Institutional mission—the goals a college sets for itself—is key to understanding how colleges differ. An important distinction is between a liberal arts college and a research university. Most selective institutions fall into one of these two categories. 

Liberal Arts Colleges

Undergraduate education is the primary, and often the only, mission of a liberal arts college. Union College, Macalester College, Davidson College, Reed College, and Claremont McKenna College are examples of selective liberal arts colleges. They award most of their degrees in the liberal arts disciplines, which include the social sciences and sciences as well as humanities and arts. This distinguishes them from colleges with programs that lead to more practical outcomes, such as engineering or business—although there are exceptions. Smith College and Swarthmore College, for example, offer engineering in addition to their regular liberal arts subjects. But these programs are small relative to the total number of degrees offered at those schools. Most liberal arts colleges enroll only undergraduates, but some have small graduate programs, primarily at the master’s degree level. Almost 90 percent of the 220-plus liberal arts colleges in the United States are private. 

I think you build self-confidence at a small college. You get the message you’re special.  - Parent of student at a small liberal arts college

Liberal arts colleges provide students with a sound foundation in core disciplines such as English, philosophy, history, psychology, music, physics, and mathematics. They also offer interdisciplinary programs that draw from several fields, like women’s studies and philosophy of science. Liberal arts programs are not career-focused. They assume that a broad nonvocationally oriented education is excellent preparation for any later career choice. And their graduates bear this out by succeeding in all walks of life.

Enrollment at liberal arts colleges typically ranges from about 1,000 to 2,500 undergraduates. They usually have small classes taught exclusively by faculty members. Small classes generally mean more opportunities to write and to contribute to class discussion. Classes are often seminars rather than lectures, leading to greater student engagement.

Since many liberal arts colleges are located in small towns and in suburbs, student life tends to center on the college and its extracurricular activities. Obviously, a smaller school cannot offer as many courses in any subject as are offered at larger institutions, but undergraduates only take a dozen or so courses in their major anyway, so there are always enough courses to satisfy an eager learner. In addition, students get to know their teachers and classmates well and form close bonds. In turn, this develops the strong sense of community that is the identifying mark of a liberal arts college.

Many liberal arts colleges have athletic programs at the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) Division III level. The NCAA divides its member teams into three categories, Division I, Division II, and Division III, in descending order of athletic competitiveness. With fewer students and a less intense level of competition than that found at Division I schools, at liberal arts colleges a higher percentage of their students can participate in varsity-level competition.

The same principle applies to other extracurricular activities. With fewer students vying for a newspaper job or a seat in the violin section of the orchestra, a greater percentage of students can get involved. But the scale of the activity may be smaller. The campus newspaper at a liberal arts college may come out just once a week, while a larger school is likely to have a daily (and bigger) paper. There may also be fewer organized activities to choose from at a liberal arts college compared to a larger school, but again, regardless of the absolute number, students always find many options for involvement at a liberal arts college. Students are also encouraged to start new activities if they want to. You’ll keep bumping into your friends and acquaintances, even in diverse activities, because the community is small.

Research Universities

In contrast to liberal arts colleges, research universities have three connected missions: research, public service, and teaching undergraduate and graduate students. Research generates new knowledge, and public service means that knowledge is shared with society at large. All of the Ivy League schools, Duke University, the University of Michigan, and the University of Virginia are examples of selective research universities. An institution is classified as a research university based on the number of doctoral degrees it awards each year across a number of fields. About 260 institutions fall into this category: two-thirds are public, and one-third are private.

For our faculty, research intensity is higher, and they are expected to continue research throughout their entire career. It’s harder to stay current at a small school. - Dean at a large research university

Faculty members at research universities are evaluated on the quality and quantity of their research as well as the quality of their teaching. At the strongest and best-known research universities, faculty members do research at the frontiers of their fields using well-equipped research laboratories and libraries. This does not mean that undergraduates are ignored at these schools, however. You are still important, but you are not the center of the enterprise, as you are in high school or at a liberal arts college. In fact, learning from professors who are active in research is a valuable opportunity for undergraduates, particularly those majoring in the sciences or social sciences where new research can rapidly change a field. It is exciting to learn from teachers who are doing research that will appear in tomorrow’s headlines and next year’s textbooks, and who can convey, firsthand, what discovery and scholarship are all about. Research universities offer many opportunities for undergraduates, not just graduate students, to become involved in faculty research projects, but you have to be energetic in seeking them out. Liberal arts colleges also offer many research opportunities, but their variety and scope will generally be more modest, particularly in the sciences.

Research universities come in all sizes. They range from quite small (Cal Tech, for example, has fewer than 1,000 undergraduate students and about 1,200 graduate students) to medium (Harvard University has about 6,600 undergraduates and 10,000 graduate students) to very large (University of Texas, Austin, has about 37,000 undergraduates and 11,000 graduate students). Most research universities have 15,000 or more students enrolled, graduate and undergraduate combined.

Classes at research universities, particularly introductory classes, may be quite large, although smaller discussion sections usually accompany large lecture classes. Research university faculty generally teach fewer classes per term because of their other responsibilities, and they may be less accessible to students than faculty at liberal arts colleges because of these additional responsibilities. How you feel about this will depend on how much contact you want with professors, and how active you will be in dealing with the relative anonymity of large classes. Students at research universities will also probably find themselves in discussion sections or perhaps even classes taught by graduate students serving as teaching assistants (TAs). Research universities vary greatly in how much they use TAs for undergraduate instruction. While often enthusiastic and committed teachers, TAs have less teaching experience than faculty, and they may be hard to find when you need letters of recommendation for a job or graduate school.

Research universities often have honors programs or other special opportunities for their most academically motivated and able students. To a degree, they are trying to replicate part of the experience of a small college. Good examples can be found at the University of Michigan, Pennsylvania State University, Arizona State University, and UCLA. These programs can be wonderful opportunities for highly qualified students to learn in smaller classes and receive the personal attention of a liberal arts college in a setting that also provides the advantages of a large research university.

What’s in a Name?

Don’t let the name of an institution mislead you. Bucknell University, for example, is a liberal arts college, while Dartmouth College is a medium-sized research university. You’ll need to look deeper than its name to determine a school’s mission. It also pays to watch out for similar names that can be easily confused. As examples, Trinity College and Wesleyan University are both in Connecticut, but Trinity University and Wesleyan College are in Texas and Ohio, respectively. The University of Miami is located in Florida, but Miami University is located in Ohio.