Here at Apply with Sanity, I use “college” and “university” interchangeably. I do this intentionally, because most of us use them this way. If someone were to ask “where do you think you want to go to college?” you probably wouldn’t answer “I’m not going to college...I’m going to a university.” Some people will tell you that a university is a larger organization made up of any number of smaller colleges—and they wouldn’t be wrong. Some universities are indeed set up this way. And some universities aren’t. The difference just isn’t a big deal.
However, there are a number of categories of college/university that are more specific, even if they’re not well defined. In my own practice I tend to talk about three main types of colleges: “liberal arts colleges” (I say “liberal arts schools” just as often), “big state schools,” and “national private universities.” There are no clear lines between the three, there’s plenty of overlap, and I’m leaving out some (like trade schools, art schools, and other specialized schools). But those three get me through most of my conversations just fine.
If you want something more thorough and more authoritative, here is the College Board’s presentation on types of colleges. If you want to get even more technical, here is the Carnegie Classification System that academics use.
One of the most commonly used terms is liberal arts college. What does that mean?
First, let’s go over a few things that liberal arts college definitely doesn’t mean. The “liberal” in liberal arts doesn’t have to do with politics. It doesn’t mean they’re necessarily socialist or Democrats, and it doesn’t mean they’re going to indoctrinate you as a liberal. There are liberal arts schools that pride themselves on being conservative. You can go to a liberal arts school and still watch Fox News or vote Republican. No problem.
Going to a liberal arts school doesn’t mean that there are no opportunities to study math or science. While liberal arts schools are known for their emphasis on the Humanities, most of them also include math, natural sciences, and social sciences with the Humanities. You can go to a liberal arts college and still get a Bachelor of Science degree. You can still go on to medical school. You can still be an engineer.
Going to a liberal arts college does not mean you’re wasting your time at a frivolous institution and you’ll never get a real job. These are real schools; some of the most prestigious colleges in the nation are liberal arts schools.
Ok, then. So what does “liberal arts college” mean? There are a few broad characteristics that most liberal arts college share:
Liberal arts colleges have a strong focus on undergraduate students and the undergraduate experience. Most have only a small graduate school program, if they have graduate programs at all. At liberal arts colleges, you’re much more likely to have smaller classes taught by professors and less likely to have classes taught by grad students or teaching assistants. Professors or more likely to see teaching undergrad students as their primary job, not running their research. Liberal arts professors still research and stay on top of their subjects, but being a part of their undergraduate students’ education is their main job.
Liberal arts colleges value interdisciplinary study. Most have some sort of core curriculum or requirements that you take classes in different departments. Math majors have to take history classes, and history majors have to take math classes. Getting a broad education in a variety of disciplines is part of their goal. You can—and will—spend a lot of time and energy in your department, but you’ll also be familiar with other departments. A liberal arts school is not a good place to just focus on “your thing” and not have to leave the comfort of your chosen field.
Liberal arts colleges strongly emphasize self-improvement and education for education’s sake. This is where the liberal part of liberal arts comes from. Liberal as in liberating and life-changing. While people going to liberal arts colleges are certainly as interested in work, career, and income as anyone else, liberal arts colleges will push students to think about their education in terms more grand than just career development. There will be talk about Mind, Soul, Spirit, and those kinds of things.
Who should consider liberal arts colleges? Students who consider social, intellectual, and spiritual development as an important part of their college experience. Students who are very undecided in their major and want access to several options. Students who are drawn to interdisciplinary studies and the connections between different fields of study. Students who want an easier time finding mentors and relationships with faculty. Students who want a smaller school environment.
Who should probably not consider liberal arts colleges? Students who want to cheer for their school teams along with thousands, or tens of thousands, of other fans. Students who want access to graduate students and early interactions with graduate programs. Students who consider college mostly job training and don’t want to be hindered by the core curricula requirements. Students who want to go to a university with national name recognition.