President's Blog

Posts tagged liberal arts colleges

Looking Around and Forward

The time after the holidays and before students return to campus is when many professional conferences and meetings take place. For example, I’ve just come back from the President’s Institute of the Council of Independent Colleges, which was held concurrently with the annual meeting of the Women’s College Coalition.

Like folks in all other professions, college presidents find it valuable from time to time to raise their heads from the daily agenda in order to look around at the larger context shaping that agenda and forward toward whatever might be coming next. There is much to be learned from the experiences and ideas of educational leaders from across the country who share Sweet Briar’s commitment to liberal education and student success. America’s liberal arts colleges share many values, commitments, and challanges. What makes them stronger as a community makes each college individually stronger as well.

Here are things I especially appreciated during my time at the conference:

  • I heard a keynote address by Andrew DelBanco on the value of liberal education. Many of the ideas he shared with the assembled presidents are developed in his book, College: What It Was, Is, and Should Be. DelBanco’s main point is that residential undergraduate education plays an essential role in preparing students for citizenship and community life by sustaining an environment in which they can practice leadership, decision-making, debate, and self-government under the guidance of role models and mentors.


  • I participated in a robust discussion about financial aid policy. This session has received some press coverage; the question is whether financial aid is appropriately allocated between two purposes — to meet the financial need of families and to provide non-need-based aid to students with particular qualifications.





Of course, I also valued the opportunity to pick the brains of other college presidents, hear about interesting innovations moving forward on other campuses, and reflect on the national picture of opportunity for students.

It goes without saying that leading an academic institution in this day and age is challenging work. But a conference like these is just one more occasion on which I realize how lucky I am to have the chance to do it! Providing the kind of education Sweet Briar offers to new generations of women, and advancing the proud tradition of the American liberal arts college as an option for all students, is endlessly interesting and unquestionably important.


Interesting Research

In my Thanksgiving post, I mentioned attending a recent meeting of the Annapolis Group presidents.

One of the ways the Annapolis Group supports liberal arts colleges is by sponsoring research. Recently, a survey of graduates showed that alumnae of residential liberal arts colleges report consistently higher levels of satisfaction with their undergraduate educations than do alumnae of either public or private universities.

To quote a few points from the piece at the link above:

  • Seventy-six percent of liberal arts college graduates rated their college experience highly for preparing them for their first job, compared to 66 percent who attended public flagship universities;
  • Eighty-nine percent of liberal arts college graduates reported finding a mentor while in college, compared to 66 percent for public flagship universities;
  • Sixty percent of liberal arts college graduates said they felt “better prepared” for life after college than students who attended other colleges, compared to 34 percent who attended public flagship universities.
  • Liberal arts college graduates are more likely to graduate in four years or fewer, giving them a head start on their careers.

This research has sparked considerable discussion. True, it doesn’t shed light on what might be “selection effect” and what might be “treatment effect,” by which I mean simply that it doesn’t analyze the impact of possible differences in the characteristics of students who choose to attend residential liberal arts colleges. And it relies on self-reported data; it doesn’t prove that liberal-arts college graduates are demonstrably better prepared than others, for example,  just that they report that they believe they are. In other words, it’s more of a J.D. Power “consumer satisfaction” survey than a Consumer Reports study.

But to my mind it’s important to know that students who invest in themselves by choosing a residential liberal arts education end up certain that they’ve received excellent value. I can, and do, tell families confidently that if they choose Sweet Briar they will, in decades to come, feel they made an excellent choice. And really, if our graduates aren’t the best authorities on the value of their experience, who is?