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 [email protected].

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