What is a Liberal Arts College?

A liberal arts college is a four-year higher-learning institution, usually found in the United States. These colleges emphasize a broad undergraduate education. This means that students often take a number of classes which may not directly relate to the student's career goals. By taking a wide variety of classes, students at liberal arts colleges aim to receive a well-rounded education. While there are professional training programs available at some of these colleges, specialized programs are usually not emphasized.
Understanding The Philosophy Of A Liberal Arts Education
To better understand what a liberal arts college is, you have to understand the meaning of the word liberal when used to describe education and you also need to understand the history of liberal study. The word liberal in the term liberal college is derived from the Latin word liberalis. When the word liberalis is used to describe something, it is referring to something that is appropriate for free men.
Historically, liberal arts studies consisted of both trivium and quadrivium subjects. The trivium liberal arts studies included grammar, logic and rhetoric. The quadrivium liberal arts studies included music, astronomy, arithmetic and geometry.
During the early part of the history of the United States, Americans became interested in developing institutions of higher learning dedicated to liberal arts studies. The first liberal arts colleges were established in New England more than 300 years ago as a result of this increased desire for formal education.
The liberal arts colleges that were founded at this time served the educational needs of those who would become the nations future leaders and businessmen. The goal of these institutions was to provide their students with a well-rounded education in addition to personal development.
Todays liberal arts colleges offer educational programs to people from all different backgrounds and just recently these institutions have been established in countries other than America. You can now also find liberal arts colleges in countries such as Canada, Russia and Germany.
A Liberal Arts Education versus a University Education
Oftentimes people wonder which is better a liberal arts college or a university? The answer to this question depends on a persons specific personal needs, educational needs and career goals. Liberal arts colleges and universities are very different educational entities and it is important to understand the differences between the two.
One of the most notable differences between a liberal arts college and a university is the size. Liberal arts colleges maintain a smaller student population with the goal of achieving a lower student-to-teacher ratio and creating a more intimate sense of community. This allows the college faculty to take an active role in the education of every individual student and allows the student body to form close-knit relationships. Because of this, liberal arts colleges may offer a more personalized learning experience for their students. In addition to a more personal educational experience, the smaller size of a liberal arts college can also provide a sense of security to students who like to see familiar faces rather than masses of people they dont recognize.
Another difference between liberal arts colleges and universities is their approach to studies. Liberal arts colleges normally require their students to take a wide variety of courses even courses that are unrelated to their majors and their career goals. This gives students exposure to a variety of liberal arts studies and not just the study of their particular major. The reasons for this have to do with the philosophy of a liberal arts education.
Most liberal arts colleges do not believe that the purpose of a college education is that of job training. Instead, a college education should make a student a more well-rounded person and scholar. These schools believe that career-specific training should primarily be obtained in grad school, through internships or in the workplace, and not during a students four-year college education. Because of this, liberal arts colleges are able to provide their students with an education that offers more breadth than the educations offered at big universities.
That being said, liberal arts colleges and universities both have their pros and their cons. To make an informed choice when it comes to choosing which type of college to attend, it is important to understand the pros and cons of each type of learning institution.
Liberal Arts Considerations
Liberal arts colleges are definitely unique and often differ greatly from large universities. Here is an overview of the considerations when evaluating liberal arts colleges.
LiberalArtsCollege Pros
  • A smaller class environment allows for greater student/teacher interaction and a more individualized learning experience.
  • The wide variety of course requirements of liberal arts colleges provides students with a broader base of knowledge to draw from.
  • Most liberal arts colleges are located in small towns or cities. Many students and parents feel this allows liberal arts colleges to provide a safer environment than the big-city colleges can offer.
  • Some believe that liberal arts colleges are better at teaching students how to think for themselves instead of just accepting everything they are told. A liberal arts college teaches its students that complex problems may not have simple answers, that there are alternative viewpoints that may be valid, that information must be synthesized in order to make informed decisions, how to solve problems creatively and how to use resources selectively.

    The explanation for this is clearly defined in an article written by Thomas E. Cronin, originally published in the Seattle Times and recently featured on the website of the Council of Public Liberal Arts Colleges. Cronin states, The liberal-arts tradition is an educational philosophy more than a body of knowledge and is as much concerned with the process of learning as it is with content. Thus, this approach views learning as a verb rather than a noun, as an ongoing process of questioning, searching, probing, exploring. Since they are arts, the liberal arts aim at active engagement rather than passive reception, at understanding rather than the memorizing of neatly packaged facts, figures and equations.

