What Is a Liberal Arts College?

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A liberal arts college is a four-year institution of higher education with a focus on undergraduate programs of study that lead to a bachelor's degree. Students take courses in the humanities, arts, sciences, and social sciences. The colleges tend to be relatively small and place value on the close relationships between students and their professors.

Features of a Liberal Arts College

Now let's look at those features in more detail. A liberal arts college has several qualities that distinguish it from a university or community college. In general, a liberal arts college is characterized by the following:

  • Undergraduate focus: The number of graduate students at a liberal arts college is low or zero. This means professors are dedicated exclusively to undergraduates, and your classes will rarely be taught by graduate students.
  • Baccalaureate degrees: Most degrees awarded from a liberal arts college are four-year bachelor's degrees such as a B.A. (bachelor of arts) or B.S. (bachelor of science).
  • Small size: Nearly all liberal arts colleges have fewer than 5,000 students, and most are in the 1,000 to 2,500 student range. This means you'll get to know your professors and peers well.
  • Liberal arts curriculum: Liberal arts colleges focus on broad skills in critical thinking and writing, not narrow preprofessional skills. Along with a focused major, liberal arts students will take a breadth of courses in fields such as religion, philosophy, literature, math, science, psychology, and sociology.
  • Faculty focus on teaching: At a large university, professors are often evaluated for their research and publishing first, and teaching second. At most liberal arts colleges, teaching has the top priority. The "publish or perish" model for faculty tenure may still be true at liberal arts colleges, but the equation for tenure will place much greater emphasis on teaching.
  • Focus on community: Because of their small size, liberal arts colleges often highly value the interaction of faculty and students. The overall educational environment tends to be more intimate and personal than at larger universities. If you don't like the idea of 500-person lecture halls and professors who don't know your name, a liberal arts college might be a good choice.
  • Residential - The majority of students at liberal arts colleges live at college and attend full time. You'll find far more commuter students and part-time students at public universities and community colleges.

Examples of Liberal Arts Colleges

You'll find liberal arts colleges throughout the country, although the greatest concentration is in New England and the Middle Atlantic states. Among the country's top liberal arts colleges, Williams College and Amherst College in Massachusetts often top the national rankings, as do Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania and Pomona College in California. These schools are also extremely selective and select fewer than 20% of applicants each year.

While liberal arts colleges share some common features, they also vary significantly in personality and mission. Hampshire College in Massachusetts, for example, is well known for open and flexible curriculum in which students receive written evaluations rather than grades.  Colorado College has an unusual one-course-at-a-time curriculum in which students take a single subject for focused three-and-a-half week blocks. Spelman College in Atlanta is a historically black women's college that wins high marks for social mobility.

From Reed College in Portland, Oregon, to Macalester College in Saint Paul, Minnesota, to Dickinson College in Pennsylvania to Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, Florida, you'll find excellent liberal arts colleges throughout the country.

Getting Admitted To a Liberal Arts College

Admissions standards for liberal arts colleges vary widely from schools that have open admissions to some of the most selective colleges in the country.

Because liberal arts colleges are small and have a strong sense of community, most have holistic admissions. The admissions folks want to get to know the whole applicant, not just empirical measures such as grades and standardized test scores. Some liberal arts colleges, such as Claremont KcKenna, do still emphasize test scores during the admissions process.

Non-numerical measures such as letters of recommendation, application essays, and extracurricular involvement will often play a meaningful role when applying to liberal arts colleges. The admissions folks aren't simply asking how smart you are; they want to know if you will be someone who will contribute to the campus community in a positive and meaningful way.

The numerical measures do, of course, matter, but as the table below illustrates, admissions standards vary widely from school to school.

College Typical GPA SAT 25% SAT 75% ACT 25% ACT 75%
Allegheny College 3.0 and higher * * * *
Amherst College 3.5 and higher 1360 1550 31 34
Hendrix College 3.0 and higher 1100 1360 26 32
Grinnell College 3.4 and higher 1320 1530 30 33
Lafayette College 3.4 and higher 1200 1390 27 31
Middlebury College 3.5 and higher 1280 1495 30 33
St. Olaf College 3.2 and higher 1120 1400 26 31
Spelman College 3.0 and higher 980 1170 22 26
Williams College 3.5 and higher 1330 1540 31 34

*Note: Allegheny College utilizes test-optional admissions.

Learn About Public Liberal Arts Colleges

While the great majority of liberal arts colleges are private, not all are. One of the country's top public liberal arts colleges might be an excellent option if you're looking for the features of a liberal arts college with the price tag of a public university. A public liberal arts college differs from a private liberal arts college in a few ways:

  • State funding: Public colleges, by definition, are partly funded by taxpayer money. That said, states tend to underfund educational institutions, and the majority of the operational budget tends to come from tuition and fees.
  • Lower cost: Tuition at public liberal arts college is usually significantly lower than at private colleges. This is particularly true for in-state students. That said, keep in mind that the top private liberal arts colleges have large endowments and are able to offer significant financial aid to students who qualify. Some offer loan-free financial aid. For students from families with modest income, a prestigious private college will often be less expensive than a public college.
  • The downside: Because state-funded colleges often have more budgetary constraints than the top private colleges, the faculty often have higher teaching loads, the student/faculty ratio is often higher, and classes are often slightly larger. These distinctions may disappear when public colleges are compared to second-tier private liberal arts colleges.
  • Examples of public liberal arts colleges: SUNY Geneseo, University of Mary Washington, New College of Florida and Truman State University.
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Grove, Allen. "What Is a Liberal Arts College?" ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, thoughtco.com/what-is-a-liberal-arts-college-788437. Grove, Allen. (2023, April 5). What Is a Liberal Arts College? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-a-liberal-arts-college-788437 Grove, Allen. "What Is a Liberal Arts College?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-a-liberal-arts-college-788437 (accessed June 9, 2023).