What are Liberal Arts Colleges?

By Eric Eng

By Eric Eng

Two students talking on a table.

What are Liberal Arts Colleges?

Visualize your future like an empty canvas, ready for the brushstrokes of knowledge and experience to craft a unique masterpiece. Whether you’re currently in high school or considering college, you’re standing at a crucial crossroads—a decision that will profoundly influence the trajectory of your life. In a world brimming with opportunities, the choices can be overwhelming. However, there is a less explored path that has consistently nurtured intellect, creativity, and adaptability. It’s worth exploring what liberal arts colleges can provide as you embark on your educational journey.

Your choice of higher education transcends obtaining a mere degree; it’s about sculpting your future self. Liberal arts colleges remain an intriguing choice in this endeavor, frequently overshadowed by the allure of more prominent universities. Yet, they hold the promise of a distinctive and transformative educational experience.

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We’ll guide you through the intricate process of selecting the ideal college, offering tips on researching institutions, completing applications, and managing your finances. By the time we conclude this journey, you’ll grasp that choosing a liberal arts college isn’t just about selecting an institution; it’s an investment in your future self, a pathway to becoming an adaptable, critical thinker poised to tackle the challenges of an ever-evolving world.

What Is “Liberal Arts”?

Let’s simplify the term ‘liberal arts.’ It has ancient origins, dating back to civilizations like Greece and Rome. But what does it mean for you today? At its core, a liberal arts education means taking a well-rounded approach to learning. It’s not about mastering one specific subject; instead, it’s about exploring a wide range of disciplines. Think of it as an intellectual buffet where you can sample a bit of everything.

You won’t be confined to a single field like science or art; you’ll delve into various subjects such as literature, mathematics, and history. This interdisciplinary adventure encourages critical thinking, effective communication, and creative problem-solving. In essence, ‘liberal arts’ represents a holistic education that equips you with a diverse skill set, preparing you for success in an ever-evolving world.

What Is a Liberal Arts Degree?

Now that we’ve defined liberal arts let’s take a closer look at what a liberal arts degree entails.

A Flexible Curriculum

One of the hallmarks of a liberal arts degree is its flexibility. While you’ll have a major (the subject you focus on the most), you’ll also have the freedom to explore other areas of interest. You won’t be locked into a narrow, predefined track.

Developing Lifelong Skills

Beyond the academic knowledge you gain, liberal arts degrees emphasize developing essential life skills. You’ll learn to think critically, analyze information, and articulate your ideas effectively – skills that will serve you well in any profession.

Two female college students after lecture.

What Are Liberal Arts Colleges?

The Unique Characteristics

Liberal arts colleges are distinct from traditional universities in several ways. First and foremost, they tend to be smaller in size, fostering a close-knit community where students and professors can build strong relationships. These colleges prioritize teaching, so you’re more likely to find professors deeply committed to your education.

A Student-Centric Approach

Liberal arts colleges are all about you. They put your learning and growth at the center of their mission. Smaller class sizes give you more opportunities for hands-on learning, meaningful discussions, and personalized attention. It’s an environment where your voice can be heard, your questions answered, and your ideas valued.

List of Liberal Arts Colleges

Welcome to the world of liberal arts colleges in the United States, where you’ll find a variety of institutions that embody the essence of a liberal arts education. This list presents a rich tapestry of schools, ranging from the New England charm of Amherst College to the sun-soaked campuses of Pomona College in California. These colleges vary in size and location, catering to various preferences and goals.

Whether you envision studying literature in historic New England or conducting cutting-edge scientific research in the tranquil Midwest, you’ll find a liberal arts college that suits your vision. As you explore this list, you’ll gain insight into each institution’s setting, from bustling urban hubs to serene rural settings. From the close-knit communities of smaller liberal arts colleges to the larger campuses, each school offers its unique features.

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Liberal arts education’s beauty lies in its adaptability, ensuring you can discover a college that aligns with your aspirations and objectives. Whether you’re drawn to the vibrant cultural scene of New York City at Barnard College or the tight-knit community of Carleton College in the heart of Minnesota, this list of distinguished liberal arts colleges is your gateway to the diverse and exciting world of higher education in the United States.

Liberal Arts Colleges in New England

Amherst College (Amherst, Massachusetts): Amherst College is highly regarded for its rigorous academic programs and unwavering commitment to diversity and inclusivity. With a rich history dating back to 1821, the college has maintained a strong tradition of academic excellence. The campus fosters a vibrant intellectual environment, with small class sizes that encourage close interactions between students and professors. Amherst College is known for its strong emphasis on critical thinking, writing, and interdisciplinary learning, providing students with a well-rounded education.

Williams College (Williamstown, Massachusetts): Williams College boasts a stunning and picturesque campus nestled in the scenic town of Williamstown. Beyond its captivating natural beauty, the college is renowned for its robust emphasis on undergraduate research. Students at Williams can engage in meaningful research projects across various disciplines, working closely with dedicated faculty members. This commitment to research contributes to a dynamic and intellectually stimulating environment that encourages students to explore their academic passions.

