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What is a Liberal Arts College? Definition, Ranking, and More

What is a Liberal Arts College. The phrase “liberal arts” will probably come up while you’re looking into undergraduate institutions.

The phrase has its origins in the Middle Ages, when arithmetic, astronomy, geometry, music, language, rhetoric, and logic were considered to be the seven most important subjects for free (or “liberal”) people to learn. Over the years, more disciplines have been added to this list, including engineering, literature, and history.

The best liberal arts education or the largest selection of liberal arts degrees are often boasted in college brochures and websites today. Several liberal arts colleges have developed a reputation for elite academics and selective admissions. What does it all imply, though? What even constitutes the “best” type of a liberal arts education?

In addition to debunking these assertions, our goal is to place liberal arts in the right perspective relative to other higher education options. We’ll go over the benefits and drawbacks of liberal arts colleges as well as the top 10 schools currently on’s list, which is based on reviews from students and alumni and information from the U.S. Department of Education.

Not everyone should attend a liberal arts college. By the time you’re done reading, you’ll know whether or not this kind of school is best for you depending on your particular requirements and interests.

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Definition & Meaning of a Liberal Arts College

Liberal arts colleges today relate to the American higher education system that prioritizes undergraduate studies.

Liberal arts institutions take a wide approach to the arts, humanities, Technology, and social sciences instead of educating students for a specific employment through a professional or technical program. Even if a student majors in a specific topic, like chemistry, they still have access to other fields through an open curriculum or mandatory classes.

Yet, some liberal arts universities continue to offer programs or departments in disciplines with a strong technical component, such computer science. In a similar vein, the majority of university B.A. degrees adhere to a liberal arts curriculum without necessarily being referred to as such.

Fostering critical thinking and preparing students for a range of occupations are the two main objectives of liberal arts education. So, smaller class numbers encourage student participation in class discussions, and professors tend to devote more time to teaching than to conducting research.

Residential clusters of students typically establish close-knit communities on campus where they dwell. These universities typically pool their resources as a result of their tiny stature. For instance, the Tri-College Collaboration between the Haverford, Bryn Mawr, and Swarthmore liberal arts institutions in Philadelphia permits cross-enrollment and promotes an integrated student life.

The Pros & Cons of a Liberal Arts College


Those with a liberal arts degree are armed with a wide range of information. For instance, an English major will study history, philosophy, and political science in addition to literary analysis and writing. A degree in the liberal arts is more adaptable because it covers areas other than the immediate subject.

An English major can work as a lawyer, journalist, TV scriptwriter, high school English teacher, technical writer, content marketer, publisher, editor, or as a freelance writer for several industries, to name just a few employment opportunities. Liberal arts also assist prepare for such, even if some of these require further degrees.

Smaller class sizes also encourage creative, unconventional thinking, which is crucial in today’s job environment. The Association of American Colleges and Universities (AACU) reports that 93% of businesses who hire college grads place a higher value on a candidate’s ability to think critically and solve problems than they do on their major.


Liberal arts institutions frequently receive criticism for not preparing students for certain careers like professional colleges do. Liberal arts graduates typically possess fewer direct, practical skills than their peers with professional degrees due to the breadth of their study. As a result, they are frequently underpaid and less employable.

The biggest deterrents to earning a liberal arts degree include a poor return on investment, low starting incomes, and post-graduate underemployment. But we’ll put these advantages and disadvantages in perspective after going over the next ten finest liberal arts colleges.

List & Ranking of Liberal Arts Colleges

1. Amherst College (Amherst, MA)

In keeping with its commitment to the liberal arts, Amherst only confers bachelor’s degrees in the humanities using an open curriculum.

This implies that students can select from 40 majors (or more than 850 courses) in transdisciplinary, STEM, arts, humanities, social science, and foreign language subjects. Students have the option of creating their own majors, and both freshmen and seniors are permitted to enroll in basic and advanced courses.

The bulk of classes have fewer than 30 students, who receive plenty of individualized attention thanks to the 7:1 student to staff ratio. The Amherst faculty is committed to fostering each student’s individual abilities, and past members have included poet Robert Frost.

Amherst is a member of the Five College Consortium, which enables students to take classes at four other nearby liberal arts colleges: Hampshire College, Mount Holyoke College, and Smith College. These colleges provide thousands of supplementary classes without charging additional fees.

2. Washington & Lee University (Lexington, VA)

Washington & Lee University is a distinctive liberal arts college that is situated in historic Lexington, Virginia, south of Washington, D.C.

It runs on a three-term structure rather than the typical two-term semester: 13-week fall and winter terms followed by a four-week spring term. This term, known as “Immersion,” gives students the chance to enroll in a variety of courses that spark their curiosity. The courses are created by the professors themselves based on the subjects they are most passionate about teaching, such as freedom rides across the Civil Rights South, the mechanics of music, code-breaking in math and history, Barack Obama’s politics, the stem cell debate, and more.

