Liberal arts colleges need to better connect with their students

A large new survey gives the lie to the idea that liberal arts colleges are more responsive to students’ needs than universities are, notes Samuel Abrams

March 5, 2022
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The Covid-19 pandemic has revealed a painful truth about US higher education today. Despite legions of administrators tasked to work on countless initiatives around inclusion, wellness and the promotion of health, many students report that they are not being heard on their campuses.

Moreover, liberal arts colleges – schools that are generally smaller and that pride themselves on the individual care and attention they are able to offer – turn out, in reality, not to be much better at addressing the needs of their students than other types of schools.

Frankly, as professor at a liberal arts college, I was not surprised by this finding, from a new, nationally representative survey of more than 2,000 students carried out by College Pulse.

I have been involved in higher education for more than two decades, initially at a series of big research universities. I was aware, before I made the switch, of the common belief that students at liberal arts colleges have the flexibility to chart their own paths in ways unimaginable at large research schools. But I found such statements to be a bit strange. My friends and I were perfectly able to chart our own paths through our undergraduate and graduate years. We also had the health and scholastic support we needed. We found that our large schools and their staff were committed to our journeys and successes. Now we have the data to back up this experience.

It is immediately clear from the survey data that students at liberal arts schools are significantly more vocal about their needs than students at other schools are. Thirty-nine per cent of them report having shared their personal struggles with their professors or other professionals at their institutions. That compares with 26 per cent of university students and 29 per cent of community college students.

However, the 48 per cent of liberal arts students who believe that their college or university does not make a genuine effort to understand their real experiences and challenges is nearly identical to the national average of 50 per cent. In fact, community and technical colleges perform best on this measure, with 56 per cent of their students believing that they make a real effort to understand, compared with the national average of 51 per cent.

Similarly, when students were asked whether or not their schools understand the connections they have with their families and home communities, just 39 per cent said yes. This is hardly indicative of the empathy that so many equity and inclusion offices promote and purportedly foster. Liberal arts students (40 per cent) are, again, scarcely different from university students (38 per cent) here, while 46 per cent of community college students feel that their bedrock connections are understood.

Finally, turning to the question of whether their school is responsive to the needs of all its students, just 45 per cent of students nationally think this is true ­and liberal arts students are least likely to give an affirmative answer (39 per cent). University students are scarcely more likely (42 per cent), but community colleges students are considerably more likely (61 per cent).

So the claim that liberal arts schools welcome real diversity in their populations and give all students’ needs and interests personalised attention appears to be considerably overstated. Big research universities are just as open to the needs of their undergraduates, and community colleges – which are often commuter-focused and have relatively few administrators – are actually far more responsive to student need than schools with huge, residentially-based student support bureaucracies.

Of course, if future undergraduates get wind of this message, it could spell more bad news for liberal arts colleges’ bank balances – which, aside from a handful of elite and wealthy institutions, are already suffering. Students might wonder why they should go to a liberal arts college at all if their supposed unique selling point turns out to be fallacious. Hence, going forward, liberal arts colleges would be well served to highlight their genuine differences from their competitors.

They need to showcase how their faculty and staff can support student exploration and growth in ways that big universities generally opt not to do. From faculty members and the typical prioritisation of teaching over research to the fact that an entire class can engage in civic activities, liberal arts colleges have a lot to offer in this regard. They can engage with their communities in much more intimate ways than bigger institutions can.

However, if they fail to make this message cut through – and to ensure that it reflects the reality – then the coming years could see many more liberal art colleges close their doors.

Samuel J. Abrams is professor of politics at Sarah Lawrence College and a nonresident senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

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