    This is part of the reason why so many liberal arts colleges encourage thesis writing.
  • Because liberal arts colleges tend to be smaller, they commonly offer a more personal relationship between the students and the faculty and staff. While students often need to seek out assistance from the faculty at larger universities, the faculties at smaller liberal arts colleges tend to be more involved with each students individual education.
  • Classes at liberal arts colleges are almost always taught by college professors. Many universities have graduate programs that use teaching assistants who often hold class for university professors. Since it is rare to see a liberal arts college with a graduate program, it is also rare to see a teachers aide teaching a class.
  • Because liberal arts colleges have smaller student bodies, these college students learn how to integrate themselves into a diverse society. In a university, the vastness of the student body makes it easy to find people you would normally fit in with. At a liberal arts college, you learn how to relate to those you might not normally associate with.
LiberalArtsCollege Considerations
  • Some students find the class choices offered by liberal arts colleges to be limited. This is largely due in part to the fact that specialized courses are not offered.
  • Because liberal arts colleges tend to be quite small, it can be harder for a student to find a group of people to fit in with. However, it is important to note that this drawback can actually be a benefit in disguise. Due to the limited size of the student body, a student learns to integrate into society rather than segregate from it.
  • Universities often have better funding than liberal arts colleges. Because of this, they often have better equipment and newer facilities. This is largely due to the fact that universities tend to have more endowments than liberal arts colleges have since universities have a significantly greater number of students and a greater number of alumni. Another reason for this fact is that universities tend to receive more grants than liberal arts colleges largely due to the fact that universities often participate in a higher number of research projects.
  • Universities tend to put a great emphasis on research. A large part of university funding comes in the form of grants. In order to receive a grant, the school must qualify for it and must stand out from the other universities applying for the grant. Because of this, it is not uncommon to see university professors heading major research projects or publishing acclaimed literature. This results in universities professors being better known than the professors at liberal arts colleges.
  • If a student wants to pursue a technical career path, a university offers classes more tailored to the students specific career needs. Since liberal arts colleges do not focus on career-related classes as heavily as universities do, students who do not want to study subjects unrelated to their career goals may prefer the curriculum of a university.
What You Need To Know About Liberal Arts Colleges
When considering a liberal arts college, there are some things that are important to know. It is critical that you learn how much you should expect to spend in tuition, as well as other important liberal arts college statistics.
Average Tuition Costs
The cost of attending a liberal arts college depends on which college a student wishes to enroll in. The top-ranked liberal arts colleges tend to charge annual tuitions in the range of $30,000 to $35,000 per year.
It is important to note that just because a school has listed an annual tuition of thirty-thousand dollars, it does not mean that it is the actual tuition a student will pay. The percentage of students receiving financial aid ranges from college to college, but most liberal arts colleges have anywhere from thirty to sixty percent of their students receiving some form of financial aid, with the average financial aid grant being approximately $4,000.1
There are a number of financial assistance programs available to college students and many liberal arts colleges charge what is called a discounted tuition, meaning certain students may be given a tuition discount to bring down the expense of the tuition.
LiberalArtsCollege Statistics
The statistics regarding liberal arts colleges are quite impressive. When you consider that only three percent of college grads come from liberal arts colleges, the fact that eight percent of the nations wealthiest CEOs and nineteen percent of United States presidents graduated from liberal arts colleges supports the notion that liberal arts colleges take education and a personal success seriously.
Here are some more interesting liberal arts college statistics:
  • Between the years 1960 and 1998, twenty-three percent of the Pulitzer Prize winners in drama were graduates of liberal arts colleges.3
  • In a recent two-year period, students from liberal arts colleges made up 20 percent of Phi Beta Kappa inductions.3
  • The percentage of liberal arts college graduates who go on to obtain a Ph.D. is almost twice as high as the percentage of university graduates who do so.3
  • Famous people like Roy E. Disney, Kris Kristofferson, Kristin Forbes, Mark Hopkins, Charles Webb, Dan Brown, David Linde, Madeleine Albright, Hillary Rodham Clinton, Diane Sawyer, Chevy Chase, Woodrow Wilson, Joss Whedon, Kerri Green, Lisa Kudrow, Stacy London and Meryl Streep all attended a liberal arts college.5
In Conclusion
Now that you have knowledge of what a liberal arts college is and a general understanding of what makes a liberal arts college so different from a university, it is easier to decide whether or not a liberal arts college would meet your needs. A liberal arts education has so much to offer and if the atmosphere of this type of institution meets the personal needs of a college student, it can make for a wonderful educational experience that will lead to a lifetime of success.
1. Information obtained by comparing the percentage of students receiving financial aid at a number ofliberal arts colleges and the average financial aid grant at each of those colleges.
2. From Distinctively American: The LiberalArtsCollege by Eugene M. Lang
3. Information obtained from CollegeNews.org
4. Based on interview with Greg Prince in University Business Magazines January, 2004 issue.
5. Information obtained from alumni lists of some of the top liberal arts colleges.

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This article discusses important factors to consider when evaluating and choosing a liberal arts college.

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You've decided to attend a liberal arts college. Congratulations. There are a number of factors to consider when deciding which liberal arts college to attend and you might not know where to begin. It is important to ensure that the college you select is one that will meet your personal needs as well as your educational ones. Following are some guidelines to help you determine which liberal arts college is best for you.

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