What is the Difference Between Liberal Arts Colleges and Universities?

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liberal arts college vs university

Your college decision is the first step in planning your future. And this is true for many high school seniors looking to plan ahead. But with so many institutions to choose from, there are some things you should know.

Prospective students must research potential colleges before applying. There are two main types of institutions:

  • The liberal arts college
  • The traditional university

Each has its respective purposes and strengths. And each institution suits different types of students. It is up to you to decide which institution is best for you. But we can help explain the difference between liberal arts colleges and universities.

What Is the Difference between College and University?

First, we have to ask: What’s the difference between a college and a university? These terms are interchangeable in the United States. But they aren’t identical.

Colleges and universities differ in program and degree offerings. A university is a larger institution with undergraduate and graduate degrees. A college can be one of the following types:

  • Community colleges
  • Liberal arts colleges
  • Technical schools

Many colleges do not offer graduate programs. They tend to be private schools or institutions while universities are public. But they can prepare students for graduate school.

So, what’s the difference between college and university? People in the United States tend to use these terms as synonyms for each other. But in practice, there are key differences between these two types of institutions.

The Pros of Universities

We explained what is the difference between a college and a university. But there’s something else you should know. Each type of institution has its own benefits and flaws. Let’s discuss some of them together.

Accomplished Professors

Universities feature wonderful faculty members, each highly qualified in their fields. They give students expansive and exciting learning experiences.

Diverse Communities

Many universities are large with diverse student bodies. You will work with people from all walks of life. This includes:

  • Faculty members
  • Other students
  • Staff

Many Program and Course Offerings

Universities offer undergraduate and graduate programs/degrees. This opens doors to many profitable career paths.

These degrees also allow you to study your passions and hone your skills. They help you choose the best program for you. And there are plenty of options to choose from.

The Cons of Universities

There are many benefits to a university education. But there are also some drawbacks. Before we talk about colleges, we must cover the cons of universities.

High Tuition

A four-year university will cost more than a two-year college. It often results in student loan debt or expensive tuition. The total cost of attendance at universities includes:

  • Board
  • Books
  • Fees
  • Room
  • Tuition

But this is no different than attending a four-year liberal arts college. In fact, small colleges tend to offer less financial aid than universities. It depends on the individual institution, so make sure to do your research.

Low Classroom and Faculty Availability

Many universities have large student bodies and class sizes. This makes one-on-one interactions with professors difficult. But it also depends on your major. Some classes are larger than others. For instance, specialized literature classes will be smaller than computer science lectures.

And with tenure, professors sometimes focus more on research than teaching. This increases the difficulty of faculty connections. Large student bodies also make registering for classes hard. A course will fill up quicker at a large university than at a small college with fewer students.

The large campus can also feel isolating to some. You might enjoy the bustling community. Or you might feel isolated in large lectures. This is important to consider when applying to institutions.

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What Are Liberal Arts Colleges?

You learned the difference between university and college. You also know the pros and cons of university education.

Next, let’s discuss the following question: What is a liberal arts college (LAC)?

Liberal arts colleges/universities emphasize general knowledge. Liberal arts colleges encourage students to develop broad intellectual capacities. This is unlike the following types of curricula:

  • Professional
  • Technical
  • Vocational

These types of curricula specialize in specific fields of study.

Statistics report that most liberal arts colleges are private institutions or private schools. Many public universities tend to follow traditional modes of broad education. But there are many exceptions to this rule. You should research individual institutions and their education style to learn more.

The Pros of Liberal Arts Colleges

Here’s a look at the benefits of top liberal arts colleges, and why some students find student life at liberal arts schools a positive experience. Read on for more information about the liberal arts tradition and how liberal arts colleges differ from public universities.

Close Faculty-Student Relationships

Forging relationships with faculty will feel easy at a liberal arts college. The student-to-faculty ratio at most liberal arts schools is promising. Some ratios are as low as 3:1. You will get to know professors at a personal level. And this strengthens your network for your future career. The intimacy you receive at liberal arts colleges is a big benefit.

Small Student Body

Liberal arts colleges have fewer undergraduate programs and small campuses. This leads to smaller student bodies. A small student body means a close-knit community and intimate campus life. You won’t feel isolated at a liberal arts college.

Liberal arts colleges give you a strong alumni network. Small student bodies at liberal arts schools are intimate. Liberal arts students support their companions at school and beyond.

Well-Rounded Education Style

A liberal arts education leads to a well-rounded student. Liberal arts curriculum equips you for a variety of challenges in the workplace. Liberal arts education emphasizes skills like:

  • Collaboration
  • Communication
  • Creativity
  • Critical thinking skills

These are skills that all employers look for in new hires. They know that liberal arts students will be ready for anything because liberal arts curriculum has prepared them. And the students’ well-rounded education received from a liberal arts college makes them brilliant team players.

The Cons of Liberal Arts Colleges

Not everything about liberal arts colleges is positive. Even top liberal arts colleges have a few drawbacks. Here’s a look at some cons of attending liberal arts colleges.

Less Diversity at Liberal Arts Colleges

Liberal arts colleges are notorious for lacking diverse communities. And many of them are in rural or suburban areas. This means that their student bodies are small and conforming. They do not allow for the melting pot that universities offer.

A diverse student body at liberal arts colleges helps prospective students with many characteristics like:

  • Cultural engagement
  • Empathy
  • Self-awareness

Most liberal arts colleges can’t offer these traits to students. But it depends on the liberal arts school. While most liberal arts colleges lack diversity, this isn’t the case for all liberal arts colleges.

