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What's a Liberal Arts College? Should You Attend One?

Posted by Francesca Fulciniti | Jun 25, 2016 8:30:00 AM

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If you’ve started researching colleges, you’ve probably seen the term “liberal arts school” thrown around quite a bit without really understanding what it means. What is a liberal arts college, actually?  And how is it different from other sorts of colleges and universities?

It’s hard to get a straight answer when it comes to defining a liberal arts college. In this post, I’ll dive a little deeper into defining the liberal arts before explaining what it means to get a liberal arts education. Then, I’ll talk about how these colleges differ from non-liberal arts schools and how that may affect your educational experience.



What Are the Liberal Arts?

To get a good understanding of the origins of the liberal arts, we have to go all the way back to classical antiquity - think ancient Greece in its prime. Participation in civic life was pretty important to many classical philosophers, who thought that a certain fundamental knowledge should be expected of active free citizens. In ancient times, liberal arts included grammar, logic, rhetoric, arithmetic, geometry, and even music and astronomy. The “liberal” in liberal arts has nothing to do with political liberalism, and everything to do with the original Latin roots of the words: artes liberales translates to subjects of the free person.

Modern understanding of the liberal arts has, unsurprisingly, changed from that of ancient philosophers’. When we talk about the liberal arts today, we’re referring to a broad range of subjects: literature, languages, history, philosophy, math, and sciences. What liberal arts don’t include are any sort of vocational, technical, or professional studies.



What Is a Liberal Arts Education?

Now that you’ve gotten a mini-history lesson, we can get into what it means to get a liberal arts education in modern times.

Different cultures sometimes have their own unique twists on what it means to offer a liberal arts education. In general, though, a liberal arts education is one that focuses on producing well-rounded individuals. American schools that provide a liberal arts education might aim to produce “global citizens”: individuals who are well-equipped to participate in an informed, ethical way in the world around them.

One could say that the ultimate goal of a liberal arts education is to teach students how to think critically, and to effectively interpret and analyze new information they encounter as they navigate their environments. These programs tend to be flexible in the sense that there’s not only one career path you could feasibly pursue post-graduation. 

If you attend a liberal arts program, you might say you have a liberal arts degree. Examples of liberal arts degrees include languages and literature, biology and life sciences, philosophy, cultural studies, and psychology.



What Doesn’t Count as a Liberal Arts Education

A liberal arts degree is not something you would receive in a vocational, technical, or professional program. These sort of programs exist to educate students with the purpose of preparing them for a specific career - that is, there’s a clear professional end goal. As such, these educations are generally more career-oriented.

Examples of non-liberal arts educations include law school, medical school, engineering programs, and architecture programs.

 

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Architecture may be considered a form of art - it just doesn’t fall under the heading of liberal arts.



What Is a Liberal Arts College?

Like I alluded to in the introduction, there’s no set or standardized definition of a liberal arts college. In general, though, they are educational institutions that emphasize undergraduate education (as opposed to producing research) and award at least half of their degrees in the liberal arts fields of study (like I described above). Students generally pick one course of study to focus on, while also taking courses in other diverse subjects. Check out our post on top liberal arts colleges for examples.

Liberal arts colleges tend to encourage their students to study a wide range of subjects instead of focusing solely on one field of study. The way schools actually do this varies, however - there are a few different paths that liberal arts colleges can take here:

  • Core Curriculums - Core curriculums are set plans of study that include mandatory courses in different subjects that all students must take in order to graduate. An example would be the core curriculum at Purdue’s College of Liberal Arts within Purdue University.  
  • Distribution Requirements - Distribution requirements are plans of study that require students to take courses across a range of different subjects, but they don’t dictate exactly which courses a student must take in order to graduate. At Williams College, for example, students have to take courses in three different “divisions” (in addition to meeting requirements for their major of choice): Languages and the Arts, Social Studies, and Science and Mathematics.
  • Open Curriculums - Open curriculums mean that students don’t have to meet any course requirements - either in the form of specific, mandatory courses or distribution requirements - in order to graduate. They are free to choose any courses available to them as long as they meet the requirements for their choice of major. An example of an open curriculum is the one offered at Amherst College.

