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    Liberal Arts Colleges vs. Universities: Everything You Need to Know

    By Cece Gilmore

    Cece Gilmore is a Content Writer at Scholarships360. Cece earned her undergraduate degree in Journalism and Mass Communications from Arizona State University. While at ASU, she was the education editor as well as a published staff reporter at Downtown Devil. Cece was also the co-host of her own radio show on Blaze Radio ASU.

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    Reviewed by Bill Jack

    Bill Jack has over a decade of experience in college admissions and financial aid. Since 2008, he has worked at Colby College, Wesleyan University, University of Maine at Farmington, and Bates College.

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    Edited by Maria Geiger

    Maria Geiger is Director of Content at Scholarships360. She is a former online educational technology instructor and adjunct writing instructor. In addition to education reform, Maria’s interests include viewpoint diversity, blended/flipped learning, digital communication, and integrating media/web tools into the curriculum to better facilitate student engagement. Maria earned both a B.A. and an M.A. in English Literature from Monmouth University, an M. Ed. in Education from Monmouth University, and a Virtual Online Teaching Certificate (VOLT) from the University of Pennsylvania.

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    Updated: January 9th, 2024
    Liberal Arts Colleges vs. Universities: Everything You Need to Know

    Throughout the college process, the words “liberal arts colleges” and “universities” are sometimes used interchangeably. However, there are significant differences between liberal arts colleges vs universities.

    Liberal arts colleges are not necessarily “liberal” or geared for art majors. Meanwhile, universities are not necessarily research orientated or huge sports crazy institutions. Understanding the differences between liberal arts colleges and universities can help narrow down the best college fit for you. Read the following guide to learn how liberal arts colleges and universities differ from one another. 

    Remember, there are exceptions

    Keep in mind that while the differences highlighted in this article are generally true, exceptions absolutely do exist. For instance, some small liberal arts colleges offer graduate programs, yet they are not called universities. There are small universities that are essentially small liberal arts colleges but, because they do offer graduate programs, they are called universities. Some colleges are large, and some universities are small. So in short, there are exceptions and exceptions to the exceptions!

    Also see: What’s the difference between universities and colleges?

    What is a liberal arts college? 

    Liberal arts colleges are four-year undergraduate educational institutions. A liberal arts college has a curriculum that focuses on arts, sciences, humanities, and social sciences. Rather than preparing students for a particular career in a specific field, they encourage students to find an appreciation of all subjects. 

    Many liberal arts colleges are defined by the following characteristics: 

    • Small student population and class sizes
    • Focus on academics and opportunities for personal growth
    • Higher number of residential students 
    • A stronger sense of community on campus

    What is a university? 

    Universities are public or private educational institutions that offer both undergraduate and graduate degrees. Universities are known for their expansive number of resources and program offerings. Generally, they offer a more diverse number of courses due to the larger number of enrolled students. 

    Many universities are defined by the following characteristics: 

    • Large student population and larger class sizes
    • Focus on students pursuing graduate degrees (ex: special programs offered to give students a graduate degree in a reduced amount of time) 
    • Fewer students live on campus with more commuter students

    What are the differences between liberal arts colleges and universities? 

    Curriculum 

    If you are unsure what you want to major in, a liberal arts curriculum may be a great option. A liberal arts curriculum offers students the opportunity to explore their interests. In contrast, if you know what you want to work towards, such as becoming a nurse, programs at a university may be a perfect fit. Keep reading to learn why this might make sense for certain students. 

    Liberal arts curriculum

    Liberal arts colleges focus on obtaining more generalized knowledge in all subjects. Students draw from arts, sciences, humanities, and social sciences while pursuing a major of their choice. Many liberal arts colleges also offer the freedom of flexibility for students. Meaning, they offer the option for students to create their own major by combining their interests. Liberal arts college’s curriculums aim to encourage students to try out different subjects before they declare a set major. 

    University curriculum 

    Universities, on the other hand, are better known for their required core subjects and pre-professional programs. This means, students will typically have to enroll in mandatory classes for a good amount of their freshman and sophomore years. However, some universities also offer a liberal arts education.

