AAC&U News, October 2017
Facts & Figures

What Prospective Students Hear When We Say “Liberal Arts”

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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Perceived Benefits of the Liberal Arts

  • Prospective students recognize that a liberal arts education provides several benefits (see chart 2), helping students become a well-rounded person (65 percent), get a good job (52 percent), and prepare for graduate school (51 percent).
  • Despite these benefits, just 38 percent “think it is the best kind of education for them.”
  • Most (54 percent) also believe that the liberal arts are not unique to liberal arts colleges, but that they can receive a liberal arts education “at almost every college or university.”

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The Appeal of a Liberal Arts Education

  • The poll also measured students’ perceptions of institutions that identify as “liberal arts” by providing descriptions of characteristics—intellectual development, global focus, post-college planning, and leadership—that a hypothetical institution might focus on, and asked students to rate the appeal of the descriptions on a ten-point scale.
  • Half of respondents saw descriptions with the term “liberal arts” inserted, while half saw identical descriptions without the term.
  • While each of the four characteristics had wide appeal, descriptions with “liberal arts” included were rated about one point lower across the board (see chart 3).
  • Certain demographics—“lower ACT scorers, those who wish to attend a school categorized by Carnegie as ‘professions-focused,’ those intending to major in a discipline that falls outside the liberal arts, and underrepresented minority students”—rated the liberal arts descriptions especially low. However, no demographic groups rated the descriptions with “liberal arts” higher than its counterpart.

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Did You Know?

The report suggests that colleges and universities “cannot assume that the liberal arts has broad appeal or that the liberal arts college is perceived to be uniquely positioned to deliver such an experience.” To connect with prospective students in a compelling way, institutions can focus their messaging on the unique features of their educational experience that will help students succeed in a rapidly-changing, globally interdependent world.

Information and graphics in this article are included by permission of Art & Science Group LLC from “What’s in a Name? College-Bound Students Weigh in on the ‘Liberal Arts.’”

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AAC&U News is written and edited by Ben Dedman. If you have questions or comments about the newsletter's contents, please e-mail dedman@aacu.org.

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