What is a liberal arts college?

A liberal arts college looks and feels different from other types of colleges and universities, such as your large state universities or community colleges. That’s because it is different — they emphasize smaller classes, a large curriculum that spans the classics and developing students to become versatile in today’s (and tomorrow’s) world. 

For example, this could mean that a liberal arts grad can slip nimbly from discussing a project with a group to writing a blog post for a company website. Liberal arts students are equipped to do a wide range of tasks because of the adaptable nature of their education, including problem solving.

But what is a liberal arts college, exactly? What do you “get” with a liberal arts education, and is it the right fit for your child? As a graduate of a liberal arts college, I can tell you a few things about a liberal arts college experience, so let’s dig in.

What Does Liberal Arts Mean?

The term “liberal arts” is a misnomer because it has nothing to do with being liberal in the political sense — and it doesn’t refer exclusively to the arts, either. It’s not “liberal studies,” either.

To understand the “What is a liberal arts college definition,” you’ll need to reach back to its Latin roots to understand where the term “liberal arts” sprouts. The Latin word “liberalis” means “appropriate for free men” — it was the kind of education preferred by free citizens of ancient Greece and Rome. 

You’ll still find that these key concepts make up a liberal arts education today:

  • Liberal arts colleges develop the whole person to his fullest potential — including mind, body and spirit. 
  • Liberal arts colleges still focus on grammar, rhetoric and logic — or excellent communication, writing and critical thinking skills, so students develop a deep understanding of various disciplines. 

Scoot into any liberal arts college classroom on a college visit and you’ll see evidence of the Socratic method, named after the famous Greek philosopher Socrates. He used a question-and-dialogue format that stimulated rhetoric, critical thinking and discussion. You’ll see lots of interaction and debate in a liberal arts setting. This is markedly different from a large public university, where lectures form the primary teaching tool.

Harvard College was the first liberal arts college in the U.S., and hundreds of liberal arts colleges have sprung up since Harvard’s debut in 1636. Many are small colleges affiliated with a particular religion. 

Here’s a list of a few well-known liberal arts colleges in the United States:

  1. Amherst College (Amherst, Massachusetts)
  2. Williams College (Williamstown, Massachusetts)
  3. Swarthmore College (Swarthmore, Pennsylvania)
  4. Pomona College (Claremont, California)
  5. Middlebury College (Middlebury, Vermont)
  6. Bowdoin College (Brunswick, Maine)
  7. Wellesley College (Wellesley, Massachusetts)
  8. Carleton College (Northfield, Minnesota)
  9. Haverford College (Haverford, Pennsylvania)
  10. Davidson College (Davidson, North Carolina)

What is a Liberal Arts Degree?

What is a private liberal arts college degree? Obviously, a liberal arts degree is the type of degree you receive from a liberal arts college. Most liberal arts degree program holders receive either a Bachelor of Arts (B.A.) or Bachelor of Science (B.S.) degree in majors like English, history, philosophy, sociology, psychology and more.

In short, liberal arts degree holders show that they’ve successfully completed a wide mix of courses, meaning they’ve completed a comprehensive foundation of knowledge and skills rather than focusing on specialized or vocational training.

Liberal arts grads can proudly say, “Hey, I took a lot of classes in literature, philosophy, history, mathematics, natural sciences, social sciences and the arts, with a huge emphasis on critical thinking, so I offer a ton of transferable skills.”

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Distinctive Features of Liberal Arts Colleges

What’s it look like on the inside? 

  • Small classes: Don’t be surprised to find just 20 students in a liberal arts classroom. It’s one of the key characteristics of liberal arts colleges. These intimate learning environments allow for heavy student-professor interaction, a personalized approach to education, in-depth discussions, interactive learning experiences, tailored group work and a close-knit community. 
  • Subjects across various disciplines: Liberal arts colleges typically offer a diverse range of subjects with the goal of achieving a well-rounded education that spans the humanities, social sciences, natural sciences and the arts. Typical liberal arts colleges teach subjects like English literature and composition, history, philosophy, religion, mathematics, natural sciences, social sciences (psychology, sociology, anthropology and political science), foreign languages, fine arts and critical thinking and writing and creative writing seminars.
  • Accessible professors: Zero teaching assistants means that professors focus on an undergraduate education, rather than a full focus on research and graduate education.
  • Student development: Developing intellectually curious students who can navigate the workforce, doing a wide variety of things for their employers, from giving a speech to writing an email. The tenets of this type of development include:
  • Interdisciplinary approach: A holistic approach to education, your child will understand a subject from all angles — a sociological perspective, a biological perspective, a religious perspective — because liberal arts encourages knowledge integration from various disciplines. Imagine examining complex issues to create that kind of skill set! It’s remarkable, really.
  • Critical thinking: I can’t emphasize the importance of critical thinking skills. Students must think critically and approach problems and problem solving innovatively. Faculty will say to your child, “And what would that do for the world? And what would that do for the world? And that?” Take it from me, you do graduate thinking you can be a superhero or something.
  • Communication: Your child’s not getting out of a liberal arts college without giving a million speeches, writing a zillion essays or working on interpersonal skills — it is a hallmark of a liberal arts education.
  • Creativity: The intimate learning environment allows for an abundance of creative expression and opportunities to think of new ideas and apply them. Questioning assumptions and approaching problems from multiple perspectives? Just a day in the life of a liberal arts student to prepare for the complex modern world out there.

