Although it was not so long ago, my memory of that early morning in May is pale and muted. I suspect that this is due to the hollow lyricism of quite forgettable graduation speeches, or perhaps to the film of champagne and euphoria that kept me from reading my high school diploma all the way through. Such is the experience of most graduating high school seniors anticipating the promise of four years of academic and personal reconnaissance at a liberal arts college.
The tacit implication of what it means to be a liberal arts student is just that: the opportunity to tap into one’s multifaceted individuality and to experiment within a safe, nurturing environment. Schools like Pomona College are small, often primarily residential campuses, and they typically include a two-year exploration of the liberal arts before declaring a major. Although only three percent of college degrees in the U.S. are issued from liberal arts institutions, the core values of this education system are being appropriated by institutions across the globe. With the flexible parameters of a liberal arts education in mind, it comes as no surprise that my memory of graduation is of such a peripheral nature; my most pressing concerns had been the bloat-inducing bubbles of pink champagne and pre-prom jitters.
Across Central Park, most graduating students at the Lycée Français de New York (LFNY) were undoubtedly having a vastly different experience from mine. In ninth grade, students receive a national assessment, the brevet, designed to measure their knowledge in core academic areas. They are subsequently encouraged to dedicate their next three years of high school to either scientific, economic, or literary studies. Although a substantial percentage of graduating seniors at the LFNY elect to make the switch to American colleges, many follow the course of the European education system and enroll in primarily French national universities. France has 82 state universities, and the standard undergraduate fee is €181.57 per year, or a little over $230. Students obtain their master’s after five years of intensive, narrow-focused education that is often seminar-based.
The European system of higher education is composed of public universities and grandes écoles—selective, smaller universities. Both differ from American liberal arts colleges in that tuition is often dramatically lower due to public funding, the campuses are designed exclusively for study—as opposed to the full immersion of a residential campus—and students often commit to a vein of academic study prior to enrollment. Graduation day, for most students at the LFNY, marked their complete induction into the respective career paths they had signed themselves off to.
According to a national study released in November 2011 by the Annapolis Group, 60 percent of liberal arts college graduates said they felt “better prepared” for life after college than students who attended public universities across the globe.
I made the move into the American educational system shortly before I was due to begin preparation for the brevet. At the time, I could not envision myself choosing any particular field of study before I had fully explored them all. Although I was willing to acknowledge the advantages of the European system and its focus on depth of study rather than exposure, I wasn’t prepared to make a decision without the chance to comprehensively weigh my options.
This is not to say that national universities, in the United States and otherwise, are not fully committed to personal academic cultivation, nor that they hinder social or emotional growth in any way. Graduates of European universities, having received more in-depth training within a particular frame of study, are far more prepared for the career that they elect to pursue. However, the liberal arts college degree is rapidly gaining in perceived worth from the perspective of the increasingly competitive job market. According to J.P. Hansen, responsible for much of the existing research on the subject, employers are beginning to consider liberal arts degrees more valuable due to the opportunities to work on “soft skills” as a result of small class size and campus immersion. Students who are given the freedom and attention to explore their options and acquire a rich array of soft skills seem to be more confident in the careers that they eventually choose to practice.
Recent studies show that the liberal arts degree is increasingly gaining recognition and value in Europe as well. Institutions in the Netherlands—the Universities of Amsterdam, Leiden, and Maastricht—are adopting the comprehensive, small-scale undergraduate system. Two university colleges at Twente and Rotterdam are scheduled to open this September. There is a widespread paradigm shift; specialization at the master’s level is becoming increasingly more common at European universities. Liberal arts colleges are now widely recognized as a means of higher education.
It looks as though the air of irreversible transition that pervades those French graduation ceremonies will yield to the mirth of indecision and exploration characteristic of the liberal arts.