 

How Are Liberal Arts Colleges Different From Other Schools?

Liberal arts colleges are often compared to research universities, although some schools exist as hybrids - both pushing to be research powerhouses while also striving to offer a liberal arts education. The traditional liberal arts college focuses primarily on undergraduate education, however, which means that professors tend to be hired and retained for their teaching and not necessarily for their research experience. This tends to affect student/professor relationships and overall student learning experiences. For example:

  • Undergraduates may have more access to professors because there’s less of an emphasis on research and graduate programs.
  • The colleges themselves tend to be smaller than research universities, with smaller class sizes and student: faculty ratios.
  • There may be fewer research opportunities available.

 

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Access to research projects is one of the major differentiators between liberal arts colleges and other types of schools.

 

To make this a bit easier to understand, here’s a chart with the typical characteristics of a traditional liberal arts college vs. a traditional research university:

 

Liberal Arts Colleges vs. Research Universities

 

Liberal Arts Colleges

Research Universities

Degree Program Offerings

More limited, but sometimes unique, degree programs

Wide selection of degree programs

Pre-Professional Options

Few (if any) pre-professional offerings

More pre-professional degree offerings

Research vs. Teaching

Professors are generally focused on teaching over research

Professors are generally focused on research and graduate students over teaching undergraduates

Class Size

Smaller average class size

Larger average class size

Research Opportunities

Fewer research opportunities and less exposure to research

More research opportunities and exposure to research

Public vs. Private

Usually private

May be public or private

Lectures vs. Seminars

Many small seminar offerings

More lectures, fewer small seminars

Mentorship & Career Opportunities

Easier to form relationships with profs and peers for career & professional connections

More difficult to form relationships with profs, but more career fairs and recruiting events



The issue with the above chart is that many of the top private research universities also pride themselves on providing liberal arts educations for undergraduates - there isn’t a clear delineation, then, between a liberal arts college and a research university in these circumstances.  

Top research universities may, for example:

  • Have core curriculums, distribution requirements, or even open curriculums that are very similar to the ones you’d see at a traditional liberal arts college (Brown has a famously open curriculum, for example).
  • Offer few (if any) pre-professional degree programs. You won’t find many business or finance degree programs, for example, at many of these liberal arts-minded research universities.
  • Strive to offer smaller seminar-style courses to encourage student participation and class discussion. See Harvard’s freshman seminar program as an example.

We can see, then, that there are really three options here when discussing this spectrum of school types: we have liberal arts colleges and research universities, but there are also hybrid options that tend to be pretty prestigious and highly-ranked. It’s important to keep these in mind when researching colleges, but remember that these hybrid options are often top-tier and shouldn’t be considered safe bets if you’re submitting applications.

 

What Sort of School Is the Right Fit for You?

If you’re leaning towards the liberal arts in general (or are even still making up your mind, but don’t know what type of college would be the best fit), these next considerations should help you figure it out.

 

Career Goals

Do you know exactly what you want to do after you graduate? Many students don’t know exactly what they want to do professionally when they’re just applying to college. If you’re not sure, it’s not just ok - it’s normal.

Liberal arts educations (either at liberal arts colleges or hybrid schools) really encourage students to explore and develop their interests. If this sounds appealing, a liberal arts education will probably be a good fit.

A liberal arts education is also a good option if you want a flexible degree that won’t necessarily hinder a variety of job prospects across fields/disciplines. Amherst College doesn’t have official pre-med or business majors, for example, but it still sends quite a few students to graduate programs in those fields.