What is a Liberal Arts College vs University?

Liberal arts colleges and universities offer completely different educational philosophies, structures and the types of academic programs.

Liberal Arts CollegesUniversities
FocusBroad, well-rounded education that spans the humanities, social sciences, natural sciences and the arts.Wide range of academic programs, including undergraduate and graduate degrees in various disciplines. Often have specialized schools or colleges, such as a college of engineering, business or arts and sciences.
SizeIn addition to class sizes, they are typically smaller in all senses of the word — student population and campus size.Generally larger institutions with a more diverse student body and faculty. Student-faculty ratios are almost always higher than those at liberal arts colleges.
TeachingProfessors prioritize teaching over research at liberal arts colleges, leading many students to develop lifelong connections with their professors.Often prioritize both teaching and research. Professors must conduct research in addition to teaching; universities may have extensive research facilities and resources.
DegreesOffer undergraduate degrees, though some might offer a limited number of graduate degrees.Full spectrum of degree levels, from associate, bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees in fields such as law, medicine and business.
Education typeRobust general education curriculum for a well-rounded educational experience with exposure to many courses in many subject areas.Offer specialized colleges or schools focused on specific disciplines. For example, a university may have a college of engineering, a school of medicine or a business school.

Here’s something confusing: Many people wonder whether a private university or a university can be a liberal arts college. A private university can have a liberal arts college or offer liberal arts programs within its curriculum, and actually, so can a large university.

That’s why the term “liberal arts curriculum” can seem so confusing, because many universities often claim to offer liberal arts classes within their structure, emphasized by titles like “College of Arts and Sciences.” 

However, this is a bit of a misconception even though students can pursue degrees in disciplines such as English, philosophy, history, mathematics and the sciences, because they are still within the confines of a larger university. Ultimately, it is not a liberal arts college unless it embraces an institution-wide commitment to offering a comprehensive and well-rounded education with specific tenets unique to liberal arts colleges. Liberal arts majors are not the same as attending a liberal arts college.

What is a Liberal Arts College vs Community College?

Now, what exactly is the difference between a liberal arts college and a community college? Let’s take a quick look.

Liberal Arts CollegesCommunity Colleges
FocusBroad and well-rounded education that spans the humanities, social sciences, natural sciences and the arts to build on a foundation of knowledge and skillsFocus on vocational or technical programs with general education requirements; focuses on accessibility and affordability
Degree offeringsPrimarily offer Bachelor of Arts (B.A.) or Bachelor of Science (B.S.) degrees, with an emphasis on undergraduate educationTypically offer two-year associate’s degrees and certificate program for entry-level jobs or as a foundation for education at a four-year institution; many have transfer programs with universities
SizeTypically smaller populations than community colleges, including smaller faculty-to-student ratiosTend to have larger student populations and may be more diverse in terms of age, background and academic goals
Teaching emphasisPrioritizes teaching over researchProfessors prioritize teaching and may be professionals in the area
CostTypically higher cost compared to community colleges; learn more about the ways to get college paid forOpen admission policies make it an affordable option for those seeking career training, personal enrichment or a jumping-off point for transferring

What is a Liberal Arts College vs. Technical College?

Let’s review the differences between liberal arts colleges and technical colleges for a final comparison between common institution types.