No Job Market Preparation at Liberal Arts Schools

There are many benefits to the well-roundedness of a liberal arts education. But there are also some drawbacks. For one, many liberal arts colleges do not offer a focus on specific career paths. Top liberal arts colleges focus on a more generalized education. Because of this, students at liberal arts colleges lack hands-on work experience achieved through:

  • Internships
  • Part-time jobs
  • Research opportunities

Shadowing a liberal arts education does not prepare students for a specific career. Liberal arts students sometimes graduate without the experience needed to achieve their goals. The best thing a liberal arts student can do is get experience in the real world. Get a part-time job, land an internship, or work alongside a professor. This way you can put your liberal arts curriculum and knowledge to the test.

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How to Choose the Right Institution

With so many institutions to choose from, applying to college may seem daunting. You could want a liberal arts college. Or you might prefer the environment of a larger university. Choosing the type of institution is the first step. But that still doesn’t narrow it down.

There are a few things you should consider when choosing among liberal arts institutions and public universities. Below are some aspects that will help narrow down your choices.

Campus atmosphere

Campus atmosphere or campus life is crucial to enjoying your time at college. You need to consider what kind of campus community sounds appealing to you. You might want a small, intimate space with plenty of nature. You can find this atmosphere at a liberal arts college. Or you might want a bustling campus nestled in a downtown area.

To explore this aspect, you can look online or in person. Many schools offer virtual tours for visitors who live far away. But the best way to explore a campus is in person.

Book a tour at your perspective college. You can also explore it on your own. Both are great ways of gauging the atmosphere at liberal arts colleges or universities.

Cost and fees

Most sticker prices on liberal arts schools and other colleges are higher than what you will have to pay. This is true for most private colleges and some public universities. It all depends on their financial aid offerings.

You should ask schools about their aid and scholarships. The institutions you find interesting will provide you with plenty of information. And if they don’t offer much aid, you can scratch them off your list.

College education shouldn’t break you. There are plenty of schools that offer generous financial aid packages to students in need. And you can apply to local scholarships yourself to lessen the financial burden.

Distance from home

You need to consider a college’s distance from your hometown. Students might want to stay close to their family while earning their undergraduate degrees. Or you could explore places you’ve never been before.

There are benefits to each option. It depends on your personal desires. If you are super close with your family, you might want to stay a car drive away. This will make visiting home easier. Otherwise, explore whatever place you want.

But remember, you must live on or near campus for two or four years. Make sure you enjoy the place before you matriculate.

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Extracurricular activities

College isn’t all about school. You need to make time for friends and hobbies. Your campus community can provide many extracurricular activities.

Many schools offer great activity clubs. Sometimes they have hundreds to choose from. Think about what you do in your free time now. That might include:

  • Creative pursuits
  • Sports
  • Volunteering

Make sure the liberal arts college or university you like has the right activities for you. You don’t want to feel bored at school with nothing to do. Liberal arts colleges focus on atmosphere, and helping students feel at ease. If this is important to you, then this type of school might be the best fit.

Housing options

Housing is one of the most important parts of college. This is your base of operations for the next few years. You need to enjoy the space. If you don’t, that could lead to mental health decline.

Think about your personal preferences. Are you an introvert or an extrovert? Or you could be a little of both. If you are an introvert, you might consider getting your own room. You need a place to recharge that social battery.

If you are an extrovert, you can room with other students. Having roommates can make lasting friendships.

And don’t forget about the house or dorm itself. Some colleges let students live off campus in apartments. Others don’t. Would you prefer a dorm or an apartment? These are things to consider when choosing your institution. It is common for large universities to offer off-campus apartments, but you don’t always find this at liberal arts colleges.

Majors and classes

A large part of college is your intended major. Even if you don’t know what you want to major in, it’s something to consider. Think about the subjects that interest you in school. There are many options to choose from. Some examples of college majors include:

  • Business
  • Computer science
  • Education
  • English
  • Film
  • Higher education
  • History
  • Mathematics
  • Music
  • Nursing
  • Psychology

There are many more majors not listed above. But not every school has the same list of majors. Make sure the schools you research have the right major for you.

For instance, you might want to major in creative writing. Not every school will have this option. Some liberal arts colleges will offer liberal arts majors. These might include creative writing. Others might offer it as a minor, not a major. Some won’t have it at all. It’s best to check a school’s degree offerings before applying.

The same goes for classes. Every school offers different courses within their majors. And many institutions have general requirements outside of your major. Many liberal arts colleges want you to take a course or two in every subject. This includes:

  • Humanities
  • Natural sciences
  • Quantitative studies
  • Social sciences

These courses go beyond the liberal arts majors. If this seems boring or unnecessary to you, you are not alone. Many students want to avoid generalized liberal arts education systems. If this is the case, a liberal arts college might not be for you. Consider a vocational university with a more specific career track.


Last but not least is safety. On-campus safety is among the most important factors when choosing a school. So is the safety of the surrounding area. You must research the following questions:

  • How secure are the living arrangements?
  • Is the neighborhood around the school safe?
  • What safety protocols does the school have?

You should get to know the school’s policies on student safety. What is higher education without a safe environment in which to learn? Many liberal arts colleges value safety above all else. But large universities might be in areas with high mugging or crime rates.

Considering these factors will help you narrow down your search. You will start to feel comfortable in this new life chapter. And your parents will relax knowing that you’re safe and sound.

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Final Thoughts on Liberal Arts Colleges and More

The decision between liberal arts colleges and traditional institutions is not easy. Students must consider all factors listed in this article. It may seem overwhelming at first. But working one step at a time will save you time and stress in the long run.

You should weigh the advantages and disadvantages of each school type. And when you do this, keep your own goals in mind.

Now that you understand the differences between liberal arts colleges and universities, your job becomes easier. You should weigh the pros and cons of each school type. And when you do this, keep your own goals in mind. It makes selecting colleges a breeze. You can avoid needing to transfer schools in the future.

Now, all you need to do is apply to your dream school!

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