Differences Between the Universities and Liberal Arts College

As you are starting your college search, the vast majority of schools you see will fall into one of two categories: liberal arts colleges vs. universities. You probably have a general understanding of the differences between the universities and liberal arts colleges, but the designations can be confusing.

We can compare these two in a few categories. They are mentioned below:


Liberal arts colleges, as their name suggests, focus on the attainment of more generalized, often interdisciplinary knowledge, rather than on skills specific to a given trade or profession. Students at liberal arts colleges will draw from the arts, humanities, social and natural sciences at the same time that they pursue a major that represents their primary interest.

Whereas, universities are known for their focus on research and fact-based education. Most notable for producing professionals including doctors, engineers, biologists and more, there is less room for interpretation and a necessity for the following of set processes.


One of the major differences between liberal arts colleges vs. universities in the classroom. When it comes to class size, liberal arts colleges pride themselves on having small, intimate spaces where learning is more personal, giving priority to the interactions between students and professors. The lack of graduate students translates to classes mostly taught by professors or lecturers instead of teaching assistants. Many liberal arts colleges have student to faculty ratios of 10:1 or lower.

Universities, on the other hand, can have lectures with 200 or more students ( and this is especially true for introductory or required courses. This also means that upperclassman has access to a wider variety of specific courses for their major or as electives, including smaller seminars and discussion groups that graduate students can also register for. Universities are famous for their breadth and depth of research opportunities. Consider this tradeoff when comparing liberal arts colleges vs. universities!

Financial Aid

Elite private universities can have a hefty price tag at about $55,000 per academic year (not giving you any side-eye, Columbia and UChicago – we still love you!), yet so do many national liberal arts colleges. After accounting for scholarships and need-based grants, however, the top liberal arts colleges are also known for being the “best value” based on US News & World Report findings. This includes Williams, Amherst, Pomona, Wellesley, and Swarthmore.

Weighing school fit and academic quality against the financial package a school offers may tip the scales in favor of a liberal arts college. That being said, this value might not be able to beat in-state tuition at your local university.


Selecting the best program at the best school is an important decision. You need to think about the importance you place on factors such as program options, research exposure, class size, and more. The general differences between liberal arts colleges and research universities can guide you, but you should always evaluate each individual program to find the best fit for your personal and professional goals.


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