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University or Liberal Arts College: Which is Right for You?

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Young woman in graduation robes holding college diploma on a college or university campus.

As you begin to research colleges and universities and narrow down your list of schools you plan to apply to, you may find yourself considering mostly universities, liberal arts colleges, or a mix of both. Universities and liberal arts colleges can both provide you with an incredible education, but they each offer a different type of undergraduate experience.

Universities serve both undergraduate and graduate students, and are made up of multiple colleges, each with its own academic specialty. This means that if you’re applying to a university, you’ll have to designate which college or school you’re applying to. For example, an English or biology major would apply to the College of Arts and Sciences, whereas a student who hopes to study mechanical engineering would apply to the College of Engineering.

Liberal arts colleges serve primarily undergraduate students (though a few liberal arts colleges do offer graduate programs), and they tend to be much smaller than universities.

To give you a sense of how the enrollment numbers stack up, Harvard University has 20,324 undergraduate students and the University of Texas at Austin has 40,168 undergraduates. Compare that to Middlebury College, with 2,532 undergraduates, or tiny Bennington College, with just 771 undergraduates.

What are the liberal arts?

Liberal arts colleges are not just for artists. At a liberal arts college, you can study STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) subjects and social sciences as well as subjects like music, literature and studio art.

Liberal arts colleges were built around the idea that, in addition to choosing an academic speciality, students should have a basic knowledge of many different subjects. Liberal arts colleges tend to encourage students to draw connections between different academic subjects, and many require students to take courses in subjects outside of their chosen majors.

It’s worth noting, that many large universities also require students to fulfil general education requirements.

Class Size and Student-to-Faculty Ratio

Larger universities tend to translate to larger class sizes, especially in your first few years of college. Liberal arts colleges offer all students the opportunity to take small, seminar-style classes and tend to place a greater emphasis on discussion and participation.

To get a sense of how large the average class at a college or university will be, take a look at the school’s student-to-faculty ratio (the number of students per faculty member on campus). The closer the ratio is to 1:1, the smaller the school’s class sizes. As you consider whether you’d be happiest at a liberal arts college or a university, think about how you learn best.

The small class sizes at liberal arts colleges make it easier for you to get to know your professor and your classmates, and discussion-based learning allows students to develop their ideas through conversation with others. If you study a STEM subject or the social sciences at a liberal arts college, you may find yourself in lecture-style classes, but the classes will still be relatively small (think 50 students or less), which means your professor will probably know your name and face.

At large universities, lecture classes often have several hundred students, which doesn’t allow for much discussion in class.

If you’re someone who doesn’t like being called on in class and prefers to listen, take notes, and focus on absorbing information, this style of teaching may be a good fit for you. Often, universities require students to attend “tutorials,” study-group meetings led by a graduate student, alongside large lecture courses. These meetings give you an opportunity to ask questions and work through problems that you didn’t understand during the lecture. At some universities, introductory undergraduate courses may be taught by graduate students.

Large universities are often more research-focused, and if you want to participate in research as an undergraduate, you may have more opportunities to work with professors and postdocs who are leading projects.

Campus Life

Liberal arts colleges are likely to offer different campus experiences than larger universities. Smaller schools are more likely to guarantee on-campus housing to students during all four years of their undergraduate degree, while at larger schools, more students tend to live in houses and apartments near campus. Social life at liberal arts colleges is also less likely to revolve around Greek life, though many liberal arts colleges do have sororities, fraternities and similar social clubs on campus. At a small college, you may feel you know just about everyone on campus, whereas at large university, you may find yourself constantly meeting new people.

Connections to Nearby Schools

While they may not have the same resources as major research universities, many liberal arts colleges are part of regional associations of colleges and universities, which allow their students access to nearby schools’ academic resources. For example, students at Wellesley College in Massachusetts can take courses, conduct research, and even earn a dual degree at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Babson College and the Olin College of Engineering. If you want both a liberal arts experience and the resources of a larger university, programs like this can help you find the best of both worlds!

Honors Colleges Make Big Schools Smaller

Many large public universities offer honors programs that give undergraduates a liberal arts experience. Honors colleges often have more competitive admissions standards for undergraduates, and you may need to include an additional college essay in your application. If admitted, you’ll have the opportunity to participate in seminar-style classes earlier in your college career, and in your senior year you might be asked to write an academic thesis on a topic that interests you.

Financial Aid

When it comes to financial aid, not all schools are created equal. You may assume that liberal arts colleges are less affordable than major universities, but take time to learn about the financial-aid policies at each school that interests you. Depending on your family’s situation, it may be just as affordable for you to attend some private colleges or universities as to attend an in-state public university.



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