The traditional honors system at W&L enjoins students to behave decently both within and outside of the classroom. Even closed-book exams are typically self-scheduled and unproctored.

Almost 80% of W&L students are involved in fraternities or sororities, compared to a limited or nonexistent Greek life at many liberal arts universities.

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3. Colby College (Waterville, ME)

Colby’s “Jan-plan” offers students a few weeks between the fall and spring semesters to intern, take classes, or engage in research, similar to W&L’s Immersion period.

The first AI institution at a liberal arts college is the Davis Institute for Artificial Intelligence at Colby. Because of its creative incorporation of AI throughout all of the college’s areas of study, it has been highlighted on NPR’s Marketplace.

To further interdisciplinary conversation, the school has launched a new English major concentration in literature and the environment. Students use their writing and analytical skills to address environmental and social justice challenges.

Moreover, Colby is home to a museum of art that both locals and tourists visiting Maine can use as a learning environment and gathering place for local culture. The venue showcases a varied collection of American art, including a whole wing of the painter Alex Katz’s creations.

4. Haverford College (Haverford, PA)

Another notable feature of Haverford College is its honor code, which allows students to schedule their own tests as long as they adhere to certain guidelines. Both the Quaker Consortium, which includes the Ivy League University of Pennsylvania, and the Tri-College Consortium, which also includes Swarthmore and Bryn Mawr, are advantageous to students. Students from Haverford can cross-enroll and, depending on availability, major in these other schools’ departments.

The Haverford College Arboretum covers the entire campus and is the oldest collegiate arboretum in the nation. A duck pond and flower beds can be seen along the scenic trails that go across large, open areas.

There are more than 145 student organizations at Haverford, which is a lot for such a small university. However, there is no Greek life there. The men’s soccer team has been a part of the athletic division since 1901, and it is the only varsity cricket team in the United States.

Juan Williams, an Emmy-winning journalist, Daniel Dae Kim, an actor, and Philip Noel-Baker, an Olympic athlete and laureate of the Nobel Peace Prize, are notable alumni.

5. Williams College (Williamstown, MA)

According to U.S. News, Williams is the best national liberal arts college.

Oxford-style seminars are mostly to blame for this. Students are paired with professors and guided in a certain field of study over the course of a semester. The lesson mainly relies on participant participation and individual research, usually leading to a co-authored article.

Williams is an especially good place to learn since it places a strong emphasis on student-driven teaching. Williams’ “Winter Study” program, like Colby’s “Jan-plan,” enables students to enroll in unusual courses, go on quick vacations, conduct research, or intern. Diverse course options offer a change of pace from the regular term and foster pure curiosity rather than the hard skills needed for one’s major. Examples of such courses include Social Life of Fashion and Taichi.

Author Clara Claiborne Park, theoretical physicist William Wootters, and Pulitzer Prize winner Elizabeth Kolbert have all taught at Williams College.

6. United States Military Academy at West Point (West Point, NY)

Undoubtedly, when people think of liberal arts universities, a military academy rarely comes to mind. Yet, it makes total sense.

Military personnel are frequently required to react quickly and trust their gut feelings. The greatest way to develop these instincts is through a liberal arts education, which fosters adaptability, breadth, and problem-solving skills.

Throughout their four-year program, West Point cadets get intellectual, military, physical, and moral/ethical training. The Thayer Method is used by cadets to learn academic subjects; autonomous study is complemented or clarified by class discussion.

All cadets receive the same fundamental training in subjects like math, IT, chemistry, physics, engineering, history, geography, philosophy, leadership, psychology, English, foreign language, political science, economics, and constitutional law. They also all receive the same instruction in subjects like geography and philosophy. They can then select a specific course of study that leads to a B.S. degree at their discretion.

Former presidents Dwight D. Eisenhower and Ulysses S. Grant, as well as astronaut Buzz Aldrin and current secretary of defense Lloyd Austin, are notable alumni.

7. Carleton College (Northfield, MN)

Carleton offers a comprehensive list of criteria for undergraduate degrees rather than an open curriculum. Argument and inquiry, quantitative reasoning, global citizenship, and physical education are among the courses offered.

Another eccentric tradition at Carleton University is the discovery and theft of a plaster bust of the German author Friedrich Schiller. Because of how well-known the practice is, Schiller appeared on The Colbert Report.

Carleton hums with intellectual prowess and personality alike. Comps, a lengthy research project that exceeds the scope and difficulty of all other coursework, is the culmination of every senior’s academic career. Research papers, lectures, posters, musical compositions, artworks, computer programs, and other forms of expression are all included in this project.

Former Supreme Court Judge Pierce Butler, pro-choice campaigner Dr. Jane Elizabeth Hodgson, and NBA basketball star Freddie Gillespie are notable alumni of Carleton.

