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

While researching undergraduate colleges, you’ll likely encounter the term “liberal arts.”

The term dates back to medieval times when the seven most essential fields of study fit for free (or “liberal”) people were arithmetic, astronomy, geometry, music, grammar, rhetoric, and logic. Over the centuries, other subjects — engineering, literature, history — have joined this list.

Today, college brochures and websites boast “the best liberal arts education” or “the largest selection of liberal arts degrees.” Many liberal arts schools have gained a reputation for selective admissions and academic excellence. But what does it all mean? What does a liberal arts education even look like, let alone its “best” form?

We want to clarify these claims and more, putting liberal arts in its proper context alongside other forms of higher education. We’ll discuss the pros and cons of liberal arts colleges and describe the current top 10 according to Niche.com, a comprehensive ranking site based on student/alumni reviews and data from the U.S. Department of Education.

Liberal arts colleges aren’t for everyone. By the end of this article, you’ll be able to decide — based on your own needs and interests — if this type of school is right for you.


Definition & Meaning of a Liberal Arts College

Today, liberal arts colleges refer to the American model of higher education that focuses on undergraduate study.

Instead of a professional or technical curriculum, liberal arts colleges take a broad approach to the arts, humanities, STEM, and social sciences instead of preparing students for a certain occupation. Even if a student majors in a particular field — chemistry, for instance — they still get exposure to other subjects in the form of an open curriculum or required courses.

That said, some liberal arts colleges still have courses or departments in fields that are technical in nature, such as computer science. By the same token, most university B.A. degrees follow liberal arts curriculum without necessarily being labeled “liberal arts” degrees.

The goal of liberal arts is to nurture critical thinking and prepare students for a variety of careers. Thus, small class sizes allow students to participate more in class discussions, and professors are generally more involved in teaching than research.

Students usually live on campus in residential clusters, forming tight-knit communities within the student body. Given their small size, these colleges also tend to share resources. For example, the Tri-College Consortium among Philadelphia liberal arts colleges Haverford, Bryn Mawr, and Swarthmore allows cross-enrollment and fosters an integrated student life.


The Pros & Cons of a Liberal Arts College

Pros

A liberal arts education equips people with a diverse arsenal of knowledge. For example, an English major will learn literary analysis and writing as well as history, philosophy, and political science. Liberal arts education encompasses more than the immediate subject, and that makes the degree more versatile.

In fact, these are just some career options open to an English major: lawyer, journalist, TV scriptwriter, high school English teacher, technical writer, content marketer, publisher, editor, or freelancer writing for a variety of industries. Some of these require additional degrees, but liberal arts help prepare for those, too.

Small class sizes also spark dynamic, outside-the-box thinking — essential for today’s job market. According to the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AACU), 93% of employers hiring college grads value critical thinking and problem-solving skills more than the student’s major

Cons

A common complaint about liberal arts colleges is that they don’t prepare people for a specific career like professional colleges do. Because of the breadth of their education, liberal arts grads generally have less direct, hands-on skills than their professional degree counterparts. Thus they tend to be less employable and less paid.

Poor return on investment, low starting salaries, and post-graduate underemployment are the main reasons why people may be hesitant to get a liberal arts degree. But after we go over the following 10 best liberal arts schools, we’ll put these pros and cons in context.


List & Ranking of Liberal Arts Colleges

Here are the top 10 liberal arts colleges in the country, according to Niche.com.

10. Amherst College (Amherst, MA)

Amherst College
photo via Wikimedia Commons

True to its liberal arts mission, Amherst exclusively awards bachelor of arts degrees on the basis of an open curriculum.

This means that students can choose from 40 majors (or 850+ courses) in STEM, arts, humanities, social science, foreign language, and interdisciplinary fields. Students have the option of designing their own major, freshmen may take advanced classes, and seniors can take introductory ones.

The 7:1 student to faculty ratio ensures that the majority of classes have fewer than 30 students, who get plenty of individual attention. Amherst faculty — which has historically included poet Robert Frost — is dedicated to nurturing each student’s unique strengths.

Amherst is also part of the Five College Consortium, allowing students to enroll in courses at four other nearby liberal arts colleges: Mount Holyoke College, Smith College, Hampshire College, and the University of Massachusetts Amherst. These institutions offer thousands of additional classes at no extra tuition.


9. Washington & Lee University (Lexington, VA)

Washington & Lee University
photo via Wikimedia Commons

Located south of Washington, D.C. in historic Lexington, Virginia, Washington & Lee is a unique liberal arts institution in many ways.

