Ultimate Guide to Liberal Arts Colleges

Although they sometimes have less recognizable names than their research university counterparts, many liberal arts colleges (LACs) are some of the most selective, prestigious institutions of higher learning in the world, often producing renowned leaders in a wide array of fields. 

 

Thinking of attending an LAC? Curious what they’re all about? Keep reading to find out everything you need to know about these institutions.

 

What Is a Liberal Arts College?

 

Liberal arts colleges are predominantly focused on undergraduate education. While they may have graduate programs, the emphasis is less on these degrees or research than at large universities. 

 

Rather than professionally-oriented majors and programs, the curricula tend to provide a broader grounding in the liberal arts. (We’ll go into greater detail on what that means below.) The schools are typically on the smaller side, too, in terms of both individual class sizes and graduating classes.

 

The Liberal Arts Curriculum

 

Liberal arts schools adhere to the idea that what you study doesn’t necessarily equate to what you do after graduation. Therefore, their intention is not to prepare students for direct entry into the job market. This is a contrast with research universities. Moreover, because these schools aren’t as research-focused, the faculty can be more student- and teaching-focused.

 

These institutions prepare students for their lives beyond the academic sphere. They learn how to think about complex issues critically, be global citizens and contributors to their communities, and more. They expect their graduates to receive and benefit from a well-rounded education, through studying areas like:

 

  • Humanities
    Examples: English, literature, and history
  • Arts
    Examples: Music, drawing, and drama
  • Sciences
    Examples: Biology, chemistry, physics, and math
  • Social Sciences
    Examples: Economics and political science

 

The “Prototypical” LAC Student

 

Like at most colleges and universities, there is no one type of student who attends a liberal arts college. However, generally speaking, most LAC students are less focused on immediate professional outcomes like immediately becoming an engineer or financial manager. Instead, many plan to go to graduate school or teach.

 

While students will further develop theoretical and abstract skills while attending college, many already have a solid foundation for them going in. They are also passionate about their major or concentration, not just as preparation for their career but also as an intellectual pursuit. Even if they’re not studying a humanities discipline, they should have strong writing abilities since writing is typically a core part of LAC curricula.

 

In terms of beliefs, many LAC students tend to be politically progressive — although you may well find a spectrum of views, depending on the college.

 

On-Campus Culture at LACs

 

Size and Location

 

Liberal arts colleges are generally significantly smaller than research universities, often with fewer than 3,000 students. Many are situated in suburban or rural towns that are largely defined by the college itself. Williams College, for example, is located in Williamstown, Massachusetts, a rural college town. There are exceptions, of course — Barnard College, an all women’s college partnered with Columbia University, is in New York City.

 

Because these colleges are often central to the towns in which they’re located, they tend to be closely affiliated with their surrounding communities, usually employing many nearby residents.

 

Diversity

 

Sometimes, there is less diversity on these campuses, as opposed to larger universities. Students tend to be wealthier and more liberal, too. This may partly be due to the fact that there are fewer students overall, so even if an LAC is as diverse as a research university counterpart, it may not feel that way.

 

This is not necessarily true across the board, particularly at top-tier, elite LACs. Vassar College, for example, reports that its Class of 2023 is 35.9% people of color, on par with many larger universities. At Amherst College, 45% of American students identify as people of color.

 

Personality

 

Many LACs are known for liberal politics, student activism, art, and a large LGBTQ+ community, including Vassar, Sarah Lawrence, and Reed College. Others, however, are a bit more conservative. Bucknell University, Davidson College, and Colgate University are some of the colleges that have a larger percentage of students identifying as right-leaning, although not as much so as some larger research universities.

 

Most LACs tend to be more liberal overall than the United States as a whole. Many are even more liberal than their states or communities, like Oberlin College in Ohio and Grinnell in Iowa.

 

Class Bonding

 

Because these schools tend to be community-driven, the focus is on shared experiences. For the most part, all students live on campus in the same dorms. They learn from the same professors, participate in the same traditions, and share meals together. For students who attended small high schools, particularly boarding schools, this may feel familiar, especially since the student bodies at LACs are so small and not as diverse.

 

Academic Experience at Liberal Arts Colleges

 

Classes

 

Like the general student body, class sizes, too, tend to be smaller than those at larger research universities. That means more discussion-based seminars, as opposed to large lectures, and a greater expectation of class participation — something that may be difficult for shyer students who are less comfortable speaking up in class. (Of course, the frequency of small vs. large classes depends on other factors, like your major.) 

