A liberal arts school is typically an undergraduate college for the liberal arts and sciences. In contrast to a vocational, professional, or technical school, the aim of liberal arts colleges is for students to develop broad general knowledge and develop their critical thinking, analytical, and creative skills. While students will major in a particular discipline, they are expected to be exposed to the arts, humanities, social sciences, mathematics, and the natural sciences, regardless of their major. Courses and majors are often interdisciplinary, due to the emphasis on students gaining a general understanding and appreciation of the complexity of any one thing. Students are encouraged to explore different areas of interest because of this interdisciplinary mindset.
Some liberal arts schools offer graduate programs and some are affiliated with a university, for example the College of Liberal Arts at the University of Minnesota. However, most liberal arts schools in the United States are independent, undergraduate institutions. Some liberal arts colleges will allow students to cross-enroll, such as Hamilton and Colgate colleges, allowing for a greater breadth of classes and resources for students.
Common Characteristics of Liberal Arts Schools
Small Class Size: Liberal arts schools tend to have smaller class sizes with a focus on student participation and interaction, rather than a lecture-based format. Their faculty also tend to be more teaching-focused. A liberal arts school exists first and foremost to education its students, rather than the emphasis on faculty producing research, which is often the case at universities.
Broad Scope of Learning: The breadth of a liberal arts education means a broad option of careers for any given major. Students with a liberal arts background are just as competitive in the marketplace as students with a technical or professional degree, because they have learned to think about, write about, and speak about many topics, which lends itself well to thinking critically and analyzing a broad range of problems that might come up in any given job, rather than simply knowing how to do a particular task.
Tuition Tends to be Higher: While the sticker price of a liberal arts college is often higher than other institutions, they generally offer more generous financial aid packages to students, so do not let the initial cost deter you from applying.
Fewer Specialized Programs: While a liberal arts school will help students develop critical thinking in a wide variety of subjects, there tend to be fewer options for specialized programs. For example, if you are looking for an aeronautical engineering degree the vast majority of liberal arts schools will not meet your needs.
At the end of the day, the most important thing to consider when applying to a school is not prestige but fit. Think about the school that fits your education needs, your financial needs, your social desires, and your location desires.