What a Liberal Arts College Is and What Students Should Know

As students search for the right school, some advisers urge them to not overlook liberal arts colleges, noting the small class sizes and emphasis on overall intellectual enrichment.

“It’s fundamentally about having a more general approach, not a vocational education,” says Jill Tiefenthaler, president of Colorado College, who adds that a liberal arts college is typically centered around helping students “learn to learn” and nurturing a love for education. That means students spend more time across all subject areas than on a specific discipline.

Mark Montgomery, founder and CEO of Great College Advice, which has offices in Colorado, New Jersey, Oregon and Hong Kong, says it’s important to distinguish between a liberal arts curriculum and college.

Generally speaking, he says, any Bachelor of Arts offered at a university follows a liberal arts curriculum with a focus on humanities, the sciences and social sciences, with more than 25 percent of classes dedicated to a major. Liberal arts colleges, by contrast, may offer a curriculum with or without an option for a major.

[Read: How Much Is an Ivy League Liberal Arts Degree Worth?]

“This curriculum is designed in a way to introduce students to a wide variety of academic subjects and materials, to help them make connections among diverse phenomena, and also develop some expertise in a single field. It is meant to ‘liberate’ the mind and move beyond mere professional training, while at the same time ensuring that the student is able to focus in on one academic subject that serves as the bulwark of this intellectual exploration,” Montgomery wrote in an email.

With more of an emphasis on broad academic inquiry, students have more freedom to explore, school officials say.

For example, Colorado College follows a block semester schedule in which students take a single class every three-and-a-half weeks. Those short blocks allow for more experiential learning opportunities for students, Tiefenthaler says, pointing to class trips into the nearby Rocky Mountains and to the U.S.-Mexico border. While the block calendar is unique, for Tiefenthaler it’s an example of the kind of flexibility one might find at a liberal arts college.

Historically, a “liberal education” has focused on broad knowledge, particularly in the humanities, sciences and social sciences, notes the Association of American Colleges & Universities website, emphasizing the development of “social responsibility; strong intellectual and practical skills that span all major fields of study, such as communication, analytical, and problem-solving skills; and the demonstrated ability to apply knowledge and skills in real-world settings.”

While this is not unlike the stated goals of many large, research-focused National Universities, school officials say the greater aim is to help each student live a fulfilling life.

“I think a liberal arts college takes seriously the notion that a job isn’t a job, it’s a vocation, so it better bring meaning to your life and help you think through what that might look like,” says Jonathan Veitch, president of Occidental College in California.

Maud S. Mandel, president of Williams College in Massachusetts, echoes that sentiment. She considers a liberal arts education to be “an introduction to general knowledge, or even the scope of human knowledge as we know it so far ,” while allowing students to explore interests and curiosities.

Educational advisers note that liberal arts colleges generally differ from National Universities by focusing solely on undergraduates — often offering few or no graduate programs — allowing more flexibility in the curriculum, and emphasizing teaching that prioritizes a broad base of knowledge over professional training.

Liberal arts colleges also tend to have smaller student populations. Most ranked National Liberal Arts Colleges have fewer than 2,500 undergraduates enrolled, according to U.S. News data. It’s this small student body that academics and advisers say enhances the sense of community.

“When you get 30,000 people (on campus) there may be more self-segregation; you can find folks who like the same things that you do. That’s not a pejorative thing either way, but I think that’s another characteristic that you see at liberal arts schools. They tend to be smaller, they tend to focus on community, they tend to focus on the undergraduate,” says Sean Logan, dean of college counseling at Phillips Academy, a private high school in Andover, Massachusetts.

[Read: Consider Both Liberal Arts Colleges, National Universities.]

Logan adds he doesn’t present liberal arts and national universities to his students in terms of pros and cons, but rather what a student wants versus doesn’t want in his or her education.

“This is a process that really starts with self-reflection and self-discovery,” Logan says.

He adds that students should ask themselves what they are looking for in terms of size and curriculum, noting liberal arts colleges typically feature smaller, discussion-based classes; a low student-faculty ratio, which allows for more individual attention; and more access to school resources due to the smaller enrollment.

“The facilities, the resources, the faculty tend to all be focused on the undergraduates,” he says.

The cost of attending a private liberal arts college is a common source of confusion, advisers say, due to high sticker prices, which often don’t reflect what students and families actually pay.

“Parents are totally confused,” says Peggy Baker, an independent educational consultant in Pennsylvania, noting that many don’t understand the role that institutional aid plays.

While tuition and fees cost more than $40,000 at most of the National Liberal Arts Colleges ranked by U.S. News, students may receive institutional aid from a school, which will ultimately bring the cost down. For low-income students, that means tuition can be sharply discounted based on financial need.

“It would be a mistake to look at the sticker price and assume that you can’t afford it , because we do meet (financial) need and really are seeking that diversity of backgrounds and socioeconomic status,” Tiefenthaler says.

[Read: What You Need to Know About College Tuition Costs.]

While liberal arts college presidents take pride in their missions, tightknit communities and small class sizes, they note that students should find the right fit for them — adding that a good education can be had not only at their institutions but also regional and national universities.

“I strongly believe that a student can get a great education anywhere if they are focused and mature and willing to really put in the effort. In the end, what you get out of your education probably depends more on you than the school that you go to,” Tiefenthaler says.

And despite the name, a liberal arts education doesn’t reflect political leanings. Tiefenthaler says it’s about “liberating people to really be free and open” as they learn.

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What a Liberal Arts College Is and What Students Should Know originally appeared on usnews.com