Instead of the usual two-term semester, it operates on a three-term system: 13-week fall and winter terms followed by a four-week spring term. Called “Immersion,” this term is an opportunity for students to take eclectic courses that jog their curiosity. Faculty design the courses themselves based on the topics they most want to teach: freedom rides throughout the Civil Rights South, the physics of music, code-breaking in mathematics and history, the politics of Barack Obama, the stem cell controversy, and more.

W&L is also characterized by a traditional honors system, whereby students pledge to act honorably in and out of the classroom. Exams are usually unproctored and self-scheduled, even those that are closed-book.

Unlike in many liberal arts colleges, which have small or nonexistent Greek life, over 80% of W&L students are involved in fraternities or sororities.


8. Colby College (Waterville, ME)

Colby College
photo via Wikimedia Commons

Like W&L’s Immersion term, Colby’s “Jan-plan” gives students a few weeks between fall and spring semesters to intern, take courses, or participate in research.

The Davis Institute for Artificial Intelligence at Colby is the first AI institute at a liberal arts college. It has been featured on NPR’s Marketplace for its innovative integration of AI into all courses of study at the college.

The school recently added a new English major concentration — literature and the environment — to deepen interdisciplinary dialogue. Students apply their analytical and writing skills to issues of environmental and social inequities.

Colby is also home to a Museum of Art, which serves as a teaching venue and local cultural institution for Maine residents and visitors. The space displays a diverse collection of American art, including an entire wing dedicated to works by American painter Alex Katz.


7. Haverford College (Haverford, PA)

Haverford College
photo via Wikimedia Commons

Haverford College is also famous for its student-run honor code, allowing students to schedule their own exams within constraints. Students also benefit from being part of the Tri-College Consortium with Swarthmore and Bryn Mawr, as well as the Quaker Consortium, which includes Ivy League University of Pennsylvania. Haverford students can cross-enroll and, depending on availability, major in departments at these other schools.

The Haverford College Arboretum is the oldest collegiate arboretum in the country and encompasses the entire campus. Scenic trails wind through wide, open spaces, including a duck pond and flower gardens.

Greek life is not a part of Haverford, but there are over 145 student organizations — a lot for such a small school. The athletic division is home to the only varsity cricket team in the U.S., and the men’s soccer team dates back to 1901. 

Notable alumni include Emmy award-winning journalist Juan Williams, actor Daniel Dae Kim, and Nobel Peace Prize winner and Olympic medalist Philip Noel-Baker.


6. Williams College (Williamstown, MA)

Williams College
photo via Wikimedia Commons

Williams tops the U.S. News list of best national liberal arts colleges.

Oxford-style tutorials are a big reason why. Over a full semester, students are paired and guided by a professor in a given area of study. The tutorial depends heavily on independent research and participation, usually culminating in a co-authored publication.

The emphasis on student-driven education makes Williams an especially ideal place to learn. Like Colby’s “Jan-plan,” Winter Study allows Williams students to take unique courses, take short-term trips, do research, or intern. Diverse course offerings — which have included Social Life of Fashion and Taichi — provide a change of pace from the regular term, nurturing pure curiosity rather than the hard skills required of one’s major.

Williams’ world-class faculty have included Pulitzer Prize winner Elizabeth Kolbert, author Clara Claiborne Park, and theoretical physicist William Wootters.


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

West Point
photo via Wikimedia Commons

Admittedly, a military academy does not come first to mind when people think of liberal arts colleges. But it makes perfect sense.

Military personnel are often called to act on the spot, to rely on their instincts. A liberal arts education — adaptable, wide-ranging, problem-solving — is best equipped to foster these instincts.

West Point cadets go through academic, military, physical, and moral/ethical training over the course of their four-year program. Academically, cadets learn through the Thayer Method: independent study reinforced or clarified by class discussion.

All cadets receive the same base-level instruction in mathematics, IT, chemistry, physics, engineering, history, geography, philosophy, leadership, psychology, English, foreign language, political science, international relations, economics, and constitutional law. From there, they are free to choose a specific course of study, all of which result in a B.S. degree.

Famous alumni include astronaut Buzz Aldrin, current secretary of defense Lloyd Austin, and former presidents Dwight D. Eisenhower and Ulysses S. Grant.


4. Carleton College (Northfield, MN)

Carleton College
photo via Wikimedia Commons

Instead of an open curriculum, Carleton prescribes a comprehensive list of undergraduate degree requirements. Courses include argument & inquiry, quantitative reasoning, global citizenship, and physical education.

