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What Is a Liberal Arts College?

What Is a Liberal Arts College?


Most students seeking a bachelor’s degree attend a university, not a college. Although Americans use the words university and college interchangeably, they are starkly different in many respects. When exploring your choices, it’s important to understand the distinctions. To start, here are eight things you should know about colleges.

1. Colleges Focus on Undergraduates

A huge selling point for colleges is their laser focus on undergraduate education. There are no graduate students at many colleges, which means the focus of these institutions is exclusively on teaching undergraduates.

This represents a key difference from universities, where professor research and graduate education are the top institutional priorities. At universities, graduate students conduct much of the undergrad instruction as teaching assistants. Meanwhile, star professors often limit their undergraduate teaching to large, lecture-hall settings, if they teach at the undergrad level at all.

2. Colleges Are Small

Many colleges have less than 3,000 students on their campuses. This prompts skeptical teenagers to believe that colleges would be too much like high school. Smaller campuses facilitate a more intimate learning experience. The classes are smaller, making it easier to interact with classmates and professors. There is a greater ability to participate in a class when there are two dozen students enrolled versus 200.

Smaller classes can lead to more opportunities to earn a better grade. When there are few students in the class, it’s easier to give quizzes, homework, essays, class participation points and extra credit. In contrast, at a large university, it can be too labor-intensive to test frequently, which can lead to just two grading opportunities, being a mid-term and a final exam.

Colleges also expect students to show up for class. When you are enrolled in a course of 20 students, it will be noticed if you skip class. That’s obviously not true when hundreds of students attend a class in a lecture hall.

3. Names Are Misleading

Boston College and Dartmouth College, for instance, are both research universities. So is the College of William and Mary. On the other hand, Denison University, Bucknell University and Ohio Wesleyan University are all colleges. Don’t make assumptions. It’s best to ask whether the institution is a college or a university.

4. You Have Two College Choices

The two options are liberal arts colleges and baccalaureate colleges. A key difference between the two types of colleges is how the majority of students at liberal arts colleges study the liberal arts and sciences. These majors encompass the overall fields of biological and physical sciences, social sciences, the arts and humanities.

A sampling of majors includes English, history, chemistry, physics, political science, mathematics, psychology, philosophy, foreign languages and economics. Highly selective colleges almost always are in the liberal arts category.

In contrast, the majority of students at baccalaureate colleges do have access to the liberal arts and sciences, but they are more likely to select more practical or vocational majors such as communications, business, parks and recreation, nursing and education.

5. Liberal Arts Colleges Focus on Science

Science is a major academic focus at liberal arts colleges, even though there is a perception that they aren’t offered or a priority. Colleges can be a solid choice for students wanting to major in science. Your classes will be small and the opportunities for undergraduate research will typically be greater. 

Below you’ll find the institutions, per capita, that ultimately produce the most undergraduates who go on to earn a PhD in engineering or the sciences. Slightly more than half of these are liberal arts colleges (shown in bold):

6. Average College Price is Lower

Because colleges don’t have the name recognition that brand-name research universities enjoy, these institutions can’t charge as much money. According to the latest College Board statistics (2016), the tuition and room/board of the average private college is $43,440.

In contrast, the average price tag at a private doctoral university is $54,560, more than $10,000 greater. In addition, colleges typically have to offer larger tuition discounts through grants and scholarships, because they have to try harder to attract students because of their lower visibility.

7. Liberal Arts Colleges Are Under Pressure

In acknowledging that the most popular academic major is business, for instance, many liberal arts colleges are now offering business degrees. At some colleges that don’t offer a business major, more students are majoring in economics, which is considered a gateway major to a job in business.

William Deresiewicz, a former Ivy League professor and the author of Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life, decried the trend away from the pursuit of a broader education.

“There is a wealth of information at the fingertips of everybody in the world today,” Deresiewicz said in one of his speeches. “It’s how well-equipped you are to use that information in an innovative way that proves your value to companies in the long run, while you make your way up the corporate ladder.”

Liberal arts supporters argue that focusing on narrow majors isn’t a guarantee that you will succeed in the job market. No one, after all, knows what the job market will be like in five or 10 years. What we do know is that employers say that they value these kinds of qualities in young college graduates:

  • Ability to work in a team
  • Ability to think critically
  • Written communication skills
  • Verbal skills
  • Problem-solving skills

8. How to Locate Colleges

To generate college ideas, you can turn to the website of U.S. News & World Report. You’ll find the list of baccalaureate colleges within the Regional Colleges category and liberal arts colleges are in the National Liberal Arts Colleges category.

Lynn O’Shaughnessy is a best-selling author, speaker and journalist. Her book, The College Solution: A Guide for Everyone Looking for the Right School at the Right Price, is available on

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