    Community

    Liberal arts colleges have a small undergraduate population. Therefore, liberal arts students typically live on campus and do not need to leave campus to find what they need. The community is often viewed as very close-knit. This is due in part to the fact that class sizes are very small compared to universities, so it is easier to get to know your classmates on a deeper level. In terms of extracurricular activities, liberal arts colleges tend to have fewer clubs and athletics offered. 

    Universities, on the other hand, typically have a very large undergraduate and graduate population. Therefore, it is typical for first year students to live on campus but after many students live off campus or commute. Universities offer an abundance of clubs, extracurriculars and athletics. Therefore, it is extremely easy to find your niche interest within a university. 

    Sports

    Liberal arts colleges offer typically D2, D3 or no athletics for certain sports. Therefore, there is less of a culture surrounding sports teams and games at liberal arts colleges.

    To contrast, universities typically offer D1 sports with a huge following. Therefore, there is more of a culture surrounding sports teams found at universities. 

    Also see: Difference between public and private universities

    Liberal arts colleges vs universities chart

    Liberal Arts Colleges

    Universities

    Focuses on a wide range of subjects

    Focuses on career specific classes

    Smaller student population/class sizes

    Larger student population/class sizes

    Few if any teaching assistants

    Typically uses teaching assistants

    Emphasis on undergraduate education

    Graduate, PH.D., and professional degrees offered

    The degree value of a liberal arts education vs university education

    Job opportunities and the value of a liberal arts or university degree may differ significantly. This is because each education is so different from one another. 

    A liberal arts degree allows you to become an expert in a lot of fields due to its exploratory curriculum. Therefore, you can do a lot with a liberal arts degree because of the more diverse background and experience you will receive. Some careers value a liberal arts degree because they recognize that liberal arts graduates will be more well-rounded in all subjects. 

    A university degree puts you on a more direct path to a specific career field. Therefore, a university degree is valuable in preparing a graduate for the workforce in the field they desire. Some careers value a university degree because they recognize how specialized candidates will become in their field during their studies.  

    Also see: What is the average salary after graduation?

    Which is right for you?

    Whether you choose to receive a liberal arts or university degree, each degree has its own specific benefits. Some careers may value one over the other but ultimately it comes down to you and your particular strengths. In general, students who already have a firm idea of their desired career will often find a better fit in university programs, whereas students who want to use college as an opportunity to figure out what they want to do might find a better fit in a liberal arts degree.

    Choosing between liberal arts college vs universities

    If you are considering attending either a liberal arts college or university, but do not know which one is “better” – do not worry! Each type of institution has different benefits and drawbacks. 

    If you are someone who enjoys a small tight knit community and are still undecided about your degree/career, then a liberal arts college might be the perfect fit for you.

    If you know what you want to do, and want to branch out and join new and different extracurriculars, then a university may be the best choice for you. 

    Ultimately, it comes down to what would benefit you and your future the most. Make a pros and cons list for the schools you are considering to help narrow down your choices! 

    Also see: How to choose a college

    Frequently asked questions about liberal arts colleges vs. universities

    Do liberal arts colleges offer specialized majors or degrees?

    Yes, liberal arts colleges do offer specialized majors, but may not have the extensive range seen in larger universities. They emphasize a well-rounded education, but still offer depth in certain fields.

    Are research opportunities available at liberal arts colleges?

    Yes, research opportunities exist at liberal arts colleges, but they may be more limited when compared to universities. 

    Which type of school is better for graduate school preparation?

    Both types of schools can prepare students for graduate school, but liberal arts colleges may offer more personalized guidance and mentorship due to smaller class sizes, which can be beneficial for graduate school applications.

    How does cost differ between liberal arts colleges and universities?

    Costs can vary\ widely, but in some cases, liberal arts colleges might have higher tuition rates compared to public universities. However, financial aid packages and scholarships can significantly impact the actual cost for students.

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