What is a Liberal Arts College?

You are tasked with choosing schools at two stages –

1. Before you apply to college.

2. After college decisions come back.

In the first stage, students and their families tend focus on rankings, location, and tuition. This makes sense, as prestige and logistics are the most important considerations. That being said, two other elements should also be assessed – the type of school you’re looking at: private vs public, and university vs liberal arts college (LAC). These two factors affect the undergraduate experience far more than any minor difference in ranking.



As you know, public and private universities are ranked together, making academic comparisons easy. Aside from differences in tuition and the extent of government funding, the two types are best distinguished by the kinds of students they attract. Public schools draw heavily on in-state constituents – and therefore take on the state’s colors. In addition, they offer lower tuition, allowing them to tap into a larger socioeconomic spectrum. Private schools draw from more resource-enabled families, and as such, make networking with peers and establishing connections easier.

To many families living in the West coast and Midwest, the concept of a LAC is particularly foreign. People don’t know what they are, and therefore underestimate the quality of education that they provide. Each year, many well-qualified LACs get left out during school selection in favor of larger universities. This is a loss to the student, as they miss out on potential acceptances to prestigious schools. Stage 1 is a time for families to be as open-minded as possible. It’s important to understand what a liberal arts college is exactly, and whether it can be a good fit for you.

Most of the top LACs reside on the East coast. That said, there are attractive options in other parts of the country as well. Carleton College, a top 10 LAC, is located in Minnesota, and the Claremont-McKenna consortium, which includes five distinct LACs, is located in Southern California. There are also universities resembling LACs that you probably know of already. Dartmouth College was historically a LAC and has only recently begun to expand its graduate offerings. It is now a hybrid of sorts.

Note: Using the formal title ‘college’ doesn’t automatically mean a school is a LAC. It is sometimes used by universities, and also by individual colleges within universities.

What is a Liberal Arts College?


A liberal arts college (LAC) is best defined as a school that focuses on undergraduate education over research.

The first step in getting acquainted with LACs is to understand that they are ranked separately from universities. A list of the top LACs can be found here.

The second step is to understand what kind of differences to expect between a large university and a LAC. For that, we’ve created the following table for you.

LACs are not for everyone, but they are absolutely competitive with the top universities. They offer a style of education and an environment that benefit students who work well in small, tight groups of peers guided by dedicated, hands-on instructors.