Bowdoin College (Brunswick, Maine): Bowdoin College strongly emphasizes building a close-knit and supportive community. With a campus in the charming town of Brunswick, Maine, Bowdoin encourages students to engage in meaningful interactions with their peers and professors. The college offers various extracurricular activities, allowing students to explore their interests beyond the classroom. This focus on extracurricular involvement complements the rigorous academic programs and helps students develop both academically, personally, and socially.

Liberal Arts Colleges in the Midwest

Carleton College (Northfield, Minnesota): Carleton College is renowned for its unwavering commitment to academic excellence. It offers a rigorous and intellectually stimulating environment where students are encouraged to push the boundaries of their knowledge. One of Carleton’s standout features is its emphasis on global perspectives. Students here are exposed to a diverse and inclusive community, fostering a broader understanding of the world and its challenges.

Grinnell College (Grinnell, Iowa): Grinnell College stands out for its strong focus on social responsibility. It encourages students to be active citizens and take on roles in making positive changes in their communities and the world. Grinnell provides numerous opportunities for civic engagement, from volunteering in local organizations to participating in social justice initiatives. It’s a place where students can translate their learning into meaningful action.

Oberlin College (Oberlin, Ohio): Oberlin College has a rich tradition of commitment to the arts. It’s a hub for creative expression and offers outstanding programs in music, theater, visual arts, and more. Oberlin’s dedication to social justice is another defining characteristic. Students here are encouraged to explore and address pressing social issues, making it a hub for activism and community involvement.

Liberal Arts Colleges in the South

Davidson College (Davidson, North Carolina): Davidson College places a strong emphasis on its honor code, fostering a culture of trust, integrity, and academic responsibility among its students. The honor code is not just a set of rules but a fundamental part of the college’s community values.

One of the defining features of Davidson College is its close-knit community. Students here often speak of a strong sense of belonging and support. The smaller class sizes and the tight-knit campus environment contribute to this feeling of community.

Sewanee: The University of the South (Sewanee, Tennessee): Sewanee is renowned for its breathtaking campus atop the Cumberland Plateau. The natural beauty of the surroundings, with lush forests, hiking trails, and scenic views, provides an inspiring backdrop for academic pursuits.

Sewanee is deeply rooted in tradition. The university maintains a sense of historical continuity and pride, which is reflected in its ceremonies, rituals, and academic customs. This tradition fosters a unique and memorable college experience.

Rhodes College (Memphis, Tennessee): Rhodes College stands out for its urban campus, located in the heart of Memphis. This setting allows students to engage with the vibrant city culture, offering opportunities for internships, cultural events, and community involvement.

Rhodes College focuses on providing students with hands-on learning experiences. This approach emphasizes the practical application of knowledge, ensuring that students are well-prepared for their future careers and graduate studies.

Liberal Arts Colleges on the West Coast

Pomona College (Claremont, California): Pomona College is a prestigious liberal arts institution located in Claremont, California. It is part of the renowned Claremont Colleges consortium, which brings together a group of top-tier liberal arts colleges and graduate institutions in one community. This consortium enhances the academic and social experiences of students by offering access to a wide range of courses, resources, and extracurricular activities across the member colleges.

Pomona College prides itself on creating a diverse and intellectually stimulating environment. With a commitment to fostering a strong sense of community and academic excellence, Pomona offers small class sizes, encouraging close faculty-student interactions. The college’s picturesque campus, coupled with its dedication to providing students with a well-rounded education, makes it a compelling choice for those seeking a holistic liberal arts experience.

Reed College (Portland, Oregon): Reed College, located in the vibrant city of Portland, Oregon, is renowned for its rigorous academic programs and emphasis on intellectual inquiry. The college has a distinctive approach to education, with a strong focus on a challenging curriculum, critical thinking, and independent research. Reed’s academic culture encourages students to explore their interests deeply and engage in scholarly pursuits. The college’s renowned humanities program, rigorous science curriculum, and commitment to fostering a spirit of inquiry set it apart. With a tight-knit community of students and faculty, Reed College provides an intellectually stimulating environment ideal for those passionate about scholarly exploration.

Whitman College (Walla Walla, Washington): Whitman College, located in Walla Walla, Washington, is known for its emphasis on close student-faculty relationships and a strong commitment to sustainability. The college places a high value on personalized education, with small class sizes that facilitate meaningful interactions between professors and students. Whitman also stands out for its dedication to environmental sustainability. The campus features eco-friendly initiatives and programs that encourage students to engage with environmental issues. This commitment to sustainability aligns with Whitman’s broader mission of fostering socially responsible and globally aware graduates.

Liberal Arts Colleges in the Mid-Atlantic

Swarthmore College (Swarthmore, Pennsylvania): Swarthmore College is renowned for its rigorous academic programs and its unwavering dedication to social responsibility. Students at Swarthmore engage in challenging coursework and critical thinking, fostering intellectual growth and a commitment to making a positive impact on society. The college’s emphasis on social responsibility is reflected in its strong tradition of community service and activism.