 

Faculty may very well know all their students’ names, something that’s rarer at larger universities when instructors are teaching thousands of students in some cases. That also means they’re more likely to notice when students are absent from classes — something that may be noted.

 

Curriculum

 

The curriculum at LACs is designed to equip students with general knowledge to prepare them to be global citizens. Students are encouraged to explore different subjects and departments, rather than focusing exclusively on their major and requirements. For example, you may well find an economics major taking a sociology or philosophy course, even considering a double major or minor. You’ll find many students exploring multidisciplinary tracks.

 

Some liberal arts colleges even have open curriculums, where there are no general education requirements. Students only need to fulfill major requirements and take a certain number of courses to graduation. Outside of this, they can study whatever they want. 

 

Faculty

 

At research universities, research is a huge part of the faculty role and their ability to achieve tenure. Because LACs aren’t research-focused, the “publish or perish” mentality is far less prevalent among faculty at these institutions. Instead, they are more focused on teaching. You’ll also find fewer courses taught by teaching assistants, rather than the professors themselves.

 

Students may also find that their instructors are more accessible via office hours and other means. They may also find more opportunities for independent study and one-on-one lab work.

 

Philosophy

 

As we’ve discussed the LAC education model emphasizes teaching students how to think, communicate, and problem solve, as opposed to directly preparing them for a specific professional role

 

That doesn’t mean students aren’t well-equipped to take on the career world. Graduates are well-represented in the upper echelons of consulting, business, law, and academia — they just might take less common paths to get there. For example, students interested in working in finance may study economics or mathematics as opposed to majoring in business or accounting. (Do keep in mind that it may be more difficult to transition into a professional role if you attend a lower-ranked LAC.)

 

Because the emphasis is on developing a broad range of skills, reading and writing play a central role in the curriculum. Most majors, including the sciences, require extensive reading assignments, and students can expect to receive plenty of feedback on their writing. 

 

LACs are a good choice for students who aren’t sure of their future career. At these schools, they have the flexibility to explore different fields and change majors. 

 

However, even though they may offer stellar instruction in STEM fields, you’re unlikely to find many niche fields like robotics or aerospace engineering. Overall, these schools tend to be weaker in these areas because faculty who are stars in STEM research tend to pursue careers at institutions that will fund their research.

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Extracurricular Opportunities at LACs

 

Interest Groups

 

Because LACs are smaller and have fewer resources than large research universities, you’ll likely find fewer student organizations and clubs, and the ones that do exist are more oriented toward on-campus life and building community than career societies. Instead, there may well be club sports and other clubs that celebrate shared passions and interests.

 

Athletics

 

Elite athletic programs aren’t a feature of many LACs. Most play in the NCAA Division III. However, that doesn’t mean athletics aren’t a large part of the culture. Smaller student bodies with Division III teams and club teams mean a greater percentage of the student population tend to participate. For some schools, particularly those in the NESCAC, there are large alumni networks revolving around the sports culture.

 

Outdoor Opportunities

 

Since many liberal arts colleges are located in rural areas, it’s no surprise that there’s a great deal of interest in environmentalism, sustainability, and outdoor activities. For example, there’s an abundance of mountain clubs that organize activities like hiking, backpacking trips, ski trips, and so on.

 

Of the eight schools in the U.S. that have achieved campus carbon neutrality, four are members of the NESCAC: Middlebury College, Bowdoin College, Bates College, and Colby College. Two of the remaining carbon neutral schools, Colgate University and Colorado College, are also liberal arts colleges. 

 

Study Abroad

 

Study abroad is enormously popular at many schools, especially liberal arts colleges. In fact, a majority of students at LACs study abroad as undergraduates. For example, at Pitzer College, 78% of students in the Class of 2014 studied abroad, compared with about 10% nationally. Goucher College has even made study abroad mandatory for undergraduates, while other schools have done so for certain degrees and tracks.

 

Campus Life at Liberal Arts Colleges

 

In contrast with large research universities in cities, where many students participate in activities and socialize off campus, LACs typically offer a self-contained campus experience. Part of this is because they are often in suburban or rural areas. They also tend to be residential, with all or nearly all students living on campus, fostering community.

 

Many LACs don’t have Greek life; they are more focused on emphasizing overall community extending through the entire campus. For some, this and the fact that there is usually a small student body could make the community feel tight-knit; others may feel constricted and find it cliquey.

 

Navigating LAC Admissions

 

The admissions process is similar to that of many research universities, although somewhat more contextual and holistic. Adcoms will consider:

 

Academics and test scores (SAT/ACT and SAT Subject Tests)

 

Like with top-tier universities, admissions are highly competitive at top-tier LACs. With an acceptance rate of 7% (Fall 2019), Pomona College is consistently the liberal arts college with the lowest acceptance rate in the U.S., but it’s far from the only extremely selective LAC.

