Should You Study at a Liberal Arts College or a U.S. University?

When we begin the process of creating a shortlist of U.S. colleges and universities for our clients, one of the first questions we ask them is, “Apart from large public and private U.S. universities, are you open to the idea of studying at a liberal arts college? While there is no formal definition of a liberal arts college (LAC) is, liberal arts colleges in the U.S. are mostly small, private institutions. LACs focus on developing a student’s individual thinking and writing abilities across a variety of subjects, usually in preparation for a graduate program at a traditional university. Not all liberal arts colleges, however, fit this mold. There are a few public liberal arts colleges as well, and some universities have a LAC within the university’s broader program.
The dictionary definition of a university is ‘an institution of higher education having authority to award bachelors’ and higher degrees, usually having research facilities’. In the U.S, any school can call itself a university, unlike in places like Australia where only state funded schools can be universities. Any school can use a state/country name. Hence, the American University is private, as are the University of Southern California, Santa Clara University, and Southern Virginia University.
Traditional American universities and liberal arts colleges (LACs) are both places where students can get an excellent undergraduate education; but they are two different types of academic institutions which offer vastly different forms of pedagogy, learning experiences, and extracurricular opportunities. Let’s review the differences in detail.
Programs Offered
LACs typically offer undergraduate courses in liberal arts disciplines such as social sciences, natural sciences, humanities, and arts. LACs may also award undergraduate degrees under subjects such as science and engineering, but they tend to have fewer choice of majors. For instance, if you want to study biology, a LAC may just have two options biology and biochemistry (as an example), whereas a U.S. university may offer four to seven different biology majors.
In contrast, large U.S. universities offer a broad range of undergraduate degrees and professional programs (e.g. engineering, accounting, computer science, law, or medical). Universities also consist of graduate schools, whereas LACs usually only offer undergraduate degrees.
Major universities are focused on research, whereas LACs think of themselves as being focused on developing individual students. In fact, many LACs take pride in the fact that they prepare their students for facing anything in life.
Class Size
The other significant difference between LACs and U.S. universities is the class size. LACs usually have smaller class sizes of eighteen to twenty students per class, which means there are fewer students per teacher. In contrast, universities often have large classrooms, especially in the first two years where there could be two to four hundred students attending a lecture. The differences in class sizes in LACs and U.S. universities translates to different learning environments.
The teaching style at LACs is seminar based, which encourages students to participate in discussions. The lower student-teacher ratio means greater one-on-one interactions with the teacher. There is greater engagement with other students as well, both in and outside of the classroom. The focus at universities is on research, rather than building personal connections with students. Also, given the large number of students some of the classes may be taught by teaching assistants.
While the university system and environment may seem attractive to some students, many international students can feel isolated or forgotten among thousands of students at a university and may struggle to gain access to professors when they need extra help. On the other hand, one may argue that the environment at LACs is like a ‘mini’ high school while studying at a university allows more anonymity for the student.

Avenues for Extracurricular Activities
Both LACs and U.S. universities have excellent extracurricular avenues in terms of arts, theatre, athletics, student clubs, etc. Because of their larger size, U.S. Universities tend to have more options for student organizations, sororities and fraternities. Also, while the large universities offer Division I sports, at a LAC you may only find Division 3 level (Division I universities are typically where the best high school and U.S. college athletes go to play and compete in traditional American sports like baseball, basketball, and American football).
It’s imperative to consider the strengths and weaknesses of LACs versus large universities as you select the colleges you’d want to apply to. If you have an undergraduate degree and want to pursue a Master’s degree or higher in science, then a U.S. university with its bigger research facilities and budgets might be a better choice. Similarly, if you want to work outside the U.S. after graduation, a reputed U.S university serves your purpose well.On the other hand, if you don’t want to get lost in a crowd, if you want a more interactive learning experience, or if you are unsure of your choice of graduate course, then a LAC with its interactive teaching style and a broad curriculum is worth considering. Although American LACs are well-known within the U.S. and in Canada, larger universities usually enjoy greater international recognition. Many international students believe that an undergraduate degree in computers, engineering, law, or business from a highly-ranked U.S. university creates better employment prospects.
There are lots of ‘Top U.S. University’ rankings out there, but it’s important to note that all rankings, are limited by their methodology. If the ranking metrics are weighted differently, or if slightly different metrics are used, any university ranking will change dramatically. Therefore, aiming for the top twenty colleges on a U.S. university ranking list is certainly not the right way to approach your college admissions.
Sometimes getting a first-hand experience is the best way to know what is a right fit for you. We advise our clients to visit campuses of LACS and U.S. universities and sit in on a few classes to get a better understanding. However, if you don’t have the time to make those visits, you can consult with our U.S. based advisors who have direct, in-depth experience with U.S. LACs and universities.
Good luck on your applications and feel free to contact us for more information on the U.S. University admission process.