Haverford College (Haverford, Pennsylvania): Haverford College prides itself on creating a close-knit community where students can form deep connections with both peers and faculty. This tight-knit atmosphere fosters collaborative learning and personal growth.

Bryn Mawr College (Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania): Bryn Mawr College offers a distinctive women’s college experience, providing a supportive and empowering environment for female students. The college strongly emphasizes research, encouraging students to explore their academic interests through hands-on projects and independent studies. Bryn Mawr’s commitment to empowering women in education and research sets it apart as a leading institution in the region.

Notable Liberal Arts Colleges in Other Regions

Colorado College (Colorado Springs, Colorado): Colorado College stands out for its innovative “block plan” schedule, offering a distinctive education approach. Instead of traditional semester or quarter systems, students at Colorado College focus on one intensive course at a time, often referred to as a “block.” This immersive learning experience allows students to delve deeply into a subject, fostering in-depth understanding and engagement.

Kenyon College (Gambier, Ohio): Kenyon College has earned a well-deserved reputation for its rich literary tradition and vibrant arts scene. The campus has long been a creative writing and literature hub, with renowned authors frequently visiting and engaging with students.

The college’s commitment to the arts extends beyond literature, with a thriving arts community encompassing visual arts, music, and theater. Kenyon students can immerse themselves in a stimulating, culturally rich environment that celebrates artistic expression.

Connecticut College (New London, Connecticut): Connecticut College strongly emphasizes interdisciplinary studies and a global perspective in education. This approach encourages students to explore connections between different academic disciplines, fostering a holistic understanding of complex issues. The college also promotes global awareness through its diverse student body and a variety of international programs. Students at Connecticut College have the chance to engage in a well-rounded education that prepares them for a rapidly changing and interconnected world.

Factors to Consider

When evaluating liberal arts colleges, consider the following factors:


  • Do you prefer a rural, suburban, or urban setting?
  • Are you looking for specific geographic regions, like the East Coast or the Midwest?


  • Do you thrive in smaller, tight-knit communities, or do you prefer larger institutions?
  • Consider how class size and student-faculty ratios align with your learning style.

Available Majors

  • Explore the range of majors and programs offered.
  • Ensure that your academic interests align with the college’s offerings.

Campus Culture

  • Investigate the campus culture, clubs, and organizations.
  • Consider the extracurricular activities that matter most to you.

Financial Aid and Scholarships

  • Research the cost of attendance and available financial aid options.
  • Look into scholarships specifically offered by the college.

Campus Visits

  • Whenever possible, visit campuses to get a feel for the environment.
  • Attend campus tours, sit in on classes, and talk to current students.

Your Gut Feeling

  • Trust your instincts. Do you feel a connection with the campus and the people you meet?

Application Process

Once you’ve narrowed down your list of potential liberal arts colleges, it’s time to tackle the application process. Here’s what you can expect:

Typical Application Requirements

  • Common Application: Many liberal arts colleges use the Common Application, which allows you to apply to multiple colleges with one form.
  • Transcripts: You must submit your high school transcripts, including your grades and coursework.
  • Standardized Tests: Some colleges may require SAT or ACT scores, while others have adopted test-optional policies.
  • Letters of Recommendation: Prepare letters of recommendation from teachers or mentors who can speak to your character and abilities.
  • Personal Statement or Essay: Most colleges will ask for a personal statement or essay. Use this opportunity to showcase your personality and why you’re a good fit for the college.

Crafting a Standout Application

To stand out in the application process:

  • Be authentic: Don’t try to be someone you’re not. Be true to yourself in your essays and interviews.
  • Showcase your passions: Highlight your interests, extracurricular activities, and any unique experiences.
  • Proofread: Carefully proofread your application materials to ensure they are error-free and well-written.

Financial Considerations

We understand that finances can be a significant concern when considering higher education. Exploring what liberal arts colleges offer in terms of scholarships and financial aid can help make them more affordable, just like any other college.

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Cost of Attendance

The cost of attending a liberal arts college can vary widely, so it’s essential to research each institution’s tuition, fees, and living expenses. While liberal arts colleges may have higher upfront costs, they often provide generous financial aid packages.

Financial Aid and Scholarships

Liberal arts colleges prioritize improving educational accessibility. Many of these institutions generously offer financial aid to eligible students based on their family’s financial circumstances. Additionally, scholarships are often available for academic achievements, leadership, and specific fields of study. This not only clarifies the nature of liberal arts colleges but also highlights their dedication to making education more accessible.

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The Importance of Liberal Arts Education in a Changing World

In an era of rapid technological advancements and shifting societal paradigms, liberal arts education is more critical than ever. It empowers you to navigate a complex world, think critically, and adapt to new challenges. It’s about more than just landing your first job; it’s about preparing for a lifetime of learning and growth.


As you embark on your journey toward higher education, consider the unique advantages that liberal arts colleges bring to the table. When exploring the essence of liberal arts colleges, you’ll realize that these institutions prioritize your academic and personal growth. They provide a solid foundation for a lifetime of learning and open doors to diverse career opportunities. So, take your time, explore your options, and remember that the right college is the one that aligns with your goals and values.




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