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Liberal Arts Colleges: What are they?


Liberal Arts Colleges: What are they?

David Shin

“What is a private liberal arts college?”
“I don't like learning useless things.”
“I don’t like art/art related subjects.”
“I'm a math/science guy. I'm not very good at liberal arts.”
“Liberal arts is for people who aren't good at math.” 
“Liberal arts degrees are worthless” 
“Limited future career options”  
“I am not liberal.”

These are actual responses from low-income high school students*, yet none of them accurately capture what liberal arts colleges are about. Having chosen a liberal arts college over flagship public universities and the Ivy League, I constantly find myself having to defend the liberal arts from poorly informed individuals. Put simply, the defining characteristics of liberal arts colleges are as follows:

1. They are much smaller than universities

The average size of a top-tier liberal arts college hovers around 2,000 students, much smaller than universities. This is partly due to the lack of graduate students at these colleges, but the benefits are quite obvious: smaller class sizes, less competition for research opportunities, and a tighter college community. There are also downsides, depending on what type of person you are — rural/suburban location, lack of variety in course catalogs, and a smaller number of student organizations and clubs. 

2. They are undergraduate-focused institutions

Related to the previous point, the lack of graduate programs means that professors only work with undergraduates. Liberal arts colleges also pride themselves on providing a quality education to its students. In fact, Harvard and Columbia consulted Amherst College in 2007 when reviewing their teaching programs. It is standard for professors at liberal arts college to focus much more on teaching as opposed to their university counterparts.

3. They are focused on developing a broad intellectual foundation rather than providing a vocational training.

Almost every liberal arts college is similar in that they do not offer vocational degrees, which includes nursing, business, medicine, and law. This is not to say that they discourage graduates from pursuing these fields — the majority of liberal arts graduated pursue graduate degrees in these areas. Not to mention, top-tier liberal arts colleges boast some of the highest number of acceptances to PhD, JD, and MBA programs, beating out Ivy League schools in almost every case. Of course, the criticism is that critical thinking skills don't pay the bills — but they do. In a list of college rankings posted by Forbes, liberal arts colleges dominate the charts, making up half of the top 30 colleges and with Pomona College and Williams College topping the list. 

 7 of the top 10 colleges in PhD production are liberal arts colleges, with Ivy League universities rarely appearing within the top 10

7 of the top 10 colleges in PhD production are liberal arts colleges, with Ivy League universities rarely appearing within the top 10

Not yet convinced? If you're reading this article, the internet is at your fingertips! Don't let anyone tell you that liberal arts colleges are a waste of money!

*Taken from "What High-Achieving Low-Income Students Know About College Options " by Caroline Hoxby and Sarah Turner.