The Truth About Liberal Arts Education

By S. Georgia Nugent, Senior Fellow, Council of Independent Colleges

As the former president of two liberal arts colleges, I am dismayed by the misinformation surrounding these institutions and the value of a liberal arts education. For our young people to make well-informed decisions about their future, they need accurate and up-to-date information about the array of choices American higher education offers. Yet many of the stories circulated in popular media today present distorted, stereotypical, or downright wrong information about colleges and universities.

The Council of Independent Colleges (CIC), an association of more than 650 small and medium-sized private colleges around the country, has launched a multimedia campaign to serve as a reliable source of information about private, liberal-arts-based education. This public information campaign, recipient of three national media awards, has produced a broad array of online resources for students, parents, and college counsellors.

To combat the five most common misunderstandings about a liberal arts education, here’s the truth:

A liberal arts education is for everyone. Although a liberal arts education is often portrayed as only for the elite, that’s not the truth. In fact, private liberal arts colleges enroll the same or a slightly higher percentage of low-income students as do the flagship public universities. Nearly one-third of all private college students are from low-income backgrounds. Even more important, all students—but especially underrepresented or low-income students—graduate in a shorter amount of time when they enroll at liberal arts colleges (NCES 2009). And that means fewer semesters of tuition and an earlier start on a career.

Liberal arts colleges are affordable. It is true that what liberal arts colleges offer—small classes, personal mentoring by full-time faculty members, and the many opportunities for learning and growth inherent in a residential, on-campus experience—is expensive. But it’s also true that those colleges offer six times more student aid than is provided by the federal government. Students at independent colleges are twice as likely to receive financial aid as those at public institutions, and the average grant received is three times as large as the average grant at public institutions. As a result, the net cost of attendance can be surprisingly close to—or even less than—that of attending a state college.

Graduates’ debt remains manageable. Although it’s common to hear that liberal arts graduates incur staggering debt, more than 25% of students who graduate from small, private liberal arts colleges have no debt at all (Radwin et al. 2013). For other graduates, the average amount of debt is the same today as it was in 2007: about $19,500. That is approximately the same cost as an economy automobile. But there are no doomsday stories in the media about young people incurring “staggering debt” to buy a car. Yet the value of the auto decreases the moment it’s driven off the lot, while the value of a college degree pays enduring dividends throughout life. The US Census Bureau indicates that lifetime earnings for a college graduate exceed those of non-degree earners by $1 million. A $25,000 investment toward a million-dollar-return seems pretty good. (It’s also important to note that about 40% of the national student loan debt is for postgraduate programs, such as law or medicine, not for undergraduate degrees.)

A liberal arts education has practical value. We live in a world where future graduates will likely be employed in roles that don’t even exist today. What they will need to succeed are skills in problem solving, research, written and oral communication, teamwork, and a disposition toward life-long learning. More and more, employers are finding that liberal arts graduates excel in those qualities. This kind of learning is actually more practical than training in a specific skill that may well be obsolete soon after graduation.

Liberal arts graduates find employment. One of the most surprising and misguided myths about liberal arts education is that graduates are not employable. First, the unemployment rate for college graduates, even in the depth of the recent recession, was about half that for non-college graduates. More specifically, for graduates of small, private, baccalaureate colleges, recent annual studies carried out by the National Association of Colleges and Employers found that approximately 90% of graduates were employed or enrolled in graduate studies within six months of graduation. Both the rate of employment and the average compensation exceeded those for graduates of other types of institutions.

Know the Facts

At CIC, we know that students and parents are eager to understand the path from college to employment. That’s why CIC developed to help answer the question, What can you do with a liberal arts degree? The site uses video clips, photographs, statements from graduates and employers, and animated data visualizations to tell the story of the value that a liberal arts education provides.

Video highlights from the national symposium, The Liberal Arts in Action, featuring successful liberal arts graduates from many walks of life discussing how their education has influenced their lives, can be seen at A more complete overview of a liberal arts education and liberal arts colleges is presented by

The Twitter feed @SmartColleges and Facebook page both provide real-time information, news, and commentary relevant to liberal arts education. And the newly launched features graphic images, videos, campus photos, and tips to encourage prospective students to consider a liberal arts education.

An extremely rich array of resources designed for the education professional, including data, infographics, research reports, and a curated selection of publications and editorials, is available at

The liberal arts college is a uniquely American phenomenon (although it’s increasingly being emulated around the world). Arguably, it has been a significant factor in our nation’s success in innovation and entrepreneurship. It is imperative for prospective college students to have access to the facts about what such an education can provide.


NCES (National Center for Education Statistics). 2009. The Beginning Postsecondary Students Longitudinal Study.

Radwin, David, Jennifer Wine, Peter Siegel, and Michael Bryan. 2013. 2011–12 National Postsecondary Student Aid Study: Student Financial Aid Estimates for 2011–12. Institute of Education Sciences, US Department of Education. Washington, DC: National Center for Education Statistics.

