What Prospective Students Hear When We Say “Liberal Arts”

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Published by AAC&U News

While many prospective college students recognize the characteristics and benefits of a liberal arts education, recent data indicates they are less likely to think a liberal arts education is right for them or to link “liberal arts” with value when they consider an institution's description. These results are part of a new poll of prospective students by StudentPOLL, a collaboration of Art & Science Group LLC and ACT, that provides insight that can help institutions articulate the unique ways they prepare students for work, citizenship, and life in local, national, and global contexts.

Student Definitions of the Liberal Arts

  • Between 65 and 70 percent of survey respondents connected a liberal arts education with the keywords “class discussions, intellectual, critical thinking, lots of student-professor interaction, and life-long learning” (see chart 1).

  • Between 55 and 60 percent associated the liberal arts with “problem solving, broad education across multiple fields, general knowledge, professors focus on teaching, challenging academics, and small class size.”

  • Less than half connected “small colleges” with the liberal arts, suggesting “that many prospective students do not see a small college setting as essential to a liberal arts education.”

  • Nearly half of respondents connected “professional training” with the liberal arts. A recent drive by many liberal arts colleges to provide and publicize professional training programs may have affected prospective students’ perceptions.


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