What’s your ideal college academic environment look like? Do you want to discuss ideas, think broadly and do a little soul searching on the side? Do you know for sure that jam-packed auditorium classrooms aren’t for you and you want a low student-to-faculty ratio?

A liberal arts college might be an excellent fit. Liberal arts colleges shape you to be a critical thinker, a global citizen and a contributor to your community.

What Are the Liberal Arts?

The term “liberal arts” is a misnomer because it has nothing to do with being liberal in the political sense — and it doesn’t refer exclusively to the arts, either. You’ll need to reach back to its Latin roots to understand where the term “liberal arts” sprouts. The Latin word “liberalis” means “appropriate for free men” — it was the kind of education preferred by free citizens of Greece and Rome. 

You’ll still find that these key concepts make up a liberal arts education today:

  • Liberal arts colleges develop the whole person to his fullest potential — including mind, body and spirit. 
  • Liberal arts colleges still focus on grammar, rhetoric and logic — or excellent communication, writing and critical thinking skills.

Scoot into any liberal arts college classroom and you’ll see evidence of the Socratic Method, named after the famous Greek philosopher Socrates. He used a question-and-dialogue format that stimulated critical thinking and discussion. You’ll see lots of interaction and debate in a liberal arts setting. This is markedly different from a large public university, where lectures are the primary teaching tool.

Harvard College was the first liberal arts college in the U.S., and hundreds of liberal arts colleges have sprung up since Harvard’s debut in 1636. Many are small colleges affiliated with a particular religion. Liberal arts colleges are known for:

  • Small class sizes
  • Accessible professors
  • Zero teaching assistants
  • A focus on undergraduate education, rather than a full focus on research and graduate education
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How to Decide Whether a Liberal Arts College is for You

What’s the best way to decide whether a liberal arts college is right for you? You guessed it — it requires some research. But don’t tire out your search engine. You need to visit campuses, too. Here’s how to help yourself (or your son, daughter, grandchild, niece, etc.) figure out if the liberal arts induce happiness.

Step 1: Set up campus visits.

It’s a good idea to visit a few different types of schools to get a feel for what they’re all about. Visit a large university and a liberal arts college to see which one might fit you best. It’s easy to set up a visit. Go to the school’s website or call and speak to the admission office’s campus visit coordinator.

Pro tips:

  • Don’t go on a group visit at a liberal arts college if you want a fully one-on-one experience. Opt for a personal campus visit, where the entire experience will be about you — you can visit with professors, coaches, take a tour and more — the focus will be on you and your family. 
  • Be sure to reserve at least half a day to get an in-depth view of a school. 
  • Do an overnight visit if you want a full immersive experience. The admission offices at various schools will be able to set up overnights for you.
  • Visit schools during your junior year to get a jump-start on the college search process. That way, if you need a repeat visit, you can squeeze one in during your senior year of high school.

Step 2: Apply for admission.

Every school on your list will have a different application process. Know the differences — and the deadlines — because they can make a huge difference in how you apply to colleges. Here are your new vocab words: early decision, early action, rolling admission and regular decision.

Early Decision 

Early decision means that you’ll dedicate yourself to one early decision school and one school only. The deadline for early decision is about two months before the regular decision deadline. You’ll get an acceptance (or a refusal) in early to mid-December, which happens to be about two weeks before regular decision applications are due. This can come in handy if you don’t get into the early decision school you applied to. Be absolutely sure this school is your dream school because you’ll be required to withdraw your applications from any other schools.

Early Action

You’ll need to submit early action applications early on in the admission process — just like early decision. It signals your high interest in a college or university. The difference between early action and early decision is that early action is not binding. Each school usually has an early action deadline between October and the middle of November. Ask each school that piques your interest for more information about early action deadlines.

Rolling Admission

Rolling admission means that colleges review applications as they’re submitted. For example, if you apply in October, you’ll get an admission decision within around two weeks, and if you wait until April, you’ll also get an admission decision then, too. It doesn’t really matter when you apply, as long as you ask schools when their final application deadlines are. 

Regular Decision

You’ll apply regular decision using a specific deadline. The schools you apply to regular decision will return an admission decision to you by no later than April 1. In return, you must decide which school you’d like to attend by May 1 — National Candidate Reply Date.