Carleton is also known for its quirky school traditions, which include finding and stealing a plaster bust of German poet Friedrich Schiller. The practice is so well-known that Schiller made an appearance on The Colbert Report.

Carleton hums with as much academic achievement as personality. Every senior caps off their studies with Comps, a comprehensive research project that exceeds the scope and complexity of all other coursework. This project takes the form of research papers, lectures, posters, musical compositions, paintings, computer programs, and more.

Notable Carleton alumni include former Supreme Court Justice Pierce Butler, abortion rights activist Dr. Jane Elizabeth Hodgson, and NBA basketball player Freddie Gillespie.


3. Harvey Mudd College (Claremont, CA)

Harvey Mudd College
photo via Wikimedia Commons

A common misconception about liberal arts is that it focuses primarily on arts and humanities. Harvey Mudd College blows that assumption out of the water. 

With an emphasis on science and engineering, Harvey Mudd is part of the Claremont College consortium, which lets students cross-enroll at six other colleges. However, all Harvey Mudd students must go through the Common Core: computer science, engineering, biology, chemistry, physics, mathematics, writing, and critical inquiry.

Harvey Mudd grads are rewarded for their hard work when they enter the workforce. In 2016, Business Insider crowned Harvey Mudd the #1 college for helping students land high-paying jobs.

Notable alumni include SQL co-inventor Donald Chamberlin, game designer Sean “Day9” Plott, and astronauts Stan Love and George “Pinky” Nelson.


2. Bowdoin College (Brunswick, ME)

Bowdoin College
photo via Wikimedia Commons

Bowdoin is a small liberal arts college on the northeastern tip of the U.S., but its connections with other prestigious institutions mean that Bowdoin students are far from isolated.

Engineering students can choose from dual degree programs at Columbia, Caltech, Dartmouth, and the University of Maine. The athletic and academic Colby-Bates-Bowdoin Consortium gives all Bowdoin students access to the libraries of these three schools.

In 1969, Bowdoin was first in the nation to pave the way for SAT/ACT test-optional admissions. Bowdoin is also the birthplace of one of the most revered literary societies, the Peucinian Society. Poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow founded it in 1805, and it remains Bowdoin’s oldest student society today.

In addition to Longfellow, famous alumni include novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne, former U.S. president Franklin Pierce, and Subway co-founder Peter Buck.


1. Pomona College (Claremont, CA)

Pomona College
photo via Wikimedia Commons

Like Harvey Mudd, Pomona is part of the elite Claremont College consortium, along with undergraduate colleges Pitzer, Claremont McKenna, and Scripps as well as graduate schools Claremont Graduate University and Keck Graduate Institute.

Founders of Pomona College envisioned a “college of the New England type,” which explains its similarities to many elite New England universities. Its 7% acceptance rate gives the Ivy League schools a run for their money, and every degree program requires a breadth of courses in different fields. 

Thanks to the Claremont Colleges system, students enjoy the resources of a large research university without sacrificing the intimate environment of a small liberal arts college. In contrast to Harvey Mudd, the most popular majors at Pomona reflect a more diverse landscape of interests: economics, mathematics, computer science, neuroscience, and politics.

Notable faculty have included kabuki expert Leonard Pronko, NBA basketball coach Gregg Popovich, and poet Claudia Rankine. Pomona grads include Nobel Prize-winning biochemist Jennifer Doudna, singer-songwriter Kris Kristofferson, and Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Mary Schmich.


Should You Go to a Liberal Arts College?

Liberal arts colleges focus on holistic undergraduate education, let students and faculty form close bonds, benefit from partnerships with other colleges, and award versatile degrees. But does that mean liberal arts colleges are right for you?

It depends on what you’re looking for in a college and — beyond that — a career. Liberal arts colleges are great for people who have a general idea of what they want to study or do, but they’re open to different industries.

For example, someone passionate about biology might not yet know whether they want to become a doctor, teacher, science journalist, or something else entirely. A liberal arts institution would broaden that person’s horizons and give them exposure to healthcare, education, journalism, and more. By graduation, they have a better idea of the right career path and have adaptable problem-solving skills.

On the other hand, if you’re set on a specific career, such as nursing, and don’t particularly care about having close relationships with professors, you may not want to go to a liberal arts college. Perhaps you prefer the bustling environment and dynamic Greek life of a big public university. Maybe you want to go straight into a professional nursing program, getting a job right out of school.

Many claim that liberal arts colleges prepare people for life, not work; learning takes precedence over career. The opposite is true for professional or vocational schools, which train students in specific skills for specific careers.

Only you can decide what type of college is right for you.


Featured image via Wikimedia Commons

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