Liberal Arts CollegesTechnical Colleges
FocusBroad and well-rounded education that spans the humanities, social sciences and social services, natural sciences and the arts, with the goal of offering students a comprehensive foundation of knowledge and skillsPractical, hands-on training in trades or other professions to prepare for specific careers or industries
Degree offeringsPrimarily offer Bachelor of Arts (B.A.) or Bachelor of Science (B.S.) degrees, with an emphasis on undergraduate educationCertificate programs, diplomas and associate’s degrees
CurriculumVariety of subjectsTailored to the needs of specific industries or professions
Career preparationAims to develop transferable skills, critical thinking and broad knowledge base and not direct vocational or technical trainingPrepares students for specific careers and in demand skills, such as nursing, computer technology, automotive repair or skilled trades
CostOpen admission policies, making education accessible

What Can You Do with a Liberal Arts Degree?

The parents’ absolute first question, right? “What can my child do with this degree?”

So relevant and important, and here’s the answer: Absolutely anything!

Some liberal arts graduates pursue careers directly related to their major, others may enter fields such as business, law, education, journalism or public service.

A liberal arts degree provides a range of skills that fit well with various fields. Unlike going to school for something specific — like a nursing degree, and becoming a nurse after college — it offers more specialized degrees, it can open doors to diverse career paths. Here are some common career options for individuals with a liberal arts degree:

  • Education: Many liberal arts graduates pursue careers in education, becoming teachers at the elementary, secondary or postsecondary levels.
  • Writing: Strong communication skills acquired in a liberal arts program make graduates well-suited for careers in writing, journalism, editing and publishing.
  • Business: Liberal arts graduates often enter business roles such as marketing, human resources, management and consulting. Their analytical and communication skills are valuable in these fields.
  • Law and public policy: Some liberal arts majors choose to pursue law degrees and work as attorneys or legal professionals, though traditionally, most liberal arts colleges do not offer law degrees. Your child will likely have to attend law school elsewhere after graduation from a liberal arts college.
  • Nonprofit and advocacy work: With a passion for social issues, liberal arts graduates may find meaningful work in nonprofit organizations, advocacy groups and community development.
  • Public relations and communication: Effective communication, taught in liberal arts colleges, offer excellent routes for those in public relations, corporate communication and media relations.
  • Health care: Graduates with strong organizational and communication skills may find opportunities in healthcare administration, managing healthcare facilities or working as a physician.
  • Technology and IT consulting: Analytical and problem-solving skills acquired in a liberal arts education can be beneficial in technology-related roles, especially in areas like IT consulting and project management.
  • Entrepreneurship: Liberal arts graduates often possess creativity and critical thinking, making them well-suited for entrepreneurial ventures.
  • Government and public service: Careers in government agencies, diplomacy and public service are common for liberal arts graduates interested in contributing to society.

Graduates may also choose to pursue advanced degrees in fields like law, medicine, business or public policy to further specialize their skills. Many employers prefer the transferable skills acquired through a liberal arts education, such as critical thinking, communication and adaptability.  

And yes, your child can major in art history or the creative arts and still become a surgeon! Remember, the versatility of a liberal arts degree allows individuals to navigate a variety of career paths based on their interests and goals.

What can you do with a liberal arts degree list
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Can You Get a Good Job with a Liberal Arts Degree?

I’ve analyzed a lot about higher education, and here’s a headline that drives me absolutely batty: Liberal arts degrees: You can’t get a job with one in this day and age.

You’ll find successful liberal arts graduates at any company, in any field, during any point in history. Here are just a few notably successful people who graduated from liberal arts colleges: 

  • Laura Hillenbrand: The author of “Seabiscuit” and “Unbroken,” attended Kenyon College in Ohio.
  • Anna Quindlen: The Pulitzer Prize-winning author and journalist attended Barnard College, a women’s liberal arts college affiliated with Columbia University.
  • Scott Adams: The creator of the comic strip “Dilbert” graduated from Hartwick College, a small liberal arts college in New York.
  • Stephen Colbert: The Emmy Award-winning comedian and host of “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert” graduated from Hampden-Sydney College, a men’s liberal arts college in Virginia.

Because liberal arts degrees focus on excellent communication, writing and critical thinking skills and can offer a competitive advantage to large university graduates who often don’t get the same opportunities. Employers notice these “soft skills!”

Debunking Myths: Common Misconceptions about Liberal Arts Colleges 

This is my favorite discussion with anyone who doesn’t understand the liberal arts approach: Mythbusting! 

1. The liberal arts are not practical or applicable to real-world scenarios. 

It’s actually the reverse. The liberal arts prepares students for more real-world scenarios because liberal arts colleges train them for today’s world by equipping them to examine every area of an issue.

2. Liberal arts colleges only offer arts and humanities degrees. 

Au contraire, mon frère. Liberal arts colleges do offer arts and humanities majors, but they also offer degrees from the sciences and a large number of other fields. Your child becomes well-rounded in more than just the arts. Can your child become a surgeon after attending a liberal arts college? Absolutely. The science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields are heavily represented.

