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What Are Liberal Arts Colleges, and Are They Right for You?

29th March 2016 Posted by: Francesca Turauskis

IF you’ve heard the phrase ‘liberal arts college’ when looking for university education, the words ‘arts college’ might have made you assume that they only offer creative courses. But liberal arts colleges are actually defined by their broader and more ‘liberal’ approach to teaching, and offer higher education that differs from other colleges in several ways.  

Whilst other universities and colleges offer focused degrees on a particular subject, liberal arts colleges offer courses that cover a variety of subjects at once. Whilst other universities emphasise the research aspects of a degree, liberal arts colleges tend to have an emphasis on practical teaching and collaboration. And whilst other universities keep students from different disciplines in different classrooms and campuses, liberal arts colleges allow students with different skills to mix and work together. What makes these colleges different from other places of higher education is also what makes them appealing to many students. If you are looking for a well-rounded higher education, read on to find out if a liberal arts college could be right for you.  

About liberal arts colleges

The idea of a liberal arts curriculum dates back as far as Ancient Greece, where liberal arts was considered the essential education for a free individual. At that time, liberal arts covered three subjects: grammar, rhetoric (speechmaking) and logic – all subjects that were required to serve in court and on juries. By medieval times, this was extended to include sciences such as arithmetic and astronomy, and music.

Today, liberal arts colleges can be found around the world, but they are most often associated with the United States. In 1723, the oldest liberal arts college in America, Washington College, was founded after American independence, but the liberal arts college really took off in America in the 19th century. There are now well over 500 liberal arts colleges in the United States, including the Little Three, and Little Ivy colleges in New England, and the primarily female Seven Sisters colleges. Liberal arts colleges are less popular around the world than they are in America, but they are starting to become more available – there are now a number of dedicated liberal arts colleges in Europe and Asia, one in Africa – Ashesi University in Ghana – with many other universities that offer liberal arts degree courses. Indeed, most liberal arts colleges elsewhere in the world base their structure on the one established by American colleges.

The courses

Generally speaking then, a liberal arts programme provides a broader range of learning, offering a base of knowledge on a range of subjects at once. A liberal arts programme can cover the fields of Humanities, Social Sciences, Natural Sciences and Formal Sciences, and students can choose how much emphasis and which subjects are studied within each field. This could mean that a student might end up studying mathematics and linguistics, or music and astronomy simultaneously. The majority of liberal arts degrees in the USA are full-time courses that last four years. At the end of the course, graduates receive either a Bachelor of Arts (BA) or Bachelor of Science (BSc) certificate. Although the focus of a liberal arts degree is on a general education, some students do choose to specialise by taking a Major or Minor subject – these are quite often in areas such as business, law and politics. Students who decide to major in a specific part of the course will have this as part of their qualification as well (i.e. Bachelor of Science with Law.) Although most liberal arts colleges cater exclusively to undergraduate programmes, some are starting to offer postgraduate courses, which are more focused on specific subjects, such as Business Management and Nursing. 

The student-teacher relationship

ONE aspect that makes liberal arts colleges stand apart is the teaching style itself. Practical elements, presentations, discussions and student participation are encouraged, as is a high level of student-teacher interaction and collaboration. It is not unusual for teachers to become mentors, or even research partners with their students. The professors are more likely to be full-time teachers, (whereas in universities there might be a combination of graduate student-teachers and research professors who work on their own projects) which is useful when trying to track down teachers outside of lectures. Liberal arts colleges tend to be smaller than other universities, and have a reduced student intake. This means that class sizes are often much smaller, usually between 12 to 30 students, and the student-teacher ratio is therefore much lower as well. Professors and students have more time to get to know each other, and professors can encourage, and get more involved in, their students work.  

The outcome

The original idea of liberal arts education was to create valuable members of the community. Today this equates to valuable members of the employment world, and liberal arts degrees are designed to provide a foundation for many careers, rather than a career focused education in one field. The width of knowledge learnt at a liberal arts college includes aspects such as communication skills, teamwork, self-confidence and decision-making – all aspects that are valuable to employers in various different sectors. In a survey of CEOs in the US, 74% said they would recommend a liberal arts education because of the transferable skills it teaches, as well as the ability to adapt to a changing workplace. Such a broad undergraduate course allows students the opportunity to discover what they like, and then decide on a career path later in the degree. This format is less restrictive, and allows graduates to sell themselves as valuable employees in the career of their choice. It doesn’t limit the options for postgraduate education and research either. The wider range of fields study simple means that there is a wider range from which to choose a specialism, and go straight in to study at an advance level.

From Ancient Greece to modern America, the aim of a liberal arts curriculum remains the same: to develop well-rounded individuals with general knowledge and transferrable skills.

Perhaps you could consider the benefits of a Joint Honours Degree if you want something a bit more focused? 


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