S. Georgia Nugent can be reached at

Debunking Need-Based and Merit Aid Myths

By Sandra M. Moore, MA, IECA (NY)

Imagine this scenario: you’re leisurely surfing Facebook when you notice that one of your friends has posted a frantic alert: “Beware of the ABC virus that’s chewing up mass quantities of emails from coast to coast. Do NOT open messages that include in the subject line any combination of the letters a, b, or c.”

Sound familiar? Not surprisingly, when this kind of thing happens, many folks panic. They madly race to their inboxes to see if the last message from Great Aunt Martha was really a virus-laden ABC email in disguise. Certainly, several of us have been duped in this way. But others—people in the know—typically jump on (a hoax debunking website) to see if such a bug truly exists or whether the circulating “alert” is simply another Internet falsehood that when shared a gazillion times took on a life of its own as a so-called urban legend.

Similarly, the families we work with can get caught up in the maze of misinformation and innuendo surrounding the college search and admission and financial aid application processes. Gossip gets spread in school parking lots and grocery store aisles every day! Someone always seems ready and able to point our families in the wrong direction, either spouting half-truths or totally bogus “facts.”

That’s where we step in. As independent educational consultants (IECs), we strive to belong to the in-the-know group. Part of our job as IECs is to stay on top of hot topics and ongoing developments in the wide world of college admission and financial aid. But doing so takes a lot of time and effort. And many of us, admittedly, are less well-informed when it comes to the whole affordability aspect of what we do.

Myth or Fact?

Fortunately, the College Committee of IECA and its affordability subcommittee are working hard to provide members with resources and training that will help all of us stay ahead of the game. In the meantime, here are just a few, favorite financial-aid-related myths debunked.

Myth: Our family will never qualify for need-based aid, so why even bother?

Fact: You don’t know exactly what you will or won’t actually qualify for unless you apply! Moreover, to get a good sense of how much particular institutions will cost before their children fall in love with them, it’s important for all families to estimate their expected family contribution (EFC). To do this, they can use a free online EFC calculator, such as the one provided by the College Board. True, an EFC may very well indicate low or no need, and as a result, a financial aid office might deem a student ineligible for a federal grant, such as Pell or SEOG. Still, the family must file the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) if the student wants to be considered for institutional aid. Many private colleges and universities also require the CSS/Financial Aid PROFILE to make that determination. At the very least, filing a FAFSA gives students the option of taking out a William D. Ford Federal Direct Loan (Direct Loan)—regardless of need. Loans may be subsidized or unsubsidized—subsidized Direct Loans are need-based and are offered only to students who qualify for them.

Myth: I’m not going to worry about applying for aid because my daughter will get an athletic scholarship.

Fact: Only 2% of high school athletes play sports at the college level. And if your child hasn’t been recruited by the end of the junior year, chances are she won’t be in the pool for receiving an athletic scholarship from a Division 1 or Division 2 school. If you’re not already familiar with, it’s a rich compendium of everything you might ever want to know about college athletics and scholarships. Although getting really good grades has been shown not only to significantly increase an athlete’s chances of being admitted to particular schools but also the chances of winning athletic scholarships, it’s a good idea for families to understand how the system works and to cover all their bases by also applying to schools that offer other forms of assistance.

Myth: My son plans to apply for “outside” scholarships because millions go unclaimed every year.

Fact: Most merit aid is distributed by colleges and universities themselves. And more often than not, to be considered for those scholarships requires no extra work on the part of the student. Unfortunately, many families erroneously believe that there’s a treasure trove of scholarships “out there” just waiting to be had for the asking. What they don’t realize is that most of the awards publicized through online subscription databases, such as or, are small (e.g., $100–$500) and often require an essay in addition to a separate application for each. Because students from all over the world vie for those modest awards, clients might have better luck checking out local scholarship sources, including various fraternal organizations, employers, and places of worship. But time and energy is best spent on discovering those schools that are most likely to provide generous need-based aid or merit money while making sure that students’ applications are as strong as possible so that they have a crack at both!

Myth: There’s no reason to save for college because if we do, we’ll get less aid.

Fact: Students and their parents are primarily responsible for meeting college costs. That could mean that the less a family saves, the more they may have to borrow, especially if the student applies to schools with less-than-generous aid budgets. Sure, need-based aid decisions do consider family assets, such as money put away through state-sponsored 529 and other educational savings plans, but parent assets are assessed at only about 5.6% of their value. The financial aid formulas for both FAFSA and PROFILE assess income at higher rates than assets and are income-driven, not asset-driven. Remember, too, that the formulas weigh such other factors as the number of students in college at the same time and the age of the older parent. FAFSA’s asset protection allowance, for example, can significantly reduce the percentage of a family’s savings that is actually assessed as a contribution toward educational expenses, especially in the case of near-retirement parents.

Myth: Only top students receive merit scholarships.

