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American liberal arts colleges: Where art meets science

In 1959, the British scientist and novelist CP Snow warned of a divide between scientists and "literary intellectuals". He explained that few of his friends and colleagues had both read one of Shakespeare's plays and could explain the second law of thermodynamics. The British education system, he argued, forced children to specialise at too early an age, pushing them towards either the arts or science and industry. More than half a century later, how much has changed?

America has found a way to bridge a gap that Britain still often stumbles into. "Liberal arts is a broad-based education that prepares students for as full and effective a life as possible, not just a specific career," explains Jim Kolesar, a spokesman for Williams, the top-ranked liberal college in America. Such degrees teach many disciplines, including analysis, communication and critical thinking, and an understanding of how culture influences groups and organisations. Students dedicate four years to subjects such as art, philosophy, literature, social sciences, physical education, public speaking, writing, natural sciences, and mathematics. Even when they specialise, Kolesar says students' choices can span the arts and sciences. "They'll often choose one major for themselves and another for Dad," he jokes, citing art and economics as an example.

Alison Byerly, provost and executive vice-president of Middlebury College in Vermont, says: "Often, when students start our programmes, they haven't made a decision about a particular career they are planning to pursue. One of the things that sharpens their ability to think about themselves and their skills is working through a number of different fields."

"The liberal arts appeal to students who want to learn how to be critical and reflective learners," echoes Lisa Smulyan, associate provost at Swarthmore College, Pennsylvania.

America has liberal arts colleges, such as Williams, Middlebury and Swarthmore, while universities such as Harvard and Yale also run liberal arts courses. To gain a place, British students need A-levels or an International Baccalaureate diploma, and a visa. "We want people who are able and curious," says Kolesar. Extra-curricular interests are a bonus, too.

Generally, interested students apply to individual universities and colleges. A high percentage of these accept the Common Application, a form that can be downloaded, completed, and sent to a number of different institutions. Rankings for the top US liberal arts colleges can be found at www.usnews universitydirectory.com.

Fees are complicated. "It's kind of like an airline," says Kolesar. "Not everyone who takes the same trip has paid the same amount." At Williams, Harvard and a number or other colleges, families pay what they are able to, regardless of nationality or place of residence. "Our maximum fees are $50,000 a year – but about 95 per cent of American families qualify for financial assistance, and the average grant is more than $30,000 a year." The idea, he says, is to make education "affordable to every family".

Where will a liberal arts degree get you? Employment consultant Susan de la Vergne of www.liberalarts advantage.com, helps students apply their education to careers in business. "Employers want people who can tell the difference between fact and baloney," she says. "Liberal arts students are very good at that." De la Vergne cites business management and analysis as ideal careers for liberal arts graduates. Kolesar adds education, governance and politics to this list. "Employers go out of their way to get people from institutions like ours," he says. "They're looking for the best raw material, which means people who are educated broadly." Nevertheless, within seven years of graduating, around 80 per cent of Williams' graduates gain a professional degree, such as a medical, law or business qualification. De la Vergne believes they're still well placed to gain employment without that.

Smulyan concludes: "The liberal arts [enables people] to continue to learn, adapt and problem-solve in a rapidly changing world." Perhaps this, as CP Snow predicted, is what students and employers want.