What is a Liberal Arts College, and How Are They Different?

Do you want to go to a liberal arts college or a large university?

 

Some students have probably heard this question in its many variations. Others may have never heard of a liberal arts college (LAC) at all.

 

So what is a liberal arts college? And how do they differ from universities? Which is a better fit for you? Isn’t any institution that grants bachelor’s degrees a university? In this post, we’ll answer all these questions, try to clear up the common misunderstandings and confusion towards liberal arts colleges.

 

What is a Liberal Arts College?

 

A liberal arts college is a college that focuses on undergraduate study of the liberal arts and sciences. Note that students do not only study the humanities at liberal arts colleges—LACs offer equally-strong STEM programs.

 

Here, we have a few words to break down for the sake of semantics.

 

Although in the U.S. we use the term college very loosely to refer undergraduate studies in general and often interchangeably with university. Strictly speaking, the term “college” refers to an institution that awards bachelor’s degrees and is often part of a larger university. For example, undergraduates attending Harvard are attending Harvard College, the liberal arts college of Harvard University.

 

Liberal arts (from Latin: free arts or practice) refers to the core academic subjects (humanities, arts, mathematics, sciences) that are separate from professional, vocational, or technical studies. These disciplines originated from the era of classical antiquity during which connaissance of the equivalent of these subjects for the time (grammar, rhetoric, logic, arithmetic, music, astronomy) were necessary to be a “free person.”

 

We’ve come a distance from the classical period, but the American liberal arts college retains the values of broad and applicable knowledge, critical thinking, and general intellectual ability and inquiry.

 

Liberal Arts vs. Research Universities  

 

The characteristics of a liberal arts college are best made sense of when placed in contrast with those of the large university. The table below illustrates some of their differences. Keep in mind that there are always exceptions.

 

Liberal Arts College University
Focus on undergraduate education Focus on graduate education and research
Small enrollment (<3,000) Large enrollment (>5,000)
Small class sizes, taught by professors Large class sizes,sometimes taught by TAs
Emphasis on intellectual inquiry and well-rounded intellectual ability Professional, vocational, technical tracks offered
Professors prioritize teaching Professors prioritize their research
Admissions emphasises qualitative aspects and potential “fit” of a student Admissions focuses on quantitative aspects (GPA, test scores)

 

What are Some Examples of Top Liberal Arts Colleges?

 

Liberal arts colleges and universities are often ranked separately for a reason. Now that you have a general idea of what a liberal arts college is, here are the top ten liberal arts colleges according to U.S. News.

 

  • Williams College
  • Amherst College
  • Swarthmore College
  • Wellesley College
  • Bowdoin College
  • Carleton College
  • Middlebury College
  • Pomona College
  • Claremont McKenna College
  • Davidson College

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Why Should You Consider a Liberal Arts College?

 

Students often get so tangled up in the logistics of the college applications process that they don’t have the peace of mind to answer one of the most important questions regarding college: What are you going to college for?

 

If your answer is to major in a subject that will offer you the quickest and easiest path to a job (which will change as the market evolves), then maybe a pre-professional track at a large university is for you. Large research universities tend to work well for students who know exactly what job they want after graduation.

 

But if you want to go to college to expand your intellectual horizons, to improve your critical and interdisciplinary thinking, to gain the skills needed to approach a lifetime of learning in any field, then you should consider a liberal arts college. If you are undecided in major, a liberal arts college is ideal; most LACs allow students to declare a major at the end of sophomore year, giving students a chance to explore their interests.

 

You might have heard these common dismissals and criticisms of the liberal arts education: it’s useless, it’s impractical, it’s elitist. Yet liberal arts graduates are steadily highly sought-after by prestigious graduate programs such as law and medicine. In general, liberal arts students aspiring to grad school have an advantage over students at large research universities: liberal arts students are able to develop closer relationships with professors, allowing for more meaningful research/mentorship opportunities and letters of recommendation.

 

Liberal arts degrees are also becoming more desirable as the traditionally more lucrative industries of the hard sciences develop increasing need of individuals from the humanities and liberal arts. Whether they studied STEM or not, liberal arts grads are known to go on to large companies like Google or innovative startups.

 

The liberal arts tend to be slower in generating immediate returns for students, but will provide strong fuel for the overall arc of their careers. You can think of the liberal arts education as something that will prepare you not only for a job, but for a future as a thinker and an individual.

 

If you think you want to attend a liberal arts college, but don’t know how to begin crafting an application that will get you into your dream college, consider Collegevine’s College Applications Program. An admissions consultant will guide you through every step of the application process, from creating a school list to navigating financial aid. Schedule a free consultation!

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Kimberly Liu
Blogger at CollegeVine
Short bio
Kimberly graduated from Smith College with a degree in English Literature. This year, she has been based in Beijing, China, where she works in the education field and rescues dogs in her free time. She will be starting her masters at Columbia University in the fall.