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How Colleges and Students Differ: Liberal Arts Colleges & Research Universities

By — John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
Updated on Apr 24, 2014

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.

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