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Liberal Arts Colleges: An overview

A liberal arts college is an undergraduate degree-awarding college that emphasizes the studies of liberal arts and sciences. The term ‘liberal arts’ refers to subjects or skills that aim to provide general knowledge and include the arts, humanities, natural sciences and social sciences. Nowadays, liberal arts colleges also offer courses that are outside the traditional realm, such as computer science. This broad approach aims to provide general knowledge on a variety of subject areas to develop students’ general intellectual capacities. Although students in liberal arts colleges still major in a particular discipline, including economics and finance, they often receive exposure to a wide range of academic subjects that are outside their traditional field.

Apart from their generalist curricula, liberal arts colleges are also distinguished from other types of higher education institutions by the small class sizes. For students that are interested in developing close professional relationships with other students and academics, the small class sizes at liberal arts colleges are a perfect fit. Generally, from a student perspective, liberal arts colleges have higher overall student satisfaction, general feeling that professors take a personal interest in a student’s education, and more appropriate for class participation and discussion.

The liberal arts model took root in the US during the nineteenth century, starting with institutions like Harvard, Yale and Dartmouth, although none of these early American colleges are regarded as liberal arts colleges anymore. During this time, there were around 212 colleges that served to spread the ideals of the enlightenment and the scientific explosion that was taking place in Europe at the time. However, today, the liberal arts tradition is strongly associated with the American education culture. Although some liberal arts colleges still exist in Europe, they are now more or less modelled after their American counterparts.

Most liberal arts colleges are private institutions, with a handful of exceptions. In terms of tuition, the average tuition for the academic year of 2018-2019 for liberal arts colleges was around $38,267. Furthermore, these schools generally have a student body size of around 2000 students, significantly lower than the average university in the US.

Top 10 Liberal Arts Colleges in America for 2019:

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

Liberal Arts Colleges vs. Universities



Liberal Arts Colleges

  • Small classes of around 18-20 students
  • Well-rounded education
  • Small enrollment size and small student body (~2000 students in total)
  • Emphasis on undergraduate education
  • More classroom discussions, seminars, and one-on-one opportunities with professors
  • Weaker name recognition
  • Only provides 4-year undergraduate programs
  • Fewer unique subjects and less diverse course selection due to small size
  • Fewer research opportunities


Universities

  • Large classes and large lectures
  • More specialization and more graduate school focused
  • Large enrollment size, with at least 6000 students entering the university each year and large in size (typically more than 16,000 students in total)
  • Emphasis on graduate, PhD and professional education
  • Less contact-time with professors and more passive learning through large lectures
  • Better name recognition
  • Provides undergraduate, graduate, and doctoral programs more diversity in terms of course selection due to size
  • Generally, more research opportunities


Does going to a liberal arts college hurt my career prospects?
It depends. Just like attending large-scale universities, your career prospects are highly related to the reputation and the academic excellence of your particular school. Most of the top liberal arts colleges enjoy good reputations among top employers, such as Deloitte, KPMG, Google, Facebook, and Morgan Stanley. Furthermore, the quality and the academic excellence at liberal arts colleges are also well-respected. If you seek to continue your education after finishing your undergraduate degree, having a Bachelor of Science or a Bachelor of Arts degree at a top liberal arts college will help you in being admitted to one of the top graduate schools in the US and Canada.

Apart from the reputation and academic excellence of your specific school, an equally important aspect in getting a job in your desired industry is whether you have the skills necessary to perform the job required. This means that the courses that you’ve selected must provide the skills and knowledge that you seek. If your dream career is in finance, most liberal arts colleges do provide majors in economics, finance, and accounting, and attending a liberal arts college to attain such a degree will not hurt your prospect one bit. But, if you wish to become a mechanical engineer, you might not be able to find courses and majors that best match your career paths in liberal arts colleges. This means that when you select specific schools, you need to check the availability of majors and courses. In other words, you will be best served by starting your research early.

Conclusion
What you should take away from this is that what type of higher education institution you choose depends on your own needs and career plans. Liberal arts colleges are unique learning environments where you can truly explore a generalist approach to education. If you are someone that is still trying to decide what you want to do in the future, pursuing an education at one of the top liberal arts colleges in the US is perfect for you. If you are someone that wants to have genuine professional relationships with fellow students and academics, liberal arts colleges are perfect for you as well. However, if you are someone that wants to participate in new exciting research opportunities, choose a niche academic area that small liberal arts colleges cannot provide, or simply want to meet more people during your undergraduate years, you should attend a large-scale university instead. All of this depends on your personal preferences.