8. Harvey Mudd College (Claremont, CA)

Liberal arts are frequently misunderstood to be primarily concerned with the humanities and arts. The Harvey Mudd College disproves such notion completely.

Harvey Mudd is a member of the Claremont College consortium, which permits students to cross-enroll at six other universities, with a focus on science and engineering. The Common Core, which covers computer science, engineering, biology, chemistry, physics, mathematics, writing, and critical inquiry, is required of all Harvey Mudd students.

When Harvey Mudd graduates enter the workforce, their diligence is rewarded. Harvey Mudd was named the best institution in 2016 by Business Insider for assisting students in finding well-paying careers.

Donald Chamberlin, who co-invented SQL, Sean “Day9” Plott, a game designer, and astronauts Stan Love and George “Pinky” Nelson are notable graduates.

9. Bowdoin College (Brunswick, ME)

Although being a small liberal arts college at the very northeastern edge of the United States, Bowdoin’s connections to other esteemed colleges ensure that its students are never alone.

Engineering students at Columbia, Caltech, Dartmouth, and the University of Maine have a variety of dual degree options to choose from. The Colby-Bates-Bowdoin Consortium, which combines athletics and academics, grants all Bowdoin students access to these three schools’ libraries.

Bowdoin was the first university in the country to pioneer SAT/ACT test-optional admissions in 1969. The Peucinian Society, one of the most esteemed literary societies, was founded at Bowdoin College. It was established in 1805 by poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and it is still Bowdoin University’s oldest student organization.

Novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne, former American president Franklin Pierce, and Subway co-founder Peter Buck are among the notable alumni in addition to Longfellow.

10. Pomona College (Claremont, CA)

Together with Harvey Mudd, Pitzer, Claremont McKenna, and Scripps, as well as the graduate institutions Claremont Graduate University and Keck Graduate Institute, Pomona is a member of the prestigious Claremont College consortium.

Pomona College has characteristics with many prestigious New England colleges because its founders intended it to be a “college of the New England kind.” Every degree program needs a variety of courses in several subjects, and its 7% admission rate rivals that of the Ivy League colleges.

Students can benefit from the facilities of a large research university without compromising the close-knit atmosphere of a small liberal arts college thanks to the Claremont Colleges system. In contrast to Harvey Mudd, Pomona’s most popular majors—economics, mathematics, computer science, neurology, and politics—reflect a more varied range of interests.

Kabuki specialist Leonard Pronko, NBA basketball coach Gregg Popovich, and author Claudia Rankine have all served as notable professors. Kris Kristofferson, Jennifer Doudna, a Nobel Prize–winning biologist, and Mary Schmich, a Pulitzer Prize–winning columnist, are all Pomona graduates.

FAQs on What is a Liberal Arts College

What is the difference between a national university and a liberal arts college?

Focus on undergraduates: Larger universities offer undergraduate and graduate degrees, but liberal arts colleges focus solely on undergraduate degrees. On-campus community: There are fewer part-time students and students who commute at liberal arts colleges. Instead, students tend to be full-time and live on campus.

What does college of liberal arts do?

A liberal arts degree includes the study of history, literature, writing, philosophy, sociology, psychology, creative arts and more. Liberal arts programs are designed to help you formulate compelling arguments, communicate well and solve problems

Is Harvard a liberal arts college?

As a liberal arts and sciences college nestled within a world-class research university, Harvard gives you both the freedom to shape your own course of study and the resources to see it through.

What is the opposite of a liberal arts college?

The opposite of liberal arts colleges are technical colleges and vocational schools. In these kinds of schools, you study only things related to your career, unlike a liberal arts education that gives you a much broader education.


Liberal arts institutions place a strong emphasis on undergraduate education as a whole, encourage intimate relationships between students and professors, profit from collaborations with other colleges, and confer a variety of degrees. 

That depends on what you want out of a profession and what you want in a college. Those who have a broad concept of what they want to study or accomplish would benefit greatly from liberal arts universities because they are accessible to a variety of businesses.

For instance, a biology enthusiast might not yet be certain if their career goals are to be a doctor, teacher, science journalist, or something completely different. A liberal arts college would extend that person’s perspectives and expose them to fields like teaching, media, and healthcare. By the time students graduate, they are more aware of the best professional path and have flexible problem-solving abilities.

On the other side, you might not want to attend a liberal arts college if you have your heart set on a particular career, like nursing, and don’t particularly care about developing close ties with teachers. Perhaps you enjoy the busy atmosphere and active Greek community of a large public university. Perhaps you want to enroll right away in a professional nursing program so that you can start working directly after graduation.

Many contend that liberal arts universities focus more on preparing students for life than for careers; learning comes first. In contrast, professional or vocational institutions train students in particular abilities for particular careers.

Which type of college is best for you is a decision only you can make.

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