What Black Families Should Know About Liberal Arts Colleges

Photo credit: Deposit Photos by Zahida Sherman You can’t make it a day without hearing about the rising cost of college attendance. And...


Photo credit: Deposit Photos
by Zahida Sherman


You can’t make it a day without hearing about the rising cost of college attendance. And let’s be honest, our economy isn’t turning around as fast as we’d like. So what can Black students do to afford an education that will help them get ahead? Get into a liberal arts college.


Liberal arts colleges are one of the nation’s best-kept secrets that most Americans know nothing about. Especially Black folks. Only 3% of American students will apply to liberal arts colleges, so you know the statistic for African American students is even more dismal. And yet, because liberal arts colleges have historically underrepresented Black students, they are desperate to recruit, fund, and graduate them.



After working for three years in multicultural recruitment—my job was essentially to keep my predominantly White college accountable to recruiting and enrolling brown and first-generation students—one of the most frustrating things was how little Black families knew about liberal arts colleges. So here’s my attempt to inform you on what opportunities these institutions provide and give you tips on how to get yourself or your student into one.

What they are: Liberal arts colleges emphasize critical thinking, effective communication (written and verbal), and making broad connections. Translation: If you want to study pre-med, you will primarily focus on health and medicine, but will understand how gender, the economy, and race impact how we understand health and medicine. No tunnel vision allowed.

Who they want: Students who love learning, working with others, and who are committed to improving their communities. Liberal arts colleges are largely residential, which means that student leadership and involvement reign supreme. If you want to be an effective leader after you graduate, you’ve got to first to enjoy learning and collaborating with your classmates.

What they provide: Liberal arts colleges cover the financial costs your family cannot. When a student applies for financial aid, the college will subtract your estimated family contribution from the overall cost of attendance. What remains is the institution’s responsibility to fund in the form of grants, work-study, scholarships, and loans. For competitive Black students with financial need, loans are very low.

And because they are smaller, liberal arts colleges offer resources that make it hard for students to fall through the cracks. These resources include summer bridge programs, small classes, faculty who care about students beyond the classroom, tutorial services, peer and alumni mentoring opportunities, and one-on-one professional development. As a result of these services, Black students’ graduation rate from a liberal arts college is nearly 40% higher than at public universities.

Now, just because you understand the hidden value of liberal arts colleges doesn’t mean that it will be easy to get into one. Quite the contrary. Liberal arts colleges invest in their students, and that investment demands that students are prepared for the academic rigor of their institution. They also want to see that students are making an informed and well-researched decision to apply. It has to be a mutually beneficial match. Here are three tips that will make admissions officers more likely to say yes to your application.

Take a challenging curriculum: Whether your school offers Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate, or an equivalent, it’s crucial that you enroll in these courses and earn A’s or B’s throughout high school. The better you perform, the more confident the college will be that you can handle their work.

Remember the rule of 4 X 5: Along with the first tip, you have to take demanding courses in the right areas. Since liberal arts colleges emphasize a broad curriculum, aim to take four years in the five core subjects (English, social science, math, foreign language, and natural science). Keep the pedal on the gas until you graduate.

Visit the school (for free!): One of the best ways to show a college that you’re seriously considering them is to apply for a travel grant during senior year of high school. If you meet their academic requirements, they will fund your campus visit, which will allow you to tour campus, talk to current students, attend classes, and really envision yourself there for four years of your life. Students who are approved for a travel grant stand a very good chance of being admitted.

Whether you or your student are a freshman in high school, or a senior currently applying to colleges, it is never too soon to begin thinking about college. Make sure to add a few liberal arts colleges to the list of possible schools. With solid grades in a toughest curriculum—including four years of classes in the core disciplines—Black students place themselves in a strong position for college acceptance. And with a focus on creating well-rounded scholars, providing services to support students from diverse backgrounds, and making sizeable financial aid amounts available, liberal arts colleges can provide a world-class education to you and your student. And that’s priceless.



Zahida Sherman works for the Office of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion at Kenyon College, where she advises and supports underrepresented students. She enjoys international travel, concerts, eating great food, and watching movies.

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