5 Key Differences Between National Universities and Liberal Arts College

“Should I choose a liberal arts college or a national university?” might be one of the most common questions every student probably heard in its many variations, especially when it comes to studying in the U.S.

As you are starting your college search, the vast majority of schools you see will fall into two categories: liberal arts colleges (LAC) vs. national universities (NU).  You probably have a general understanding of the differences between the two, but the designations can be confusing.  Liberal arts colleges are not necessarily liberal or artsy, and universities do not just refer to massive, research-centric schools.

Selecting your school is still a deeply personal choice, but knowing the institution type can tell you a great deal about the school.  So what is a liberal arts college? And how do they differ from universities? Which is a better fit for you? 

This article will answer all these questions and clarify significant differences and emerging trends between these two types of schools to help you create a more dynamic school list, as well as inform decisions about which schools have the potential to become your second home.

1. LAC vs. NU: Curriculum

Liberal Arts College (LAC) National University (NU)
– LACs tend to place more of an emphasis on undergraduate education and offer a more traditional, broad, and general education. They award most of their degrees in the liberal arts disciplines, including social sciences, natural sciences, humanities, and arts.

– LACs require students to take a wide variety of courses to give them exposure to a range of liberal arts studies with a broader knowledge base. In general, they do not focus on career-related classes as heavily as universities do.

– Universities generally consist of graduate schools, professional schools (in engineering, law, business, and medical, to name a few) and undergraduate programs. They may be a better choice for students interested in a technical degree with a career focus in engineering, computer science, or accounting.

– Universities focus on each student’s major with relatively fewer general core requirements. They offer classes more tailored to each student’s specific career needs, especially those who want to pursue a technical career path.

University of Pennsylvania. Source: businessinsider

To give you an example, a student at the University of Pennsylvania majoring in engineering has options. He can either major in engineering through a bachelor of science program or do a dual degree in engineering through the bachelor of science and bachelor of arts programs.  But at a liberal arts college like Amherst College, which doesn’t offer an engineering major, students can still become engineers through majors related to the study, like sciences, mathematics, and statistics, or even through graduate school following Amherst.

In fact, universities are still better known for their required core curriculums and pre-professional programs when compared to liberal arts colleges.  However, the beauty of “liberal arts” philosophy is their cross-disciplinary programs and flexible curriculums that encourage exploration and “trying out” different subjects before declaring any major.  So, consider this as you assess liberal arts colleges vs. universities.  “As a simple way of thinking about it, if you enjoy thinking about complex issues, developing yourself beyond academics or pursuing a graduate degree, then a liberal arts education could be a perfect fit for you.  On the other hand, if you’re more focused on professional development and career prospects, then I would recommend pursuing a degree at a national university.”, said Don Le – Stanford graduates, our CEO and Co-founder at Everest Education, who is also taking his role as a Senior Lead Counselor for the College Compass program.

2. LAC vs. NU: Campus and Community

Aerial view of Stanford University Campus – Palo Alto, California, USA

The most recognizable difference in the battle between liberal arts colleges vs. universities is the vibe of their campuses and communities.  Undergraduate and graduate populations mingle together at universities, whereas liberal arts colleges only have around 4,000 undergraduate students, give or take.

Liberal arts college students typically live on-campus and can find everything they need for academic and social life without venturing too far from the school grounds.  The community is often seen as more tight-knit because the smaller population makes it easier to connect with classmates and faculty members.  College buildings and facilities are centrally concentrated, but at universities, campus maps can be sprawling landscapes where getting from one class to another becomes part of your daily exercise routine!  Take Stanford’s campus, which boasts over 8,000 acres of space with 700 buildings and 43,000 trees.

In terms of student life, liberal arts colleges have fewer interest groups, clubs, and activities.  It is also worth noting that universities have a better history of promoting and achieving diversity within each incoming class.  Schools like to attract the best, brightest, and most exciting applicants from different backgrounds worldwide. Still, universities generally have more diverse student populations in terms of race, ethnicity and socioeconomic background.  The top liberal arts colleges have less diversity, even among their international students. Applicants are somewhat self-selective, a good number coming from private schools or (upper) middle-class backgrounds. Think about what matters to you when selecting the type of campus community you want to be a part of.

