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University or Liberal Arts College: What’s the Difference?

May 21st, 2012

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University or Liberal Arts College: What’s the Difference?

If you have been talking with your classmates about college lately, chances are you have heard comments like these (or maybe even said them yourself):

“My college has to be bigger than my high school.”

“I have to go to a school with big-time sports where everyone goes to the football games.”

“I don’t want my college to be too small or too large.”

A college education will cost you and your family thousands of dollars and where you go will have implications for your future. So is this focus on size really a good place to begin a college search?  Definitely not. Instead, let’s take a look at what drives college size and what that might mean to your education.

Universities grant both undergraduate and graduate degrees and offer a wide range of majors. Students can study the liberal arts just as they would at a liberal arts college or a pre-professional discipline such as nursing or engineering. Within the university, there are many colleges where undergraduates can choose a major. The University of Massachusetts at Amherst has 88 majors in nine colleges where students can study anything from English in the College of Humanities and Fine Arts or Polymer Science in the College of Natural Sciences, to Landscape Architecture in the College of Social and Behavioral Science or Sports Management in the Isenberg School of Management.

Research opportunities abound for undergraduates at the universities that draw the most research dollars.  Such opportunities were the main reason why Zack Milstone, a senior at the University of Rochester, chose a university.

“Since I planned to study biomedical engineering, I liked the fact that the university was affiliated with a hospital so I could work in labs and gain clinical experience,” said Zack.

Zack worked closely with an anesthesiologist at the hospital on his senior design project, gaining invaluable experience as he heads off to the University of Massachusetts Medical School’s MD/PhD program next fall.

Classes at universities tend to be larger, especially during the first two years of college, though they become smaller once a student declares a major. Most courses will average 30 students, but  large lectures can include 300 students or more. This will vary by university. At most universities, professors teach the course supported by graduate teaching assistants who might run a weekly discussion section of a large lecture class and help with grading.

Liberal Arts Colleges are wonderful learning environments that get cut from consideration as soon as students declare that they won’t look at a small school. They are typically residential, meaning that most students live on campus for all four undergraduate years.

“I chose a liberal arts college for the smaller student population knowing that I would have more time with professors,” said Gabi, a freshman at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine.  “I didn’t want to be an anonymous student at a school with thousands of people just like me.”

Professors are focused on teaching undergraduates because there are typically no (or very few) graduate students on campus, an important factor for Gabi. Professors at liberal arts colleges also do research, and they use undergraduate students to assist them.

“They do cool research on the side here,” said Gabi. “And because it is a smaller school, you can get involved very easily.”

Liberal arts colleges offer a wide range of areas of study in the humanities, fine arts, and social, behavioral and natural sciences. A few liberal arts colleges will also offer business and engineering. Classes tend to be small with less than 25 students and sometimes fewer than 10.  The large lectures typically don’t top 80 students. While most are private, there are public liberal arts colleges such as St. Mary’s College of Maryland, Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts and New College of Florida.

What is the better option? There are pros and cons to both options. Both universities and liberal arts colleges offer excellent educational offerings as well as athletics and extracurricular activities. There can be school spirit around athletics at both small colleges and big stadium universities. Students embarking on a college search owe it to themselves to explore colleges of all sizes and discover what they offer.

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