Understanding a Liberal Arts Education

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Understanding a Liberal Arts Education

If you’ve started researching colleges, you have likely heard the term “liberal arts education,” but you may not know exactly what it means. First, it has nothing to do with politics. A liberal arts education is not the opposite of a conservative arts education). What it does refer to is a well-rounded curriculum that encompasses the humanities (literature, philosophy, art, music, etc.), the social sciences (economics, psychology, political science, etc.), and the natural and formal sciences (biology, chemistry, math, physics, etc.).

The idea of a liberal arts education has been around since Greco-Roman times, when it encompassed the subjects that were considered necessary for a free person to participate in civic life. The underlying idea hasn’t changed much since then; a liberal arts curriculum is still meant to educate competent citizens who are ready and able to tackle societal challenges. And rather than prepare students for a single vocation, it is meant to educate flexible thinkers who can enter a variety of career fields.

The original liberal arts were Grammar, Dialectic (logic), Rhetoric, Arithmetic, Geometry, Astronomy, and Music

Simple enough, right? Now let’s go ahead and relate the concept of a liberal arts education to the two most common categories of college that you can choose from:

Liberal Arts Colleges

A liberal arts college, as the name suggests, is an institution fully dedicated to providing a liberal arts education--most do not offer any vocational majors (such as business, engineering, or nursing). In addition, liberal arts colleges are designed to educate undergraduates; they rarely offer Masters or Ph.D. programs, and professors are more focused on teaching than producing research. Practically speaking, liberal arts colleges tend to be small; the vast majority have less than 3,000 students.

Liberal arts colleges tend to have smaller average class sizes

Contrary to popular belief, liberal arts colleges are not inherently stronger in the humanities. Many have exceptional math and science programs. In fact, of the ten schools that produce the highest percentage of graduates who go on to earn a Ph.D in math and science fields, eight are liberal arts colleges*. 

Research Universities 

Research Universities generally offer both the liberal arts and more specialized, pre-professional subjects. The mission of these schools is more expansive: in addition to teaching undergraduates, high level research is also prioritized. As a result, undergraduate students share facilities with graduate students, and some professors may be more invested in their own research than teaching.

Somewhat confusingly, research universities are often home to multiple colleges. For example, there may be a “College of Engineering,” a “College of Business,” or a “College of Education.” There will also likely be a liberal arts college, often called the “College of Arts & Sciences” or the “College of Letters and Science.” It is quite possible, then, to pursue the liberal arts at most research universities, even if the institution as a whole places less emphasis on the principles of a liberal arts education.

Unlike liberal arts colleges, which almost always have between 1000 and 3000 students, universities have a wide range of sizes. On the small end, research universities like Brandeis and Rice are home to fewer than 5,000 undergraduates, while big public universities like Arizona State may enroll 30,000 undergraduates or more.

* In case you’re curious, those ten schools are (in order from 1 to 10): Caltech, Reed College, Pomona College, Swarthmore College, Williams College, Carleton College, Saint Olaf College, Haverford College, and Rice University. Of those ten, only Caltech and Rice would not be classified as liberal arts colleges. 

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