3. LAC vs. NU: Inside the classroom

One of the significant differences between liberal arts colleges vs. universities is inside the classroom.  When it comes to class size, liberal arts colleges pride themselves on having small, intimate spaces where learning is more personal, prioritizing the interactions between students and professors.  The lack of graduate students translates to classes taught mainly by professors or lecturers instead of teaching assistants.  Many liberal arts colleges have student-to-faculty ratios of 10:1 or lower.  LACs tend to offer seminars rather than lectures, which leads to greater student engagement.  Students have many opportunities to speak out during seminars, ask questions and engage in classroom discussions.  At LACs, students also have more chances to speak and engage with professors and classmates outside of class.

Universities, on the contrary, can have lectures with 200 or more students, which is especially true for introductory or required courses.  Universities are well known for their breadth and depth of research opportunities.  Due to their larger student bodies, universities offer more lectures than seminars.  Some classes or discussion sections are taught by graduate students serving as teaching assistants (TAs) rather than professors.

Nguyễn Mai Kiều Anh – our College Compass student – delves deeply into how she took advantage of the liberal arts curriculum in her episode with Chuyện du học podcast. Kiều Anh is a College Compass alumni who was accepted to Cornell University but then turned down the offer to study at Williams College – as she fell in love with the liberal arts philosophy there. Williams College is ranked #1 in the 2021 edition of Best Colleges for National Liberal Arts Colleges, according to the U.S.News.

Listen to Kiều Anh podcast at:

4. LAC vs. NU: Financial Aid

Elite private universities can have a hefty price tag at about $55,000 per academic year, yet so do many national liberal arts colleges.  However, many of these colleges offer very generous financial aid.  The financial aid offices can offer scholarships based on merit, talent, and need.  Students often find they have to pay about the same, or possibly less, out of pocket to attend a private college than a public university.

After accounting for scholarships and need-based grants, 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.  We suggest students and families weighing school fit and academic quality against the financial package before making a firm decision on which to prefer over the other.

5. LAC vs. NU: Career opportunities

Both LACs and universities offer potential career opportunities for students.  Given their larger student bodies, universities host more on-campus career fairs and recruitment events.  They also boast a larger alumni network, which provides students with connections and career options.  In prominent universities,  professors are expert researchers in their fields.  This gives students access to some of the latest research and classes taught by energized and recognized researchers who can help them get ahead in their program of study.  By contrast, students at LACs likely have a stronger relational bond with alumni, professors, and classmates. This means students are more likely to be referred to internships and jobs.

Two Sides to Every Coin

The bottom line is, differences between liberal arts colleges vs. universities can be seen as either pros or cons, depending on your perspective.  To put it simply, take a look at the table below to keep in mind the key differences:

Focus on a well-rounded education Focus on research
Typically small in enrollment size Typically large in enrollment size
Emphasis on undergraduate education Graduate, Ph.D., and professional education offered
More classroom discussion Large lecture classes
Typically few or no teaching assistants Use of teaching assistants
Small class sizes Big class sizes
Less competition to attain leadership positions National name recognition
More attention with faculty Bigger focus on athletics
Sometimes described as “mini-high schools” because gossip spreads fast More anonymity on campus

Source: Niche.com

Overall, the boundary between liberal arts colleges vs. universities has blurred over time.  Many universities incorporate aspects of the liberal arts education or atmosphere into their schools, with residential college systems and honors programs that offer smaller class sizes. The prevailing image of liberal arts colleges is also shifting, no longer a haven for just humanities and social science buffs, with expanding curriculums that include pre-professional tracks for business, engineering, journalism, and more.

If you think you would thrive at a university, take the time to look into liberal arts colleges, too. And if you are still torn between the two, our consultants at College Compass are more than willing to help.

College Compass is a college admission consulting program by Everest Education. We offer strategic solutions to help aspiring high school students (Grade 9-12) and gap year students get into the best universities and colleges in the world.

Our program is led by experienced admissions counselors/coaches who graduated from top US universities (Harvard, Stanford, MIT, UPenn…) and thoroughly understand the US education system. Our students have been accepted to many top universities globally, including Harvard, Stanford, Cornell, Duke, Williams, Amherst…

We offer a personalized pathway and strategies for you, including school selection, standardized testing, extracurricular activity guidance, essay writing, scholarship applications, etc. No matter which phase you are in, we offer a tailored package to your age, preferences and study goals to help you achieve your dreams.

Learn more about College Compass here.


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