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  • Julie Smithey

What is a liberal arts college, anyway? 3 things to know.

Updated: Mar 30, 2022

Does it mean they're all Democrats? Nope, not that kind of liberal.

In short, a liberal arts college is one that aims to give you a well-rounded education that is broader than just preparation for a particular career.

Most of my clients will hear me encourage them to include at least one liberal arts college on their personal college list. They're often hidden gems in the shadows of big universities, and while they aren't right for everyone, a college search isn't really complete without exploring them a bit. Below are 3 reasons you should check them out.

1. They are often smaller schools

In general, liberal arts colleges tend to be on the smaller side. Some are VERY small, and they often have a really special culture (I'm looking at you, St. Olaf, Marlboro, and Grinnell). Others are larger, but they all foster a strong sense of community and belonging.

2. They emphasize a general approach to education, not a vocational one.

At many schools, the path to your degree is fairly lock step, and stepping out of the path or changing your mind could cost you time and money. This couldn't be further from the approach at a liberal arts school. If I had to state the difference of a liberal arts education in one sentence it would be this: Liberal arts schools prepare you to be a knowledgable citizen, not just a good {insert your future career here}. There is room to wander, question, and take courses that interest you. Often the first semester includes courses on critical thinking and writing. They are generally more relaxed (that's the liberal part) curriculum requirements encourage exploration and making connections between departments.

3. Most don't have a grad school.

As the parent of a high schooler, this might not seem too important right now. But the lack of a grad school means a few important things. First and most importantly, it means access to professors. Professors teach classes, have office hours, and run student clubs. They CHOOSE to work at these schools and do it because they love working with undergraduates. They get to know students and have a meaningful impact on their lives; they encourage and guide students as they carve their own academic path. The other implication of not having a grad school is that all research work is done by undergrads! At big schools, grad students get first pick of working with professors on research projects; at liberal arts colleges, professors rely on the work and opinions of their undergrad students to move their research along. It can provide incredible opportunities and foster lifetime mentorships.

Myth: They are all elite schools

Truth: Amazing liberal arts schools run the gamut from uber selective to very inclusive. In fact, many offer amazing programs for students who need to "ramp up" to full time college or have learning differences.

I can't pick favorites. Oh, ok, twist my arm.

Liberal arts colleges are specific puzzle pieces - you have to find the one that's a good fit for you. These are some who do their thing well. Some are Ivy League level selective, and some accept almost everyone. All are awesome in my opinion, and this is just a sample - do your research and find a few that pique your interest!

Swarthmore, Elon, Davidson, Puget Sound, Austin College, Southwestern, Trinity U, Amherst, Washington and Lee, Willamette, Wesleyan, Kenyon, Birmingham Southern, Eckerd, and many, many more!


About the Author:

Julie is the owner of Green Means Grow College Consulting. She loves helping high school students find colleges they love. Coaching college application essays is her favorite summer activity (what a nerd), and she secretly longs to live somewhere snowy instead of Dallas. She has two teenage girls, so if you're looking for her, she's probably driving them somewhere or cheering them on at something.

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