Liberal Arts Colleges vs. Research Universities: Why You Should Choose One Over the Other

September 18, 2017

There is a common belief that universities outrank liberal arts colleges. Universities are revered as the better of the two because they have greater global recognition and supposedly provide more resources. But, how do these factors practically impact you?

There is no objective answer to whether liberal arts colleges (LAC) or research universities are better. It really depends on whether the perks of large research universities can be considered “perks” according to your learning needs. Here are the major differences you should consider when you apply to college, and why:

Area of Study

For starters, a liberal arts college does not limit your area of study to the humanities, arts and social sciences. It’s a popular misconception that everyone who attends LACs majors in English, Philosophy or History. There are equally as many students studying Chemistry, Physics, or in some cases, Engineering. The curriculum at LACs aims to generate a broad understanding of a variety of academic disciplines rather than focus on a specified path based on general education requirements. It is typical for an LAC to not have a core curriculum. Due to this exposure, you will often find yourself in class with students who are strictly taking the course for the subject matter and not to fulfill a minimum requirement. 

The comparison that is often made is that LACs are like the College of Arts and Sciences within universities. However, research universities provide a different type of flexibility. Larger universities also have more robust academic departments and programs. This means you’ll often have a wide range of courses to choose from if you know the academic area you want to focus on. For example, if you’re Pre-Med, going to a research university will provide more courses and hands-on experiences to choose from (more on that below).

Teaching Style

One main difference touted by LACs is the teaching method. LACs typically teach using a seminar style with smaller class sizes that encourages student engagement. Universities, on the other hand, have much larger faculty to student ratios and popular classes are taught in lecture formats, especially for introductory classes. The practical result of this is that if you take a popular course at a university, you will likely be in a classroom with a couple hundred other students, which means you won’t have as much of a chance to speak up in class or get to know your professor. Many of these courses employ teaching assistants who are upperclassmen or graduate students to facilitate smaller group discussions outside of large lectures. For students who value the professor-student mentor-mentee relationships, liberal arts colleges make that a default whereas you’ll have to be more proactive at a larger university.

Academic Resources

Understanding the differences in academic goals of LACs and universities will also help you understand where you fit in. Universities typically focus on research and offer many hands-on opportunities to work with professors and contribute to meaningful research. University faculty, in general, tend to be research-oriented, which means they dedicate time to their own research and publication goals in addition to teaching you. Research opportunities at universities cater to both undergraduate and graduate students, so professors also carve out time to guide graduate scholars in their area of study. Many of these graduate students are your TAs and will work with you more directly than your professors. 

In contrast, LACs have really low faculty to student ratio that allow you to establish one-on-one relationships with your professors and doesn’t require you to conduct research in order to have access to them. However, LACs don’t offer the type of extensive out-of-the-classroom opportunities for experiential learning that universities do.

Campus Setting

While academics are important, the social aspects are an integral part of college life. LACs are much smaller than universities and are often located in suburban or rural areas, while universities tend to be in larger cities. Attending a LAC grants you amazing access to professors due to the low faculty to student ratio, but it also means you are committing to a much smaller class. You’ll likely come to know most of the students in your year and even upper and underclassmen who are not part of your year. 

In contrast, universities offer the chance to constantly meet new people who are in your year or those above or below you in class year. Due to location and size, universities offer more student organizations, sports-related activities, and off-campus involvements such as local community organizations and job opportunities. By studying at a more urban setting, you’ll be able to take advantage of off-campus opportunities, such as internships or part-time work.

Post-Grad Resources

Choosing where you go to college doesn’t just impact the 4 years you attend the school. By choosing a college, you are also choosing a lifelong alumni network to be a member of. It’s worth thinking about the resources the school will offer you after you graduate in the form of job search support or alumni network strength. The benefit of being part of a university alumni network is that these networks are often much larger, better funded, and more geographically wide-ranging. No matter what job industry you’re interested in, you’ll likely be able to find an alumni association in the city you end up at. This provides a more extensive social network and added career flexibility. In contrast, while LAC alumni networks are close-knit, they often don’t provide the same resources or career networking opportunities.

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When picking a college or university, it is important to keep in mind the differences in culture and academic pursuits. Rather than focus solely on ranking and reputation, find a college that best fits your needs from a learning environment and future career standpoint. No matter what you choose, be proactive about your school choice. Email professors in departments you’re interested in or schedule campus visits if these are feasible for you. The more informed you are, the more likely you are to find a place to call home for 4 years.

About The Author

AdmitSee Staff
AdmitSee Staff

​We remember our frustration with applying to college and the lack of information surrounding it. So we created AdmitSee to bring much-needed transparency to the application process! Read more about the team here.

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