Thursday, September 11, 2014

Differences Between Liberal Arts Colleges and Universities

 Differences Between Liberal Arts Colleges and Universities
By Yuanyuan “Rebecca” Fang

International students often wonder what the differences are between liberal arts colleges (LACs) and national universities in the U.S. and, which is better? 

The answer to the question depends on your personal interests, educational needs, and career prospects.

Before applying to colleges/universities, ask yourself these five questions: 
  1. What are your interests? 
  2. What are your expectations in a U.S. college/university? 
  3. How is your financial situation? 
  4. Do you want to pursue a Master’s degree or higher? 
  5. Do you want to work in the U.S. or other countries after graduation?
These questions will help you make your decision on selecting a liberal arts college or a university. 

Here's a list of the differences between a liberal arts college and a university: 

Liberal Arts College (LAC)
LACs generally lack name recognition globally compared to national universities, but they may be well-known in the U.S.
Big national universities generally have greater name recognition and reputation globally.
Institutional Affiliation
LACs are typically private.
Universities can be private or public (including state universities).
Campus Setting
LACs are generally small.
Universities are larger than LACs, especially state universities.
The majority of LACs are located in towns or suburban areas; some are in cities.
Universities are located in cities, rural, or suburban areas.
LACs have relatively higher tuition than public universities, but they’re often more generous with financial aid and scholarships.
Public universities have lower tuition than private universities and LACs, but there are fewer financial aid opportunities for international students, especially in state universities.
Undergraduate education is the primary level in LACs, offering a more traditional and general education and awarding most of their degrees in the liberal arts disciplines including social sciences, natural sciences, humanities, and arts.
Universities generally consist of graduate schools, professional schools (engineering, law, business, medical, etc.), as well as undergraduate programs. They might be a better choice for students who are interested in a technical degree with a career focus in engineering, computer science, or accounting, etc.
LACs require students to take a wide variety of courses to give them exposure to a variety of liberal arts studies with a broader base of knowledge. In general, they don’t focus on career-related classes as heavily as universities do.
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 for those who want to pursue a technical career path.
Class Size
LACs have smaller class sizes, as well as smaller student/teacher ratios than most universities.
Universities have relatively larger class sizes than LACs, particularly introductory classes with possibly hundreds of students.
Class Style
LACs prefer offering seminars rather than lectures, which leads to greater student engagement with opportunities to speak out, ask questions, and engage with professors and classmates in class and outside of class.
Universities offer more lectures than seminars because of the large student body. Some classes or discussion sections are taught by graduate students serving as teaching assistants (TAs).
The majority of the faculty at LACs is student-focused and teaching-oriented.
Faculty is research-oriented with many leading scholars in their fields, but may be relatively less accessible to students.
Grad School Preparation
LACs have stronger academic preparedness overall. They provide research opportunities to their undergraduate students. Also, because of the close relationships between professors and students, it is easier to reach out to professors and ask for recommendation letters.
Universities provide many research opportunities, but the majority of them are for their graduate students, so it can be competitive for undergraduate students. However, one of the advantages is that there may be higher chances of being admitted to graduate programs in the same university.
LACs have relatively fewer student organizations and clubs.
There are more events/activities on and off campus and more options for student organizations and clubs. Some universities have fraternities and sororities and/or well-known sports teams.
Career Opportunity
Having a strong relational bond with alumni, professors, and classmates help students are more likely to be referred to internships and jobs.
There are more on-campus career fairs and recruitment events in universities. Having a large alumni network, students have more opportunities and options.

A Final Word
The college/university decision is not about getting into the best ranked one, but rather going to the one that fits you best. More importantly, liberal arts colleges and universities have different aims and cultures. Your application should be tailored to meet their values depending on the type of school you apply to.

Good luck on your applications! If you have any questions, feel free to leave a comment below or subscribe to WES Student Advisor for more FREE study abroad information.
Yuanyuan “Rebecca” Fang is a Research Assistant for WES Research & Advisory Services at World Education Services. Rebecca’s research interests lie in both qualitative and quantitative research, primarily in the field of higher and international education. Rebecca holds a bachelor’s degree in Economics from Agnes Scott College. Now, she is pursuing her Master’s degree in Economics and Education at Teachers College, Columbia University.


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  3. Replies
    1. if I want to study physics, should I applied for LACs or research universities?
      generally, what is the difference between physics major in LACs and research universities?

    2. This comment has been removed by the author.

    3. This is an old post at at this point but for other people who might read this: At a liberal arts college, you will likely be required to take more general education credits, which means taking more classes outside of your major. If you intend on living on-campus you will likely be required to take a minimum of at least 12-16 credits worth of classes to stay in the dorms. This number varies per college, but depending on how the college distributes credits among its courses, it will likely mean that you will need to take about one non-major class for every class dedicated towards your major. Some LAC's also have freshman year course requirements. This is especially important to consider when contemplating what courses you'll take in your first semester of college at a LAC.


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