What Is a Liberal Arts College?

University building exterior with ivy climbing up front

Although almost every four-year university in the United States offers an education that is rooted in the liberal arts tradition, they aren’t all considered liberal arts universities. In the most general sense, liberal arts colleges are institutions that don’t have a distinct vocational or professional track focus, but instead offer a more interdisciplinary education that covers many fields.

But there’s really no precise definition for what a liberal arts college is or is not. The term has taken on a life of its own as a kind of shorthand to describe schools that offer a well-rounded by generally less technically focused college experience. There’s no hard and fast rule for how to use the term liberal arts college, but in the truest sense, these schools can always be recognized by a few traits:

The term liberal arts college gets thrown around a lot in higher education, but what does “liberal arts college” mean?

You may already know that liberal arts is a broad term. It encompasses a wide range of fields, from English to psychology to economics, while also describing a particular philosophy of education: a commitment to inquiry, rational discussion, and creative problem-solving.

And you’re already familiar with a liberal arts education, because that’s exactly what most American K-12 schools offer, so you’ve actually been getting an education in that tradition from the time you were in kindergarten. A wide range of classes in different subjects is standard. Teaching kids to think is the primary mission, not just cramming facts. The same is true at the college level.

What Does Liberal Arts College Mean?

So, if you’ve had a liberal arts education most of your life, you may be wondering what does liberal arts college mean, really? Creative thinking will serve you well as you dive into it…

A Liberal Arts College Has Strong Humanities Courses

Liberal arts wouldn’t be liberal arts without the humanities. These academic disciplines cover the classics, including:

The departments that offer those courses at a liberal arts college are typically some of the largest and most respected. While big research colleges might tend to treat them as box-checking exercises on the way to professional studies, a liberal arts college makes humanities courses their métier.

Liberal Arts Colleges Encourage Creativity and Exploration

Teaching thinking skills is the primary goal at liberal arts schools, so expect to find programs that force you to think outside the box. You’re likely to find experimental approaches such as designing your own curriculum or an emphasis on experiential learning. Liberal arts schools often offer overseas learning experiences to encourage travel and exploration of other cultures.

Attitudes among instructors are some of the defining elements of what the liberal arts college experience is all about. You’re less likely to find your ideas and suggestions shot down, and more likely to have professors who encourage the exploration of original thought and creative ideas.

Although you’ll get a lot of cross-disciplinary knowledge thrust upon you, teaching isn’t purely prescriptive at a liberal arts college.

All of this is designed to build confidence in your own critical thinking and reasoning skills. You’ll receive a lot of support when it comes to developing your own thoughts and judgements through your studies.

Discussion and Personal Connections Are Emphasized at Liberal Arts Colleges

The way that instructors approach their jobs is different at liberal arts schools. Lecture and didactic teaching styles are out; fostering a spirit of enquiry and getting students to teach themselves is in.

That means developing real and personal connections with students, and encouraging discussion and debate. A liberal arts college is a place where you can expect to engage not just with other students in your courses, but also with faculty. In the halls, in classrooms, at the student union… you can expect to run into engaging, interesting people and have fun conversations with them at a liberal arts college.

This connection often extends well past graduation, too. Alumni groups are tight and networks are far-flung and diverse. All those different interests take off in different professional directions, so you can count on your class reunions being chock full of a lot of interesting stories from former classmates.

Small Class Sizes are Standard at a Liberal Arts College

Small class students meeting with teacherAll those personal connections are fostered by class sizes that are smaller than average.According to 2019 data from the National Center For Education Statistics, the average ratio of students to faculty at public universities—most of which are not considered liberal arts colleges—is 15 to 1. At private non-profit universities—many of which are liberal arts colleges—that ratio is only 10 to 1.

That means instructors are not spread as thin and have fewer students per course and more time per student to offer individual attention. And with fewer students per class, it also becomes easier for you to get to know your fellow students.

All of these factors come together to paint a picture of what a liberal arts college is today.

A Basic Checklist For Determining What’s a Liberal Arts College—Probably

A liberal arts education will teach you pretty quickly to avoid speaking in absolutes. In the same way, you won’t find some hard and fast rule about what a university absolutely must have in order to qualify as a liberal arts college. Instead, you can think of it as a scale, where some schools lean more in the direction of a liberal arts college.

You can run down the checklist of the key characteristics of a liberal arts education to get a sense of where a school might fall on that scale:

Columbia’s Orgo Night has most of the student body invading Butler Library, where organic chemistry students traditionally study for their final exam, with the express purpose of disrupting those studies with music and skits.

What does liberal arts college mean? The answer to this question is always, in a way, relative to the full landscape of college options. Those that put more focus on producing well-rounded, critical thinkers and creative problem solvers than on purely technical or professional track degrees could rightly be considered liberal arts colleges.

In the end, your liberal arts reasoning and analysis skills are the perfect approach to answering the question: what is a liberal arts college and what is not?