 

Schools are not only looking for a GPA and test scores (many are now test-optional in light of COVID-19) but also a curriculum that shows that you challenge yourself, including many honors and AP courses. Usually, there are no specific requirements in terms of coursework and grades, but, as with any selective school you should show a well-rounded academic profile while still specializing in your area(s) of interest. 

 

Extracurriculars

 

LACs tend to place higher value on nontraditional activities and accomplishments, in contrast to research universities, which often place high value on leadership- and awards-based extracurriculars. For example, they will certainly take note if you started your own cupcake business, led a restoration effort, or grew a YouTube channel.

 

Essays

 

Because many liberal arts colleges are writing and critical thinking-focused, essays play a crucial role in your application. Many require at least two supplemental essays in addition to your Common App essay. This can be of benefit to you, though — your essays can help compensate for holes or flaws in other parts of your application, at least to an extent.

 

Recommendation letters, alumni interviews, and other holistic factors

 

These schools are community-based, and adcoms are particularly interested in fit — in other words, how candidates will contribute to the campus. This is a quality that’s difficult to determine from your GPA or test scores. Instead, adcoms will probably pay more attention to subjective elements of your application, such as recommendation letters and interviews. These will supply them with evidence of your character and whether your values and goals align with the school’s

 

Financial Aid at Liberal Arts Colleges

 

Costs & Aid

 

The sticker price for tuition, fees, and room and board is often higher at LACs than it is at many research universities, usually above $65,000/year. Sometimes, it may be as high as $80,000. Elite colleges with large endowments such as Pomona, Williams, and Amherst are able to award generous financial aid, however.

 

Need-Blind Schools

 

Many top-tier LACs are need-blind, meaning they don’t consider your need for financial aid in the admissions process. The following schools are both need-blind and meet full demonstrated financial need:

 

  • Amherst (including for international students)
  • Barnard
  • Bowdoin
  • Claremont McKenna
  • Davidson
  • Grinnell
  • Hamilton
  • Harvey Mudd
  • Middlebury
  • Pomona
  • Swarthmore
  • Vassar
  • Wellesley
  • Williams

 

Merit Aid

 

As with highly selective research universities, many top-tier liberal arts schools don’t offer merit aid. At LACs that do offer merit aid, highly qualified (sometime overqualified) applicants may receive steep discounts on tuition thanks to merit aid grants and scholarships.

 

For example, Bard College has a sticker price of above $60,000/year, but middle-class families can expect to pay between $26,000-40,000. Wealthier families, however, will often pay full price for selective LACs.

 

Should You Attend a Liberal Arts College?

 

Liberal arts colleges appeal to many students, but they’re not for everyone. Considering attending an LAC? It could be the right choice for you if:

 

  • You’re looking for a more intimate academic experience and to build relationships with faculty.
  • You think you might want to attend graduate school or pursue a career in academia.
  • You’re a strong writer.
  • Rather than a career-oriented approach, you’d prefer a more theoretical approach to learning.
  • You’re not sure about what major you want to declare.
  • A quintessential college town appeals to you.
  • You’re politically progressive.

 

If you’re interested in attending an all-female college, consider, too, that a majority of all-women’s colleges are small liberal arts schools, like Barnard, Wellesley College, and Smith College.

 

On the other hand, an LAC might not be the right choice if:

 

  • You want to study a professionally-oriented major and pursue research as an undergraduate.
  • You’re on the shyer side and don’t like to speak up in class.
  • You’re not a particularly strong writer.
  • An urban environment appeals to you.
  • You’re hoping to attend a larger school and experience everything it has to offer, like Greek life and elite athletic programs.
  • You’re politically conservative and/or religious.
  • You need the flexibility of attending school part-time.
  • You have substantial financial constraints.
  • A diverse student body is important to you.

 

Bear in mind, of course, that these characteristics are not 100% true across the board. For example, you’ll find conservative, urban LACs, just as you’ll find liberal, rural research universities. It’s important to carefully research and evaluate each school you’re considering to assess whether it’s the right fit.

 

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Laura Berlinsky-Schine
Senior Blogger at CollegeVine
Short bio
Laura Berlinsky-Schine is a graduate of Johns Hopkins University, where she majored in Creative Writing and minored in History. She lives in Brooklyn, New York and works as a freelance writer specializing in education. She dreams of having a dog.