3. Graduates of liberal arts colleges have limited career options. 

Liberal arts graduates can adapt to any profession. You’ll find liberal arts graduates in all sorts of fields and positions of power. Look at Michael Eisner, former CEO of Disney, who earned a B.A. in English literature and theater from Denison University.

4. Liberal arts colleges are small and restrictive. 

Yes, they are generally smaller, but the smaller size fosters creative thinking and close interactions with mentors in diverse academic programs. “Small” doesn’t imply “limited.”

Furthermore, many liberal arts colleges also have a vast alumni network. Colleges leverage massive alumni networks to provide mentorship, networking opportunities and support for current students’ career development.

5. A liberal arts education is not practical or job-oriented. 

Not true. In fact, the workforce values outside-the-box thinkers who can communicate (that are good at public speaking!) and value adaptability. Liberal arts graduates have been highly praised for their skills in a wide variety of professions, from business to health care.

6. Liberal arts colleges are only for the elite and rich. 

Some liberal arts colleges offer only selective admission, but many have diverse populations for inclusive education. Liberal arts colleges can also cost less than universities due to their generous financial aid award packages and emphasis on helping students attend.

Many liberal arts colleges are also exploring innovative financial models, such as income-share agreements (ISAs) and creative tuition approaches to address concerns about affordability and student debt.

7. Liberal arts colleges are less rigorous than universities.

Far from the “glorified high school experience,” liberal arts colleges have rigorous academic programs and high expectations for student performance. Many liberal arts colleges offer a challenging, Ivy League-level educational experience (and others offer less rigorous classes, too, of course).

8. Liberal arts colleges are irrelevant in the tech age.

The last time I attended a talk by the president of my alma mater, he spoke about how students could navigate AI and the Internet of Things (IoT). Liberal arts students can adapt to anything, including technology. Ultimately, the world needs graduates with strong communication and critical thinking skills in every field. 

Furthermore, liberal arts colleges will continue to integrate technology through digital resources and technology-enabled learning platforms to enhance accessibility and flexibility for students.

9. Liberal arts colleges are not diverse.

While some liberal arts colleges may not have large, diverse student populations, colleges are always teaching diversity and global perspectives. They often encourage a global perspective through international programs (also known as “study abroad”), cultural diversity and language studies within the liberal arts curriculum. Exposure to diverse perspectives prepares students for a globalized world.

The Future of Liberal Arts Colleges: Trends and Innovations 

What’s the future of liberal arts colleges? Glad you asked! 

Liberal arts colleges are adapting to the changing landscape of higher education in several ways to remain relevant and meet the evolving needs of students and the workforce by: 

  • Technology integration: Incorporating technology into their curricula to learn to solve problems using tech
  • Interdisciplinary programs: Developing interdisciplinary programs that allow students to explore connections between different fields of study
  • Experiential learning: Emphasizing experiential learning (internships, research projects and community engagement)
  • Global perspectives: Incorporating global perspectives into their curricula (study abroad programs, international collaborations and courses that explore global issues)
  • Career and professional development: Enhancing career services and professional development programs, even volunteer work!
  • Flexibility: Offering more flexible degree programs, including part-time options, online courses and hybrid models to cater to the diverse needs of students
  • Emphasizing creating inclusive and diverse communities, including initiatives to increase representation, support for underrepresented groups, etc.
  • Collaborations with businesses, industries and other higher education institutions 
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Choosing the Right Liberal Arts College

Colleges and universities can offer so many options, it’s dizzying! However, liberal arts schools may offer the right mix of degree programs, undergraduate education key skills, broad education, collaboration — a special mix for the right type of student.

Are liberal arts colleges right for everyone? 

Absolutely not. Attending a liberal arts college only makes sense for the right student, depending on their career goals, goals for personal growth, emphasis on intellectual curiosity and general knowledge, creative problem solving and more.

That’s why it’s vitally important to consider a wide variety of factors when deciding whether a liberal arts education fits your student or not. If your student values out-of-the-box thinking, small, challenging classes that dare them to think critically, a liberal arts education might be a good fit. 

Schedule a college visit and meeting with faculty, learning the campus culture and checking out all available resources and options can help you and your student decide whether the liberal arts is a good fit. Ultimately, a campus visit can help assess whether a particular liberal arts college fits their academic interests, personal goals and overall expectations for a college experience.

Learn more: Are college campus virtual tours worth it?

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