know that the teenager I was would have been able to take advantage of so many opportunities in a bigger school. That doesn’t mean a small school will be the best for everyone, or even most people, but for me it was what I needed at that time.

Ian: It’s great to hear you talk about all of the ways that your involvement at Carleton created real, practical skills that you could later use in your career. I think that’s one way in which small liberal arts colleges struggle: explaining to their students (prospective and current) the important practical benefits of their academic and social experiences, and the long-term opportunity created by wide opportunities for involvement. I’m still uncovering little things that I learned at Reed and continuing to learn how important they are to me now, even if the benefit wasn’t immediately apparent when I was a student. And that’s the great value of an open and stimulating college experience: you carry the value with you for the rest of your life.

Thanks, Becky, for great conversation as always!

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Written by Ian Fisher
Ian Fisher is an experienced educational consultant, part of College Coach’s team of college admissions consultants. Ian received his master’s in policy, organization, and leadership studies from the Stanford Graduate School of Education. Prior to joining College Coach, Ian worked as a senior admissions officer at Reed College. Visit our website to learn more about Ian Fisher.