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The Gold Standard: The Powerful Impact of Residential Liberal Arts Colleges

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As the president of a residential liberal arts college, I have for years championed these institutions as the gold standard for higher education. My oldest two children have begun their college journeys and I have been reflecting on their respective experiences. These reflections are those of a parent, not an educator, but they reinforce my professional conviction about the distinctive and powerful impact of residential liberal arts colleges.

My oldest daughter attends one of the best-known and most well-regarded research universities in the world. She is surrounded everyday by the very brightest peers, she will be part of an incredible alumni network, and she has had some really exceptional graduate teaching assistants. But it weighs on me that there is, to my knowledge, not a single regular faculty member at the institution who knows her name despite establishing what appears to me to be a fine, if not, sterling academic record during her first three years. Her major department does not even assign faculty advisors given the volume of majors. Who will help guide her discernment about professional paths? Who is there to help challenge and support her as she writes a senior thesis? Who will write letters of recommendation for her and advocate for her?

Let me contrast that with the experience of my second daughter, who attends an exceptional residential liberal arts college in Southern California. What is happening to her in her first semester is extraordinary and it is hard to imagine it happening at any place but a residential liberal arts college.

During her first week on campus, by design Maggie and her classmates were all in the company of their academic advisors three times. These advisors are full-time faculty members. They discussed what classes to take during their first semester, adjusting to college life including being homesick, and how to become involved in campus life. The intention was clear that relationships between faculty members and students are central, essential and expected.

During a visit to Maggie in mid-October, we shared a meal with some friends and one of them asked her if she had a favorite class. She responded immediately that her interdisciplinary seminar was her favorite. She was finding the course material on early Christianity and Islam fascinating, and Maggie went on to say she found her professor inspiring. That is what every parent wants to hear.

Later that Saturday as we walked across the campus, we encountered the professor who was walking his dog and talking on his cell phone. He ended the call so as to have an opportunity to be introduced to us and I shared with him what Maggie said. He replied that Maggie and her classmates were inspiring him. The fact that he knew her name, was invested fully in her learning and was passionate about teaching was truly meaningful to me both as a dad and as a committed educator.

While I could provide other examples, let me share one final experience of what is different about residential liberal arts colleges. Maggie wanted to come home to Pennsylvania for her birthday weekend, which coincided with fall break. This necessitated taking a shuttle to LAX for a red-eye flight and meant she would miss the last half hour of her last class of the week. When she went to discuss this with the professor, she received an unexpected response, "Maggie, I want you to fully participate in the whole class." How surprised was she when the full professor who holds an endowed chair said, "I will take you to the airport myself." Wow! For parents, it does not get any better than that.

To be sure, there are profound experiences in all educational settings and individual student effort trumps all, but year after year, data from the National Survey of Student Engagement demonstrate that liberal arts colleges more deeply engage their students than any other sector. Places like Pomona College and Susquehanna University, where I serve, and the other members of the Annapolis Group really are the gold standard for undergraduate education.

Both of my daughters' institutions are among the most expensive in the world. Guess which one feels like a greater value to their parents? What happens at residential liberal arts colleges is as the commercial says, "priceless."