Everyone’s heard of the Ivy Leagues, known for their excellent athletics, ample research opportunities and the ivy-covered buildings that gave them their name, but something less known about these institutions is that their undergraduate programs are all considered liberal arts colleges. Despite their reputation as high-level and cutthroat research universities, the eight schools of the Ivy League also place emphasis on a well-rounded, liberal arts education.
Columbia, for example, boasts a core curriculum with a multitude of liberal arts graduation requirements ranging from Contemporary Civilization to Literature Humanities. The core curriculum was designed to give all students, especially STEM students who otherwise would not explore the arts to this degree, an opportunity to learn a variety of subjects from experienced professors right from the start of their undergraduate experience. The core also includes science and math requirements, but they are not as numerous as the ones for liberal arts.
With this in mind, it seems like a no-brainer that Columbia should be considered one of the top liberal arts colleges in the nation — after all, it’s already viewed as one of the best colleges in general (though this was recently reconsidered, read Irene John’s article here to learn more) — but it turns out that liberal arts colleges have an entirely different ranking system.
Williams, Amherst and Swarthmore top the list. All three are private institutions with an emphasis on close-knit communities, small class sizes and explicit undergraduate focus (Amherst and Swarthmore are completely undergraduate institutions, while Williams only offers two masters programs). In fact, these are the main pillars of a liberal arts education. Jessica Velasco of CollegeRaptor writes that “the majority of liberal art colleges only have undergraduate programs,” a clear contrast from most research universities who for the most part dedicate their time and money to masters and PhD programs. In a liberal arts college, undergraduate students are generally able to access more research opportunities and are more influential in “school culture” than in other colleges.
Also, liberal arts colleges tend to be much smaller than their non-liberal arts counterparts, allowing for a more tight-knit student body and direct communication between student and professor. Interestingly, despite most liberal arts colleges not having graduate programs themselves, more students end up at graduate schools than students attending non-liberal arts colleges. Velasco explains that this is because liberal arts schools “focus on class participation, writing papers and thinking critically,” all important aspects of graduate work.
Liberal arts institutions are not without their faults; since these schools are so small, it is likely that there is less diversity in viewpoints and cultures compared to a larger university. Also, STEM students going to a liberal arts school will be forced to attend classes that have nothing to do with their intended major, often taking up much of their time particularly if there is a quota of classes one must take to fulfill a graduation requirement. Liberal arts institutions are not exactly known for the quality of their STEM programs either, so the classes a student might be seeking, especially as they become more advanced, may not be available. Luckily, many liberal arts schools offer cross-registration with a nearby college that provides advanced STEM education, such as Amherst which has a partnership with UMass-Amherst.
Ultimately, liberal arts colleges provide a unique opportunity to learn a wide range of disciplines that will truly enrich your mind and prepare you for graduate school and beyond, but they are not for everyone, especially STEM students and those wanting a more “authentic” large college experience.