What is a Liberal Arts College?

June 29, 2022

Before we directly answer the question, “What is a liberal arts college?”, we begin with an analogy…Two cups of coffee sit before you: one bearing the insignia of a popular, multinational brand and the other, an unknown local brew. As a participant in a taste test, you are asked to sip both and then state which one is better. After sampling each coffee, there is no doubt that the lesser-known brand tastes significantly better, but when pressed to choose one, you, against your better judgment, find yourself blurting out the name brand.

Ample research in the marketing field has found that people will often side with brand over quality. This is, in part, because recognizable brands have a psychological power over consumers, providing a sense of security, social acceptance, and enhanced personal image that an “off-brand” product, even one of superior quality, cannot. This phenomenon extends beyond the realm of coffee and other consumables, also impacting a decision as important (and expensive) as where you elect to attend college.

So much can be wrapped up in the idea of attending a well-known, prestigious university, a name-brand school that the actual experience you are seeking becomes secondary to an impressive name on bumper sticker or sweatshirt. In the collegiate world, big-name universities from the Ivies to the flagship state schools are akin to our name-brand coffees. Yet, lesser-known liberal arts colleges, our lesser-known java, offer several academic and extracurricular advantages that students at larger and more pre-professional schools would be hard-pressed to find. They include…

1. What is a Liberal Arts College? — Smaller class size

Liberal arts colleges tend to have, on average, smaller class sizes. They also generally place a greater emphasis on the undergraduate experience.  At universities, it is not uncommon for freshmen to find themselves taking in introductory classes in large, anonymous amphitheater. While this style of learning may be preferable to some, those who enjoy class discussion and the opportunity to forge close relationships with your fellow classmates and professors may prefer the classroom experience at a liberal arts college.

Uber-selective liberal arts institutions such as Vassar, Williams, Pomona, Claremont McKenna, Wesleyan, and Swarthmore all boast student to faculty ratios of 7:1 or 8:1. For those with less-than-perfect credentials, there are other schools with phenomenal student-to-faculty ratios including Hollins, Skidmore, and St. John’s (MD),

For comparison, larger universities typically have substantially higher ratios. West Virginia University, the University of Nebraska, and the University of Florida all have a 17:1 or 18:1 ratio. The University of Central Florida, the University of Texas at Arlington, and San Jose State all have ratios between 24:1 and 30:1. This is three times larger than many of the aforementioned liberal arts colleges.

2. What is a Liberal Arts College — Unique experiences

It’s not just about the sheer size of the student body. Students at liberal arts colleges have access to certain extracurricular activities that would otherwise be unavailable to them at large universities, such as joining a varsity sport or assisting their favorite professor in a research project.  At a liberal arts college, you do not have to compete with a PhD student or NFL prospect to represent your college and reap the personal and social benefits that come from deep involvement in an extracurricular activity.

Opportunities for undergraduate research may be few and far between at a state university. Yet at a school like the College of Wooster in Ohio, every single undergraduate receives the chance to work one-on-one with a faculty member engaged in some type of original research. Davidson College offers an exceptional number of grants for undergraduate research both during the school year and over the summer. Grinnell offers credited research opportunities and sees an exceptional number of undergraduates co-author papers with their professors.

3. What is a Liberal Arts College? — Favorable post-graduation outcomes

As we’ve demonstrated, liberal arts colleges undoubtedly offer a variety of benefits to students during their undergraduate years. But maybe you’re not as concerned about what liberal arts schools do for students during college. Your analytical mind is interested in what these institutions do for students after they have graduated. What about job prospects and prospects for admission into graduate school? The following facts confirm that liberal arts schools do indeed prepare their students for life after college:

  • Liberal arts colleges constitute nine of the ten postsecondary institutions that graduate the highest percentage of eventual PhDs.
  • Almost one-third of Fortune 1000 CEOs hold liberal arts degrees.
  • A survey of CEOs found that 74% believe that a liberal arts education leads to a more dynamic workforce.
  • By mid-career, liberal arts majors earn more, on average, than graduates of pre-professional programs.
  • The list of liberal arts schools that saw graduates accepted to Harvard Law’s most recent cohort of ILs is lengthy. It includes: Amherst College, Connecticut College, Hamilton College, Hendrix College, St. Olaf College and Vassar.

The above facts should lead you to the conclusion that your future graduate school ventures, job opportunities, and compensation will only be enhanced by attending a liberal arts school.

4. Generous financial aid packages 

This level of academic intimacy may sound great, but, admittedly, it also sounds expensive. One gander at the sticker price of many liberal arts colleges will only confirm this suspicion.  However, wise college consumers know that the list price isn’t necessarily what you will pay.

Many of the nation’s top liberal arts schools are able to offer a world-class education and a price well below the book-price tuition figure. In fact, students at schools such as Pomona and Haverford College typically pay between one-third and one-half of the stated price tag. Due to exceptionally large endowments, many of these institutions are willing and able to meet students’ level of financial need. Further, the great majority of schools less-selective than the likes of Pomona and Haverford also offer generous merit aid packages. Colleges of this ilk use merit aid to lure and reel in prospective students.

The answer to the question: Should I go to a liberal arts college?

It’s all too easy to focus solely on “brand name” schools when embarking upon your college search. You’ve seen their football and basketball games on TV. You fell in love with their iconic colors. You fantasize about seeing everyone’s face light up with impressed recognition as you announce your plans for next year. Just as with drinking a cup of joe from a popular coffee house, the magnetic draw of the familiar is embedded deep within our psyche. However, if you are the kind of student who desires a close-knit, intimate learning environment, and a chance to participate in all aspects of campus life, a far more delicious brew awaits on the campus of a liberal arts college.