Fact: Many institutions practice “tuition discounting,” whereby they slash their sticker prices by thousands of dollars without students having to prove their worth in a specific way. Often colleges do this as a matter of course for B+ or A- students who’ve been judged to have no financial need but nevertheless are solid candidates with a good deal of potential. Schools typically call these tuition discounts merit scholarships, and they help lure kids to their campuses who might otherwise opt for more-well-known institutions. Indeed, if in searching for best-fit schools, families are open to places with a regional rather than national reputation, great bargains can be had.

The Bottom Line

No matter our clients’ financial situations, we as IECS provide an invaluable service by helping them avoid a lot of the stress and confusion that comes with not knowing. By encouraging families to conduct an affordability analysis early in the college search process and continually educating them on how the college financial aid process works—including what’s true and what’s not—we can help them make admission application and enrollment decisions with their eyes wide open.

Sandra M. Moore, Next Step College Consulting, can be reached at

A Holistic Approach to Preparation, Planning, and Placement for Students With LD

By Kyle Kane, JD, IECA (SC)

The last several years have seen a welcome increase in the number of students with learning challenges going off to a four-year college. Although students with learning disabilities attend at half the rate of the general population, they are beginning to recognize that they can also reap the benefits of participating in the traditional college experience.

That is the good news. The bad news is that just 34% of them will graduate in four years, which compares to the national average of 52% of their neurotypical peers (Sanford et al. 2011). That low completion rate is traumatic for the students who fail and expensive for their families. Although students with learning differences drop out of college for a variety of reasons, many of them are simply not prepared for the transition to college and independence.

As independent educational consultants (IECs), we must be leaders in the process of educating families, helping them identify areas of challenge, find resources to address those deficits, and develop practical plans for support in college. We can do this in many ways, including:

Guiding families and students to critically examine their academic skill level. Families frequently overlook the all-important invisible academic skills, such as planning, writing, and studying. Do students understand how to plan for the completion of the assignment? Do they understand how to construct and execute an essay? Are they highlighting too much? Too little? These are areas that IECs become aware of when they work with students on their essays and applications. If students exhibit significant deficits, it is important to take steps to resolve them. High school is the time to target those issues.

Guiding families and students to evaluate their nonacademic skills, such as independence and social-emotional competence. We help families identify areas of challenge as early as possible and use effective strategies to strengthen these essential skills. Being capable of handling money, taking medications, and socializing appropriately are important skills to have and must be practiced regularly in the safe setting of home under the guidance of families.

Helping students hone their self-advocacy skills. The difference between accommodations in high school and college are significant. Students’ IEPs do not follow them to college, and colleges are not required to seek out and accommodate students; instead, the responsibility lies with the student to access the accommodations and services they need to be successful. The difference is because colleges are governed by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), not the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Given the freedom to choose whether to disclose a learning disability, most students choose not to disclose in college. In fact, only 17% of students eligible for disability services will register for them in college, although 94% of them used accommodations and services in high school (Cortiella and Horowitz 2014). To be successful, students must understand this difference, acknowledge their need for support, and practice exercising their self-advocacy skill muscles while in high school. We can help students practice throughout our process by talking to them frankly about strategies that help them succeed and encouraging them to use them.

Providing insight and advice about the appropriate level of college accommodations and support based on the psycho-educational or neuropsychological report and consultation with the psychologist. Obviously psycho-educational and neuropsychology reports provide a perspective on the student that is highly valuable in evaluating student capabilities and readiness. But frequently families do not understand—or they misunderstand—the report in terms of the student’s functional limitations and the implications for college placement. IECs can provide clarity and perspective to families that will help them make solid decisions about the best learning environment for their students.

Collaborating with the professionals in students’ lives. Although most professionals who work with students with learning challenges are focused on one specific aspect of need, IECs provide the 30,000-foot view of what is necessary for college and beyond. We are uniquely positioned to start the conversation about where the students are and where they need to be by graduation from high school. Gaining the insights of other professionals is also highly useful because it provides a depth of knowledge about the student that is important as IECs search for the best next step for students.

Introducing tutors, coaches, and advocates who understand students’ different learning styles. It is often difficult for families to find tutors, coaches, and others who truly “get” their students. IECs work to develop a network of tutors, teachers, coaches, and advocates who bring the knowledge, creativity, and experience to effectively work with our students.

As IECs, we have a responsibility to do as much as we can to increase the college-readiness and college success of the young people we serve. We must approach our students in a holistic manner and ensure, as best we can, that they are prepared to succeed in college and beyond.


Cortiella, Candace and Sheldon H. Horowitz. 2014. The State of Learning Disabilities: Facts, Trends and Emerging Issues (Third Edition). New York, NY: National Center for Learning Disabilities.

Sanford, Christopher, Lynn Newman, Mary Wagner, Renee Cameto, Anne-Marie Knokey, and Debra Shaver. The Post High School Outcomes of Young Adults With Disabilities Up to 6 Years After High School: Key Findings, From the National Longitudinal Transition Study-2 (NLTS2) (NCSER 2011-3004). Menlo Park, CA: SRI International.

Kyle Kane, The College Consulting Collaborative, can be reached at