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What is a Liberal Arts College?

written by: Heather Marie Kosur•edited by: Noreen Gunnell•updated: 9/24/2012

When choosing a college you have a number of different considerations to find the perfect one for you. Have you considered a liberal arts college? These schools are often smaller and offer holistic education focusing on critical thinking skills.

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    One of the big choices that students will have to decide when picking a school is what type of college to attend. As smaller schools that focus on undergraduate studies, liberal arts colleges are often a top choice for students. Is it a good choice for you?

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    Liberal Arts Colleges

    Physical Size and Enrollment

    One of the main draws of liberal arts colleges is their relatively small size. Most schools have no more than 5,000 students with the average enrollment falling between 1,000 and 2,000 students. For example, Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, New York had a total enrollment of 2,389 students in 2008. Because of the smaller number of students enrolled, liberal arts colleges also tend to be smaller in physical size, which many students who are leaving home for the first time find appealing. This small size allows faculty to work more closely with individual students.

    Degree Level

    Unlike many four-year colleges and universities, liberal arts colleges focus on awarding undergraduate degrees. The degree focus of most liberal arts colleges is on Bachelor of Arts and Bachelor of Science degrees. Most of these schools have few or no graduate programs or students. For example, Illinois Wesleyan University in Bloomington, Illinois offers only bachelor's degree program to students.

    Curriculum Focus

    Liberal arts colleges aim to provide their students with a liberal arts education. A liberal arts education focuses on teaching students general knowledge and developing rational thought and intellectual capabilities as opposed to training in specific skills or vocations. Many liberal arts schools require that all students, regardless of their major, take courses in religion, philosophy, literature, language, sociology, history, mathematics, and science.

    Student Living

    Most liberal arts colleges are residential, which means that students generally live on-campus and attend school full-time. Very few part-time or commuter students attend these schools. Liberal arts colleges present young adults with the opportunity to live away from home and their parents for the first time. Additionally, because most students live on-campus, students are encouraged to form close working relationships with faculty.

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    Top Liberal Arts Colleges

    The top ten liberal arts colleges for 2010 as ranked in the America's Best Colleges report by the U.S. News & World Report were:

    • Williams College, Williamstown, Massachusetts
    • Amherst College, Amherst, Massachusetts
    • Swarthmore College, Swarthmore, Pennsylvania
    • Middlebury College, Middlebury, Vermont (tied for fourth)
    • Pomona College, Claremont, California (tied for fourth)
    • Bowdoin College, Brunswick, Maine (tied for sixth)
    • Wellesley College, Wellesley, Massachusetts (tied for sixth)
    • Carleton College, Northfield, Minnesota (eighth)
    • Haverford College, Haverford, Pennsylvania
    • Claremont McKenna College (10th)
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    There are plenty of job opportunities for students with a liberal arts degree. Employers value students with these degrees because they know they are adaptable and critical thinkers. This makes it a great choice for students who want to focus on general knowledge rather than specific skills.

    Sources

    • About Liberal Arts Colleges: http://www.collegenews.org/x66.xml
    • Liberal Arts College – Definition of a Liberal Arts College: http://collegeapps.about.com/od/glossaryofkeyterms/g/liberal-arts-college-definition.htm
    • Liberal Arts Rankings – Best Colleges – Education – US News and World Report: http://colleges.usnews.rankingsandreviews.com/best-colleges/liberal-arts-rankings
    • Types of Colleges: http://www.collegeboard.com/student/csearch/where-to-start/2.html