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What Are Liberal Arts Colleges?

a college student talks with her hands in class because she is excited.

When my daughter was applying to colleges, her uncle, a professor at a large university, steered us toward liberal arts colleges. He told us they offered students a well-rounded education. 

Taking his advice, she chose a small liberal arts college in Massachusetts and graduated with a well-rounded education that allowed her to choose multiple career paths.

In communicating the true nature of the liberal arts, it’s important to dispel some common misconceptions:

·   The liberal arts are not related to any political party.

·   The liberal arts are not lofty musings disconnected from the real world where people must get jobs and pursue a career.

·   The liberal arts are not highly specific fields of knowledge that are limited to only certain areas of life.

What is a liberal arts education? 

Simply, a liberal arts education takes a broad approach to education by focusing on the arts, sciences, humanities, and social sciences. Instead of preparing students for a specific career, such as medicine or engineering, a liberal arts curriculum encourages them to study various subjects and use their critical thinking skills. This type of education allows students to pursue many career paths after graduating.

According to Dr. Jeffery Fager, Vice President and Dean of Maryville College: 

“A liberal arts education involves different ways of analyzing questions or problems and developing answers or solutions. Each question or problem may lend itself to a particular method of analysis: scientific (natural and social), humanistic, artistic, empirical, or philosophical. We must learn these different methods and gain the ability to discern their appropriate applications. In complex cases, several methods must be applied to achieve the best possible solution or answer. The liberally educated individual will have the tools to perform such a complex analysis.” 

Isn’t that what the world demands today? Multiple skill sets, complex analysis, the ability to think critically about an issue or situation and provide ethical, effective ideas or solutions? A student educated in the liberal arts can successfully engage with the world, adapting to its changes and complexities.

What is a liberal arts college?

Offering an education that gives students the ability to think critically, communicate well, problem solve, and collaborate with others, some common characteristics set liberal arts colleges apart from large public universities:

  • Small size: Most liberal arts colleges have less than 5,000 students in attendance at any given time.
  • Classroom interaction: Classes tend to be smaller to foster open discussion and spirited student-teacher interaction. 
  • Focus on undergraduates: Larger universities offer undergraduate and graduate degrees, but liberal arts colleges mostly focus solely on undergraduate degrees. 
  • On-campus community: Students tend to be full-time and live on campus; there are fewer part-time and commuter students.
  • Emphasis on teaching: Unlike larger institutions, where professors are expected to focus on research and may teach a limited number of classes each semester, professors at liberal arts colleges focus on teaching first and research second.

What is a liberal arts degree?

When you graduate with a Bachelor of Arts (BA) or Bachelor of Science (BS), you will have spent at least the first two years working on general education requirements that are focused on the liberal arts. This includes a wide array of classes unrelated to your major to foster your problem-solving skills and creative thinking.

A liberal arts degree focuses on the connections between different subjects, and even after you declare a major, those connections will foster your intellectual curiosity.

What is a liberal arts college vs a university?

While liberal arts colleges and universities both provide students with higher education, they offer different experiences, learning styles, and amenities. Liberal arts colleges focus on a well-rounded education, while universities tend to focus on specific career paths and foster research related to those disciplines.

Liberal arts colleges are typically smaller, have few teaching assistants, more classroom discussion because there are no large lecture classes, closer relationships with faculty, and a more close-knit campus community.

Universities have large enrollments, large lecture classes, use more teaching assistants, and focus more on research, offering professional degrees in specific majors and opportunities to pursue graduate degrees.

It doesn’t mean that liberal arts colleges have lesser-developed classes or curricula in specific areas of study; it just means they offer broader areas of study, sometimes incorporating aspects students don’t gain from more focused classes.

What can you do with a liberal arts degree?

With a liberal arts degree, you can develop several valuable workplace skills. Employers value liberal arts majors' adaptability, communication, organization, time management, problem-solving, and teamwork. Unlike a major that prepares you to enter a specific career track, you can explore many options to pursue different types of work.

A liberal arts degree can be useful in many business fields, such as marketing, sales, customer relations, human resources, event planning, and account management. It can lead to careers in public service, education, writing, and journalism.

Benefits of attending a liberal arts college

This type of education exposes you to a broad base of subjects, giving you a better understanding of potential career paths. A liberal arts college isn’t really designed for students who want to pursue one specific outcome after graduation. 

Due to the emphasis on an interdisciplinary focus and general knowledge, you can use your well-rounded options to explore many career paths. 

A liberal arts college may not be the best option if you're set on a technical field. You might not learn specific skills with this type of curriculum nor gain any hands-on experience like you might in a vocational school or professional program. 

Best liberal arts colleges?

There are many different rankings available for top liberal arts colleges, each using its own set of guidelines and criteria. Still, these ten colleges appear on many of the rankings lists:

·   Pomona College in Claremont, California

·   Swarthmore College in Swarthmore, Pennsylvania

·   Barnard College in New York, New York

·   Wellesley College in Wellesley, Massachusetts

·   Middlebury College in Middlebury, Vermont

·   Amherst College in Amherst, Massachusetts

·   Colby College in Waterville, Maine

·   Bates College in Lewiston, Maine

·   Davidson College, in Davidson, North Carolina

·   Vassar College, in Poughkeepsie, New York

For more options, check out Appily’s list of best liberal arts colleges.

Small liberal arts colleges

Depending on your definition of small, there are many small liberal arts colleges throughout the United States. My daughter’s college had fewer than 3000 students, and it was about the size of her high school, appealing to someone who might be overwhelmed by a huge state university.

Looking for a small liberal arts college of 1000 or fewer students? Click that link to check out. 

Which type of college should you choose?

There are many things to consider when choosing a liberal arts college vs. university or vice versa. If you are torn between the two, you should visit the campuses and sit in on classes to get a feel for what you feel comfortable with. Sometimes, experiencing a slice of campus life is the only way to know what you want.

You can also use Appily's college match quiz to find perfect schools based on the criteria you deem essential. Share data points like your GPS, test scores, and potential majors, and we'll give you a personally cultivated list of matches to check out. Just click the button below to get started. It's always free and easy. 

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