What Is a Liberal Arts College?

Don't Want to Get Lost in the Crowd? Check Out a Liberal Arts College

Wellesley College
Wellesley College. Tostie14 / Flickr

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.

To learn about some of the country's top-ranked liberal arts colleges, check out these articles:

Admissions standards for liberal arts colleges vary widely from schools that have open admissions to some of the most selective colleges in the country. The links below provide a sampling of information about different liberal arts colleges as well as data on what it takes to be admitted:

What Is a Public Liberal Arts College?

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.
  • 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.