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How to define a liberal arts college

February 6, 2017, Posted In College List

For families in the midst of the college planning process, the term “liberal arts college” (LAC) is often used to describe a certain grouping of schools. While the term may sound straightforward, it can sometimes be misconstrued. To help, here are five defining characteristics of a liberal arts college experience:

  1. Setting. LACs are often distinguished from large universities based on their tight-knit, community feel. With 1,500 – 3,000 students on average, LACs have a strong residential feel to them. Most LACs provide on-campus housing for students for all four years.
  2. Curriculum. LACs encourage students to take a holistic and diverse approach to academics. Unlike universities with multiple undergraduate colleges, LACs typically require students to take classes in various disciplines (language, mathematics and the humanities). A major declaration is often times not made until the middle of sophomore year. Also, don’t be misled by the name, liberal arts colleges offer strong programs across the sciences, and many LACs now offer majors in pre-professional programs such as engineering, computer science, applied mathematics, business and education.
  3. Career Development. While some may criticize LACs for lacking the necessary resources for professional development, these colleges often provide students with more individualized support through the career services office.
  4. Faculty. With a smaller student body come smaller classes and closer relationships with professors. Faculty at LACs are typically less involved with research, thus providing them with more time to focus on their courses, students and advisees within their department. This can pay big dividends later when students need references for jobs and/or letters of recommendation for graduate school.
  5. The classroom. When high school students think of college classes, they tend to picture the classic auditorium-style hall with chalkboards and a lecture stand; at most LACs, however, the classroom takes on the form of a smaller, discussion-based seminar that encourages students to work collaboratively and speak up.

To better understand what makes an LAC unique – get out there and visit, talk with students and alumni and don’t be afraid to ask questions. The more you know, the better prepared you and your child will be when narrowing down his or her school list.