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What Is a Liberal Arts College?

Ask yourself an important question: Why are you going to college?

Is it to prepare for a career? Or is it to broaden your horizons, expand your mind, and find out who you are?

(Spoiler alert: There’s no right answer.)

But if you gravitate to the latter idea, then a liberal arts college may be right for you. But what exactly is a liberal arts college?

In short, it’s a school that aims to give you a well-rounded education. But there’s more to it than that. Let’s start at the beginning:

What is meant by the term “liberal arts”?

Liberal arts has nothing to do with being liberal, and originally, it actually had nothing to do with arts. So what is it all about?

To find that out, you have to go back to the era of classical antiquity. Liberal arts grew out of this period in which certain studies were considered liberales, or worthy of a free person. At the time, that consisted of just three subjects: grammar, rhetoric, and logic. Together, these were known as the trivium. Other subjects — arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy — were folded in during Medieval times, and the trivium expanded to a quadrivium.

Today, there are far more disciplines that fall under the liberal arts curriculum, including — surprise! — art, literature, philosophy, social sciences (like history, anthropology, and economics) natural sciences, math, and many more.

Despite these evolutions, the goal of a liberal arts education has remained the same: to create an individual whose education is robust and versatile. Students of liberal arts are expected to be knowledgeable about a wide range of subjects, and to have developed skills that translate well to a variety of scenarios.

Recommended: 3 Myths About Liberal Arts Colleges, Busted

What is a liberal arts college?

A liberal arts college, then, is a place of higher learning that maintains focus on these classical themes and objectives. Their goal is not necessarily to train students for a career (though that may happen), but to challenge their beliefs, make them critical thinkers, and poise them to become global citizens.

There are lots of other things that liberal arts colleges tend to have in common:

  • They’re usually small. While, at large universities, it’s not hard to find lecture halls filled with hundreds of students, the classes at liberal arts colleges usually have 15-20 students.
  • Faculty tends to be more accessible at liberal arts colleges. There are few or no teaching assistants, which makes it easier to get personal attention from professors.
  • There’s also an emphasis on undergraduate education at liberal arts schools, whereas universities may offer a lot of graduate, Ph.D. and professional programs, as well as house extensive research efforts.

Recommended: Liberal Arts College vs. University

Why choose a liberal arts college?

One obvious reason to choose a liberal arts school is to ensure that the focus is learning, as opposed to training for a future career. That’s not to say that liberal arts graduates don’t go on to become professionals — they absolutely do. However, a liberal arts student’s time spent in college is more focused on preparing for life, as opposed to work, with the belief that their skills will translate into a variety of career paths.

Others may choose a liberal arts college simply because they don’t want what they see as a “typical” college experience. Athletics and Greek life tend to be much smaller scenes at liberal arts colleges, which some students prefer.

Regardless of the reason, even if you know a liberal arts college is right for you, you still have to find the right one for you. To get you started, here’s a look at the top liberal arts colleges in the country. One might be your perfect fit.

The Best Liberal Arts Colleges in America

Author: Ali Trachta

Ali is the former Content Writer/Editor at Niche. She's a content strategist and award-winning writer, as well as a former editor at LA Weekly and NEXTpittsburgh. As a mom of one who's lived and worked all across the country, she's glad to have once again found her niche in her hometown of Pittsburgh.