Every year, thousands of high school students and diploma-holders across America board the emotional roller coaster that is applying to college. For many, the hardest part is choosing where to apply. There are so many options; where do you begin?
In the United States, a fundamental distinction to make when choosing a four-year undergraduate institution is between liberal arts colleges and universities.
These two types of postsecondary school differ in both mission and method. You may have an idea of what a university is like. But what is a liberal arts college?
Liberal Arts Colleges vs. Large Universities
Small class sizes and student-to-teacher ratios define liberal arts colleges. The professors are primarily there to teach students and take an active interest in their educational and personal development.
Your teachers know who you are and what you want to do in life. Student input is respected; participation is the name of the game.
At universities, the classes are predominantly seminars or lectures catering to a large number of students.
The professors do teach, but they are frequently more focused on producing research in their field of study. They are more likely to rely on graduate student assistants to help them fulfill duties like reading essays and grading tests.
The student-centered experience of a liberal arts college is particularly helpful for undergraduates. Many large universities run an undergraduate program, but put most institutional resources to work at the graduate level, leaving undergrads in a less personalized learning environment.
At a liberal arts college, in contrast, it’s all about undergraduates. The academics are often rigorous, but there is plenty of mentorship and support to bolster students’ chance of success.
What Does Liberal Arts Mean?
The “liberal” dimension of the so-called liberal arts does not refer to the dichotomy in American politics between liberal-progressive values and conservative ones. The term is much older, hailing back to antiquity when ancient Greeks were developing their theory of education.
In a democratic society, the Greeks reasoned, education should empower citizens to make intelligent and thoughtful contributions to society. The ideal curriculum, then, was “liberal” — worthy of a free man or woman. It would provide opportunities for intellectual exploration and holistic civic development.
So what is a liberal arts college today?
To define liberal arts, we can examine the curriculum. A liberal arts curriculum promotes qualities like self-motivation and lifelong intellectual curiosity. It emphasizes versatile problem-solving and critical thinking skills on top of technical mastery. Cross-disciplinary work is encouraged.
Contrary to popular belief, liberal arts subjects are not limited to humanities like literature and philosophy.
Mathematics, hard science, and social science are important as well. We can define liberal arts by its breadth. Students versed in the liberal arts are well-rounded, knowledgeable about a wide variety of subjects.
Are Liberal Arts Majors Competitive?
There are whole colleges dedicated to liberal studies, but schools of all types commonly offer majors associated with the liberal arts definition as part of their curriculum.
However, many students are warned away from ‘soft’ majors in the humanities and social sciences because these subjects allegedly don’t pay off.
Is a liberal arts degree actually competitive in the contemporary labor force?
Graduate school makes all the difference.
An undergraduate degree in Psychology, for example, doesn’t necessarily qualify you for work in the field. To become an actual psychologist, you need at least a master’s degree, and ideally a doctorate, in Psychology.
According to a 2014 study by the Association of American Colleges and Universities, undergraduate liberal arts majors actually earn more than their pre-professional and professional counterparts later in their careers – if they go on to graduate school, that is.
A liberal arts major may pay off as well as a more targeted vocational discipline. But there is a difference in the level of initiative expected of students, and this feature impacts outcomes.
While a major in Engineering typically leads to a career as an engineer, for instance, a major in Sociology might lead to work in government administration, statistical analysis, or social work.
There are many possibilities. Because an education built on liberal arts meaning is inherently broad, students must take the initiative to develop their own unique career paths.