What Is a Liberal Arts College? 

Written by Coursera • Updated on

Liberal arts colleges differ from larger public universities and private institutions in a number of ways.

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A liberal arts college is a four-year undergraduate institution that takes a broader approach to education by focusing on the arts, sciences, humanities, and social sciences. Instead of preparing students for a specific career, such as business or computer science, a liberal arts curriculum encourages them to develop an appreciation for many subjects and practice their critical thinking skills. As such, students can pursue many careers after graduating. 

In this article, we’ll explore more about liberal arts colleges, the types of subjects you can expect to study, and what you can do with a liberal arts degree. 

Liberal arts colleges

Liberal arts colleges base their curriculum on some of the earliest education principles, which are meant to produce students capable of thinking critically about the world around them. First used in the fourteenth century, "liberales artes" referred to the type of education available for free individuals at the time. It primarily involved subjects that stimulated the mind, like arithmetic, geometry, grammar, logic, and rhetoric.

These days, liberal arts degrees are designed to prepare students to solve problems, think critically, communicate well, and collaborate with others. Liberal arts colleges differ from larger public universities and private institutions. Some common characteristics include:

  • Small size: Most liberal arts colleges have less than 5,000 students in attendance at any given time.

  • Classroom interaction: Thanks to the reduced student population, classes tend to be smaller in order to foster open discussion and spirited student-teacher interaction. 

  • 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. 

  • Emphasis on teaching: Unlike other institutions, where professors are expected to focus on research and may teach a limited number of classes each semester, professors at liberal arts colleges focus on teaching first and research second.

What is a liberal arts degree?

When you attend a four-year college or university to obtain your Bachelor of Arts (BA) or Bachelor of Science (BS) degree, you will spend at least the first two years working through general education requirements that are steeped in the liberal arts tradition. At first, you will take a wide variety of classes unrelated to your major so that you develop your critical faculties. From there, you will likely declare a major and begin working through that specific coursework. 

When you attend a liberal arts college, there’s a greater emphasis on the connections between the different subjects you study. You will still declare a major, but even as you move into that coursework, you will continue focusing on your education in a way that ideally fosters your intellectual curiosity. You will likely graduate with a Bachelor of Arts degree.

Learn more: How to Get a Bachelor’s Degree

Popular liberal arts majors 

As with any bachelor’s degree program, you will choose a major for your liberal arts degree, but you will also be exposed to an array of other subjects—like the creative arts, history, literature, math, philosophy, psychology, science, and sociology—so that you develop a more well-rounded education.

Several popular liberal arts degrees include a focus on:

  • American studies

  • Biology

  • Creative writing

  • History 

  • Philosophy

  • Psychology

  • Sociology

What can I do with a liberal arts degree?

With a liberal arts degree, you can develop a number of valuable workplace skills, like adaptability, communication, organization, time management, problem-solving, and teamwork. Unlike a major which prepares you to enter a specific career track (think marketing or data science), you can explore many options with your liberal arts degree, using the broader skills you’ve developed to perform different types of work. 

Here are just a few types of work you can explore with a liberal arts degree.

Public service

A small campus with a sense of community encourages liberal arts students to connect with others. It's not surprising, then, that many liberal arts graduates opt for careers in public service. Areas of public service include social services, diplomacy, politics, and public policy. 

Business

With excellent problem-solving skills and an ability to think critically, liberal arts graduates often seek jobs in business. Some potential career fields include account management, customer relations, marketing, and sales. 

Education

A liberal arts degree is meant to foster a love of knowledge and learning, which is why some liberal arts graduates enjoy sharing that passion with others. 

Writing 

With skills in reading, writing, research, and communication, liberal arts graduates make good copywriters, content writers, editors, and journalists. 

Entry-level jobs for liberal arts majors

To get a better feel for what you can do with a liberal arts major, here are a few entry-level jobs and the liberal arts majors that may help you land them. 

