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The Differences Between Liberal Arts Colleges and Universities

Friday | February 16, 2018 | by Yuanyuan “Rebecca” Fang

differences between liberal arts colleges and universities

International students often wonder what the differences are between liberal arts colleges (LACs) and national universities in the U.S., and which is a better option. The answers to these questions depend on your personal preferences, interests, educational needs, and career prospects. Before applying to U.S. colleges and universities, you should ask yourself five questions and carefully analyze your responses.

These five questions are:

  • What are your interests?
  • What are your expectations in a U.S. college or university?
  • What is your financial situation?
  • Do you want to pursue a master’s degree or higher?
  • Do you want to work in the U.S. or another country after graduation?

Answering these questions will help you make a decision when selecting a university or LAC. But remember, whichever educational institution you choose should be the right fit for you, both academically and culturally.

Below is a list of the differences between LACs and universities, based upon various criteria:

  • Program of study:
    • LACs tend to place more of an emphasis on undergraduate education and offer a more traditional, broad, and general education. They award most of their degrees in the liberal arts disciplines, which include social sciences, natural sciences, humanities, and arts.
    • Universities generally consist of graduate schools, professional schools (in engineering, law, business, and medical, to name a few), as well as undergraduate programs. They may be a better choice for students who are interested in a technical degree with a career focus in engineering, computer science, or accounting, for example.
  • Courses offered:
    • LACs require students to take a wide variety of courses to give them exposure to a range of liberal arts studies with a broader base of knowledge. In general, they do not focus on career-related classes as heavily as universities do.
    • In contrast, universities focus on each student’s major with relatively fewer general core requirements. They offer classes more tailored to each student’s specific career needs, especially for those who want to pursue a technical career path.
  • Reputation: Big national universities generally have greater name recognition and a more established reputation internationally, when compared to LACs. However, LACs may be well-known in the U.S.
  • Institutional affiliation: Universities (including state universities) can be private or public, whereas LACs are typically private.
  • Cost: LACs are more expensive than public universities, but they are often more generous with financial aid and scholarships. Public universities have lower tuition than private universities and LACs, but there are fewer financial aid opportunities for international students, especially at state universities.
  • Campus setting: LACs are generally small and universities tend to be large. State universities have particularly large campuses.
  • Class size: LACs have smaller class sizes, as well as smaller student-to-teacher ratios than most universities. The introductory or 101 level lecture classes at universities are especially large and can have hundreds of students.
  • Class style:
    • LACs tend to offer seminars rather than lectures, which leads to greater student engagement. During seminars, students have many opportunities to speak out, ask questions, and engage in classroom discussions. At LACs, students also have more chances to speak and engage with professors and classmates inside and outside of class.
    • On the contrary, universities offer more lectures than seminars due to their larger student bodies. Some classes or discussion sections are taught by graduate students serving as teaching assistants (TAs), rather than professors.
  • Faculty: The majority of the faculty at LACs is student-focused and teaching-oriented, whereas the faculty at universities tends to be more research-oriented. This means that universities have many leading scholars in their fields, but they may be relatively less accessible to students than at LACs.
  • Graduate school preparation:
    • LACs offer stronger academic preparedness overall and they provide research opportunities to their undergraduate students. Also, because of the close relationships between professors and students, it is easier for students to reach out to professors and ask for recommendation letters for graduate programs.
    • Although universities provide many research opportunities, the majority of them are for their graduate students. Research opportunities can be highly competitive for undergraduate students at universities. However, one of the advantages is that there may be higher chances of being admitted to graduate programs in the same university.
  • Career opportunities: Both LACs and universities offer potential career opportunities for students. Given their larger student bodies, universities host more on-campus career fairs and recruitment events. They also boast a larger alumni network, which provides students with connections and career options. By contrast, students at LACs likely have a stronger relational bond with alumni, professors, and classmates. This means students are more likely to be referred to internships and jobs.
  • Extracurricular activities: Universities boast more events and activities on and off campus; some also have fraternities and sororities and well-known sports teams. In general, universities have a wide variety of student organizations and clubs, and LACs have relatively fewer student organizations and clubs.

A Final Word

The decision about which school to attend is not about getting into the best ranked institution, but rather going to the school that fits you best. More importantly, LACs and universities have different aims and cultures. Your application should be tailored to meet their values depending on the type of school you apply to.

Good luck on your applications!

Related Reading

Understanding the U.S. College Admissions Process

5 Common U.S. Admissions Questions Answered

6 Common Undergraduate Admissions Questions Answered

Yuanyuan “Rebecca” Fang

Yuanyuan “Rebecca” Fang is a Research Assistant at World Education Services.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of World Education Services (WES).