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Liberal Arts College vs University

Liberal Arts College vs. University

“Are you considering a liberal arts college or a four-year university?”

Students may encounter this question in their college admissions and application process and be stumped on how to answer, especially if they aren’t sure what the difference is.

While liberal arts colleges and universities are both places to get a higher education, they offer different experiences, learning styles, and amenities to students.

Recommended: What Is a Liberal Arts College?

Liberal Arts Colleges vs. Universities

Liberal Arts College University
Liberal Arts College Focus on well-rounded education
University Focus on research
Liberal Arts College Typically small in enrollment size
University Typically large in enrollment size
Liberal Arts College Emphasis on undergraduate education
University Graduate, Ph.D., and professional education offered
Liberal Arts College More classroom discussion
University Large lecture classes
Liberal Arts College Typically few or no teaching assistants
University Use of teaching assistants
Liberal Arts College Small class sizes
University Big class sizes
Liberal Arts College Less competition to attain leadership positions
University National name recognition
Liberal Arts College More attention with faculty
University Bigger focus on athletics
Liberal Arts College Sometimes described as "mini-high schools" because gossip spreads fast
University More anonymity on campus

Admissions Process

While the application processes might not be different from each other, there may be some differences in what students are applying for.

For example, a liberal arts college student may just be admitted to the college itself, while a university student may be admitted to a specific school within the university. Also, because universities may have branch campuses, a student may have to apply to a specific branch (e.g., Penn State Altoona versus Penn State University Park).

Top Liberal Arts Colleges

This is a look at the top 10 liberal arts colleges based on Niche’s Best Liberal Arts Colleges ranking.

Rank College Name Niche Grade Size Best Overall Ranking
Rank 1
College Name Bowdoin College
Niche Grade A+
Size 1,794
Best Overall Ranking #9
Rank 2
College Name Pomona College
Niche Grade A+
Size 1,651
Best Overall Ranking #18
Rank 3
College Name Carleton College
Niche Grade A+
Size 1,997
Best Overall Ranking #25
Rank 4
College Name Harvey Mudd College
Niche Grade A+
Size 815
Best Overall Ranking #26
Rank 5
College Name Middlebury College
Niche Grade A+
Size 2,516
Best Overall Ranking #28
Rank 6
Niche Grade A+
Size 1,851
Best Overall Ranking #30
Rank 7
College Name Swarthmore College
Niche Grade A+
Size 1,571
Best Overall Ranking #31
Rank 8
College Name Barnard College
Niche Grade A+
Size 2,511
Best Overall Ranking #33
Rank 9
Niche Grade A+
Size 1,327
Best Overall Ranking #34
Rank 10
College Name Haverford College
Niche Grade A+
Size 1,233
Best Overall Ranking #38

Liberal Arts Majors vs. University Majors

The main difference between liberal arts college majors and university majors is that liberal arts schools generally offer one expansive area of study, whereas at universities, the same major may be broken into two or more degree tracks.

For example, someone at the University of Pennsylvania majoring in engineering has options. He or she can either major in engineering through bachelor of science program or do a dual degree in engineering through the bachelor of science and bachelor of arts programs. The dual degree program would involve the study of engineering through the School of Engineering & Applied Science and the School of Arts & Sciences, which would include different course focuses, with SEAS geared more toward research and SAS more toward theory and principle. This is a good example of how universities cover more specific topics related to a major.

But at a liberal arts college like Amherst College, which doesn’t offer an engineering major, students can still become engineers through majors related to the study, like sciences, mathematics, and statistics, or even through graduate school following Amherst. When it comes to liberal arts and engineering, students have an expansive range of what they can study. They can major in mathematics and still end up in an engineering career. It doesn’t mean that liberal arts colleges have lesser-developed classes or curriculum in these areas; it just means that they offer broader areas of study, sometimes incorporating aspects students don’t gain from more focused classes.

The Bottom Line

There are a lot of things to consider when it comes to choosing liberal arts college vs. university or vice versa. If students are torn between the two, they should visit the campuses and sit in on classes to get a feel of what they feel comfortable with. Sometimes experiencing a slice of campus life is the only way to know what you want.

View the Best Liberal Arts Colleges & Universities

Author: Niche

Niche helps you discover the schools and neighborhoods that are right for you.