Is a Liberal Arts College Right for Me?

There is much to love about a liberal arts college: the size, the curriculum, the intimacy. However, you may be asking yourself, “Is a liberal arts college right for me?” In this article, we will define what a liberal arts education entails and discuss who may benefit from it. 

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By NOELLE COMPTON

Among some crowds, liberal arts colleges get a hilariously bad rap. The small environment and educational emphasis on learning for learning’s sake become synonymous with drum circles and unemployment. But in reality, this could not be further from the truth. A liberal arts college is a fantastic option to consider if you’re a particular type of student. As you are building your college list, you may inevitably ask yourself, “is a liberal arts college right for me?” And as you weigh the pros and cons, there is much to consider.

What is a liberal arts college?

Liberal arts colleges are distinct from public universities, large research institutions, and technical colleges in a variety of categories, which I will cover below. Such distinguishing features make it difficult to rank among their larger counterparts, which is why the US News and World Report makes a separate list ranking the top liberal arts colleges. To compare a liberal arts college to a large research university is to compare apples to oranges. The quality of the liberal arts education is just as good (and sometimes better) than that of a much larger school, but the school’s values are what set a liberal arts experience apart.

Defining characteristics of a liberal arts college

Size:

In general, liberal arts colleges are significantly smaller than state universities or other public colleges. Among the top five liberal arts colleges of 2022, four of the schools have undergraduate enrollments under 2000 students. This means that for most, a liberal arts college is hardly larger than the average high school. As a result, all things tend to be on a smaller scale: class sizes, course catalogs, and even cafeterias. 

Curriculum:

Liberal arts colleges favor holistic learning, encouraging students to take a wide array of courses spanning many disciplines. Compared to a research institution, these courses may favor the humanities. Some liberal arts colleges have a core curriculum, requiring students to expose themselves to fields ranging from hard and soft sciences to languages to cultural and art studies. Many liberal arts colleges, though, have no course requirements and offer an open curriculum, encouraging students to study whatever piques their interest. 

Available majors:

Very large schools have the benefit of offering many different fields of study. Liberal arts colleges, on the other hand, may have fewer majors to choose from. If you are looking for something very specific, you may be better served at a larger institution with hyper-specialized faculty members. The benefit to this system, though, is that liberal arts colleges tend to be generous in allowing students to craft their own majors using the interdisciplinary opportunities provided by the school. 

Values:

Liberal arts colleges emphasize exploratory learning and education for the sake of education. In contrast, larger schools may purport to emphasize research or career building. This is not to say that you can’t engage in research or career building at a liberal arts college; rather, it suggests that the primary focus of the liberal arts college is to create a fulfilling learning environment, particularly one that encourages students to explore many interests. 

Vibe:

Compared to larger colleges, a liberal arts college has higher expectations for how a student integrates and participates within the greater student body. These schools are looking for active students who want to engage with their professors and classmates. Moreover, they are looking for students to join clubs and commit to organizations or activities that will broaden their horizons. Most of these activities take place on campus, which means that liberal arts colleges are residential in nature. In the application process, liberal arts colleges are looking for particular individuals who fit this vision, so hopeful applicants may have to go the extra mile to prove their fit. 

Price:

The sticker price of many liberal arts colleges may come as a shock at first glance. Due to the small populations and often beautiful facilities, liberal arts colleges have much to offer, for a price. However, liberal arts colleges are often among the most generous when it comes to need and merit based financial aid, even for international students. In fact, these schools can be even cheaper than large state schools for this very reason. Don’t let the price tag deter you from applying, if the liberal arts education appeals to you. You might be surprised at what they offer you.

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What are the limitations of a liberal arts college?

Due to its average size, a liberal arts college can be limited in its major and course offerings, as referenced above. In addition, they sometimes offer fewer (if any) advanced degree options, such as masters or doctorate degrees. If you are looking for a fast track to graduate school, a liberal arts college might not be your best avenue. 

Another limitation of a liberal arts college can be the diversity factor. Due to the size of these schools, it can be difficult to recruit a perfectly diverse ratio of students among many demographics including major factors like race, ethnicity, or religion, or smaller factors like hobbies. In general, populous schools tend to be the most diverse places, so if diversity is an important factor for you, not all liberal arts colleges will fit this criteria. 

And finally, liberal arts colleges oftentimes fail to provide the raw-raw atmosphere associated with large schools with sports teams and large stadiums. Similarly, there may be fewer Greek offerings, and while most liberal arts colleges boast greater overall happiness and lively social scenes, it may not be perceived as the traditional college experience. 

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Is a liberal arts college right for me?

Considering the above criteria, you might already have a good idea about whether a liberal arts college is right for you. When making this important decision, I would encourage applicants to consider their own personal learning style. Do you learn best in a hands on environment? Do you like having close relationships with your professors? When you envision your college experience, is it one of action and involvement, or do you prefer a get-in-and-get-out approach? Does an interdisciplinary education appeal to you, and do you like to choose your own adventure? Or would you prefer a more structured, career driven education? 

Certainly, a liberal arts college is not for everyone. But if you have the opportunity, we certainly recommend planning a visit to one of the many stunning liberal arts campuses. You may find that the atmosphere is a perfect fit.

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