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Step 3: Know when the FAFSA is due.

The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is a free application that you can fill out to get federal and institutional aid to pay for college. Colleges use your FAFSA results to determine your eligibility for different types of aid, such as loans, scholarships and grants. 

The FAFSA’s official due date is different at every school, but is generally around June 30. Check with each liberal arts college you’ve applied to learn each FAFSA deadline.

Not sure you want to mess with the FAFSA? You don’t have to. Here’s how to pay for college without the FAFSA.

Liberal arts colleges often look like they’re 100 times more expensive than state universities. But they’re often not. The “sticker price” of a liberal arts college includes tuition, room, board and fees and doesn’t incorporate scholarships, grants and other financial aid.

For example, private school tuition was an average of $35,830 during the 2018–2019 school year and students typically received an average $21,220 in grant aid and tax benefits to combat that sticker price, according to the College Board.

Step 4: Attend scholarship events and audition or interview for scholarships.

You might be wondering how scholarships work, and the truth is that they differ at every liberal arts college. You’ll likely qualify for some merit-based aid just by submitting your transcripts, test scores, college essay and/or recommendations. Sometimes, liberal arts schools offer additional scholarships beyond merit-based aid.

  • You might need to attend a separate scholarship event. During that event, you might interview, take tests or simply participate in the event to add to the merit-based scholarships you’ve already been awarded. Scholarship events can offer opportunities for you to connect with people that might be part of your four-year journey.
  • You may also want to ask the admission office about other opportunities to interview or audition for other scholarships. For example, the college might offer a music or theatre scholarship or even a sustainability scholarship. Just ask.

Step 5: Compare financial aid awards.

You’ve applied to several liberal arts colleges, filed the FAFSA, auditioned or interviewed for scholarships and attended scholarship events. Next, you’ll receive a financial aid award for every school you’ve applied to — but you’ll probably receive financial aid awards at different times. 

Once you do receive final financial aid awards from all the schools on your list, sit down and compare them. You’ll be able to pull them up on your computer screen or compare paper copies.

Be sure you do an apples-to-apples comparison. You may be getting a $19,000 merit-based scholarship from College A and a $17,000 merit-based scholarship from College B. That doesn’t mean that it’s necessarily cheaper to go to College A. What’s the full price to go to each?

And remember — this is a big one — it’s not always about which college is cheapest. Which one can offer you what you want and need?

Step 6: Make a decision by May 1.

National Candidate Reply Date is always May 1 of the year you’re planning to go to college — unless otherwise dictated by the college you’re considering. Does that mean you can make a decision after that date? Yes, it’s possible. But it’s a good idea to decide by May 1 or before that date to ensure your spot in the class — particularly if you’re planning to attend a highly selective liberal arts college.

Step 7: Accept your financial aid award.

The last thing you’ll need to do is accept your financial aid award from the liberal arts college of your choice. Accept the scholarships, grants, loans and other aid the college has offered you online or via a paper version of the financial aid award. You’ll need to send an enrollment deposit to secure housing and your spot in the class.

Can I Get a Good Job with a Liberal Arts Degree?

Absolutely! You’ll find successful liberal arts graduates at any company, in any field, during any point in history. Here are just a few notably successful people who graduated from liberal arts colleges: Laura Hillenbrand, author of “Seabiscuit” and “Unbroken”; Emily Dickinson, poet; John Glenn, astronaut; Dan Nye, former CEO of LinkedIn and director of Rocket Lawyer. This is an eclectic list, for sure, but you’ll find thousands of successful liberal arts graduates — maybe a successful liberal arts grad lives right next door to you.

Liberal arts degrees focus on excellent communication, writing and critical thinking skills and can offer a competitive advantage to large university graduates who often don’t get the same opportunities. Employers notice these “soft skills!”

The Liberal Arts Could Be Your Best Fit

You might be eager to write off a liberal arts college because of its perceived “hefty” price tag. News flash: The sticker price means nothing. Liberal arts colleges can cost about the same as your local state university.

Why else might it be beneficial to be a big fish in a small pond? Do some deep thinking about the best way to launch your next four years. Oh — and that’s another thing. Liberal arts colleges usually make a commitment to your graduation in four years or fewer. That’s definitely worth getting excited about.

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