Liberal arts admissions are less about privilege than motivation 

Diversity in the classroom is what a liberal arts education needs most, and the admissions process reflects this priority, says Laura Severin

November 10, 2018
Figure skater
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A recent discussion about the value of a liberal arts education by Terry Nardin, a Yale-NUS College professor, sparked a debate about its cost and whether access to one is limited to those with familial or financial privilege. Fortunately, this is not true. A liberal arts education is built upon a diverse set of perspectives and experiences.

As Professor Nardin said: “The key differentiator is that liberal arts students are exposed to a range of disciplines. This encourages flexibility in thinking and develops an ability to approach a problem from multiple angles.”

Liberal arts colleges make an effort to ensure that there is a diverse set of experience, background and wealth within campus communities. Our goal is to produce future leaders and change makers, so it is essential that our students represent a wide range of values and experiences.

For this reason, liberal arts colleges dedicate both human and financial resources to providing financial aid as broadly as possible, offering access to mentorship during the transition to college life and to employing a holistic admissions process that recognises the diversity of each student’s background.

Context matters

For many large research institutions, the admissions process is similar to an athlete participating in the high jump: the goal is to clear a specific height without clipping the bar, paying no attention to the athlete’s height or the style in which he runs or jumps. Such an admission process requires students to demonstrate a specific level of academic success, with no regard to the wealth or opportunity that may have influenced the outcome.

Conversely, a liberal arts college that employs a holistic admissions process seeks students who will excel academically and socially, while maintaining the understanding that opportunity for college preparation will vary. It is an approach more akin to figure skating.

Simply landing a triple axel jump does not ensure a medal: skaters must also demonstrate artistic grace and excellence. A holistic admissions process honours student achievement (grades) but also the ways in which students reach their success.

With a commitment to holistic admissions, liberal arts colleges spend an abundance of time getting to know applicants. Hours are spent reviewing not only a student’s performance but also the rigour of the curriculum and content of the courses taken in their pre-university studies.

At Yale-NUS, all students who have been admitted have also sat with a representative of the admissions team for a one-on-one interview. Through these interviews, students are being assessed less on what they know and more on how they learn.

Financial matters

Many liberal arts colleges recognise the investment required to enrol a diverse range of students. Human resources are allocated to assessing financial need, and budget is reserved to provide support for low-income students.

Amherst College, for example, has implemented a policy that waives the $65 (£50) application fee for students who are the first in their family to attend college or whose family income falls below $65,000 a year. Such a policy ensures that the mere cost of application does not deter a student from applying.

At many liberal arts colleges, the admission process is need-blind, ensuring that students are admitted based on their merit and not on their ability to fund a liberal arts education. 

Liberal arts colleges such as Yale-NUS have also committed to meeting the full financial needs demonstrated by an admitted student.

To ensure that our students are able to adapt to college life, Yale-NUS runs a programme called “First Gen – First Sem”, which provides supportive advice for students who are the first in their families to attend college.

Students are also encouraged to participate in the Future Global Leaders programme, a highly selective fellowship for first-generation college students. Two Yale-NUS students have already been recipients of this fellowship.

Colleges develop global citizens and change-makers. With increased awareness of the unique skill set cultivated by a liberal arts education, there are indications that the labour market will continue to embrace our graduates. Accordingly, financial mobility for our students will expand as they enter the workforce. 

It is therefore critical that we dispel the misconception that only privileged students are able to afford a liberal arts education. 

Laura Severin is dean of admissions and financial aid at Yale-NUS College. 


Print headline: We seek deep minds, not deep pockets

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