Alternatively, if you know specifically what you’d like to do and know that you need a pre-professional degree to pursue your career of choice, a liberal arts degree may not be the most efficient way to meet your goals. Engineering is a prime example - if you get a non-engineering degree (liberal arts or otherwise), you’d need to double-back to get the specialized education you need before advancing professionally.

You also don’t need to attend a liberal arts college or hybrid university to get a flexible degree - many traditional research universities offer degree programs that aren’t necessarily pre-professional (like English, Economics, or Romance Languages).

In sum: your career goals can inform whether you want to go the liberal arts route or not, but they don’t necessarily make a liberal arts college better or worse than other school options.

 

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Are you sure where you’re headed, or are you still figuring things out?

 

Research Experience

Is it important that you get research experience as an undergraduate? If you plan on pursuing a graduate degree in a research-heavy or competitive field (e.g. if you want to go to medical school or get a PhD), it’s important to get good research experience as an undergraduate. It’s easiest to do this at a research university.

Some traditional liberal arts colleges offer these opportunities, but you’ll want to scope relevant departments before committing to a liberal arts college.

For example, let’s look at Williams College (a top liberal arts college) versus Johns Hopkins University (a top research university that offers a liberal arts education to undergrads):

  • Johns Hopkins University received 939 grant awards in 2014, making it the country’s most funded university by the NIH
  • Williams didn’t make the list of the top 50 most-funded schools

Put simply, more grant money = more research opportunities. Research universities tend to get more funding because they invest a lot of resources into producing research.

 

Target Major

Are you looking for something more general (e.g. English, Romance Languages, History) or something pretty specific (e.g. Cognitive Science, Integrative Biology, Slavic Languages & Literature)?

Liberal arts colleges tend to offer fewer and more general majors because they’re just smaller schools. Sometimes, though, they offer some unique and even niche options. For example,  Amherst offers general options like American Studies, Economics, and English, but they also offer a unique major called Law, Jurisprudence, and Thought. In total Amherst only offers 28 majors, whereas Arizona State University offers over 300 options.

Are you okay with not having a super specialized major (unless you’re into one of a college’s niche options)? You’d do alright at a liberal arts college. Do you want more variety and/or more opportunity for specialization? A traditional research university or a hybrid university may suit you better.

 

Environment & Educational Experience

This is perhaps the most important consideration. Would you like the hustle and bustle of a big university, with big lectures taught by big-name professors? Or would you prefer something more intimate, with smaller seminars taught by professors who are dedicated to teaching? What really matters is what you are most comfortable with. The only way to really figure this out is to visit a few schools.

To give you some examples, most of the top liberal arts colleges are relatively small, whereas the top research universities (hybrid or otherwise) are much bigger:

  • Liberal Arts Colleges: Williams = 2,045 undergrads, Amherst = 1,792, Swarthmore = 1,542, Bowdoin = 1,805
  • Hybrid Colleges: Harvard = 6,694 undergrads, Princeton = 5,391, Yale = 5,447
  • Public Research Universities: UCLA = 43,000 undergrads, Texas A&M = 49,000

If you want something small and intimate, you would likely be happier at a liberal arts college. If you want something bigger and busier, public universities may be best. If you want something in-between - a bigger campus but with opportunities for smaller classes - you might look into some of those hybrid options.

 

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Now would be a good time to think about whether you’re cool with crowds.

 

What’s Next?

Need more guidance when it comes to picking the school that’s best for you? We’ve got you covered. Read about whether it even matters where you go to college and how to get into your top-choice college. Set on a liberal arts school? Check out the top-ranked liberal arts colleges.

One of the next questions you may have might rise out of a more practical concern - you know how your experience may differ at a private liberal arts college when compared to other types of schools, but should you expect any difference in cost? Learn more about different college expenses.

 

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Francesca Fulciniti
About the Author

Francesca graduated magna cum laude from Harvard and scored in the 99th percentile on the SATs. She's worked with many students on SAT prep and college counseling, and loves helping students capitalize on their strengths.



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