  • Business associate: economics, psychology, sociology 

  • Events planner: communications, psychology, sociology  

  • Museum technician: art history, classics, history, languages

  • HR coordinator: psychology, sociology, communications

  • Political reporter: American studies, history, political science

  • Marketing specialist: communications, creative writing, psychology

  • Public relations specialist: communications, sociology

Should I attend a liberal arts college?

Your decision to attend a liberal arts college will likely depend on what kind of education you're seeking and what kind of career you hope to have. 

Reasons why a liberal arts college might be best for you 

Time to explore: A liberal arts college makes a great choice if you have a general idea of what you want to study but haven't decided yet. Because this type of education exposes you to a broad base of subjects, you might gain a better understanding of potential career paths. 

Foster connections: This type of college also works well if you enjoy getting to know your fellow classmates and professors. On-campus living and small class size encourage a tight-knit college community. 

Develop a wide array of skills: A liberal arts college isn’t really designed for students who want to pursue one specific outcome after graduation. Thanks to the emphasis on an interdisciplinary focus and general knowledge, you can use your well-rounded options to explore a number of paths. 

Reasons why another higher ed setting might be best for you 

Technical fields: A liberal arts college may not be the best option if you're set on a technical field. You might not learn specific skills with this type of curriculum nor gain any hands-on experience like you might in a vocational school or professional program. 

Big lecture classes: If you enjoy the feeling of anonymity that large classes can produce, you may be better off going to a four-year public university or a private university. During your first  two years, especially, many of your general ed classes may involve larger class settings. 

Flexible scheduling or self-paced options: Because of the small class size and emphasis on in-person learning, you may find less flexibility or self-paced options when it comes to taking classes than you might from an online degree program. 

Fraternities and sororities: If you're interested in joining a fraternity or sorority, you may not find them at many liberal arts colleges, though there are many other student groups available to join. 

Examples of liberal arts colleges

If you're interested in a liberal arts college, you can find them spread across the US. Here are a few examples of some of the top liberal arts colleges in the country:

  • Amherst College (Amherst, Massachusetts)

  • Carleton College (Northfield, Minnesota)

  • Dartmouth College (Hanover, New Hampshire)

  • Middlebury College (Middlebury, Vermont)

  • Morehouse College (Atlanta, Georgia)

  • Pomona College (Claremont, California)

  • Swarthmore College (Swarthmore, Pennsylvania)

  • United States Naval Academy (Annapolis, Maryland)

Want to learn more about a liberal arts education? You can take free classes from Morehouse College and Dartmouth College on Coursera. Explore topics like Activism in Sports Culture and Energy Justice.

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How to apply to a liberal arts college 

The steps involved in applying to a liberal arts college are similar to those involved in applying to most four-year schools. You will likely need to:

  • Take a college entrance exam like the ACT or SAT. 

  • Complete your college application.

  • Write your required personal statement.

  • Gather the necessary letters of recommendation.

  • Request and submit your high school transcripts.

  • Attach your payment to application packages. 

  • Submit all of your materials before the deadline (found on each college’s website).

Learn more: Step-by-Step Guide to Applying for College

What to know before applying to a liberal arts college

Liberal arts colleges often take a second look at well-rounded applicants. To diversify your interests in high school, participate in a sport or join a club. Explore the arts by taking a class in painting, sculpture, drama, or dance, or join the yearbook or the school paper. Lastly, performing volunteer work can send a strong signal to admissions committees. Get involved with your community by volunteering at a local animal shelter, rest home, or food bank. 

The selection committees at liberal arts colleges also value academic performance, so it’s better to keep your grades high throughout high school. Before you begin studying for your college entrance exam, research which test is best suited to you and give yourself plenty of time to prepare. 

Next steps

To explore more about a liberal arts education, get a feel for what some of your classes might be like. Check out various arts and humanities courses offered on Coursera by world-class colleges and universities. Many are free to enroll in, and cover a wide variety of subject matter so you can learn more about your interests—or discover new ones. 

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This content has been made available for informational purposes only. Learners are advised to conduct additional research to ensure that courses and other credentials pursued meet their personal, professional, and financial goals.

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