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what exactly does it mean by being a "liberal arts school"

testanalysttestanalyst Posts: 143Registered User Junior Member
edited September 2006 in College Search & Selection
i've noticed many schools are liberal arts. my impression of liberal arts is less technical, less science/math. however harvey mudd, with many others, are considered liberal arts. so what exactly is a liberal arts school
Post edited by testanalyst on

Replies to: what exactly does it mean by being a "liberal arts school"

  • interesteddadinteresteddad Posts: 23,463Registered User Senior Member
    A liberal arts curriculum is one that requires broadbased study in a range of fields: science, math, social sciences, literature, arts, etc. Historically, it has been the opposite of "vocational training", i.e. studying for a specific job.

    Most top colleges and universities in the United States have always taught a liberal arts curriculum.

    The term "liberal arts college" means a school that only has an undergraduate program. As opposed to a university which has a liberal arts program for undergraduates in addition to other divisions such as graduate schools, law school, med school, research contracting divisions, hospital divisions, etc.

    A liberal arts college typically has fewer than 3000 students.

    Liberal arts colleges and top universities teach the same liberal arts curriculum to most undergrads (exceptions: engineering schools, nursing schools, etc.).

    Harvey Mudd is the size of a liberal arts college, however it really doesn't teach a liberal arts curriculum. It's a specialty math/science/engineering school like CalTech or MIT.
  • testanalysttestanalyst Posts: 143Registered User Junior Member
    thanks! that really cleared it up. are htere any popular schools still out there that are considered vocational?
  • atomicfusionatomicfusion Posts: 1,987Registered User Senior Member
    Harvey Mudd also requires its students to take a lot of social science courses. Thus it's slightly less technical than MIT/caltech; you get a dose of humanities.
  • mootmommootmom Posts: 4,162Registered User Senior Member
    (Slightly off-topic, but MIT requires students to select 8 HASS (Humanities and Social Sciences) courses as part of the core which all undergraduates must complete, so I don't think it's that different from HMC anymore.)
  • interesteddadinteresteddad Posts: 23,463Registered User Senior Member
    thanks! that really cleared it up. are htere any popular schools still out there that are considered vocational?

    Sure. Undergrad nursing. Undergrad Engineering. Undergrad Business degrees. There are a lot of vocational undergrad programs.

    Keep in mind that the distinction between liberal arts and vocational often involves shade of gray. So schools like Harvard that are primarily liberal arts oriented for undergrad may have some vocational programs (like engineering).

    As a practical matter, the key thing to note is that a "liberal arts college" means a smaller school that focuses exclusively on undergraduate education. A university has an undergrad college as just one of many different subsidiaries: grad schools, professional schools, hospital chains, research contracts, etc.

    From the students' perspective, the differences are in size and institutional focus. Think of the difference between a department store and a boutique store. There are legitimate pluses and minuses to both styles of school.
  • rocketDArocketDA Posts: 1,565Registered User Senior Member
    "(Slightly off-topic, but MIT requires students to select 8 HASS (Humanities and Social Sciences) courses as part of the core which all undergraduates must complete, so I don't think it's that different from HMC anymore.)"

    Actually, HMC now requires 11 Hum/SS classes. Last year, the requirement was 12.

    But, yeah. On order of magnitude they are not that much different.
  • sakkysakky Posts: 14,759- Senior Member
    The term "liberal arts college" means a school that only has an undergraduate program. As opposed to a university which has a liberal arts program for undergraduates in addition to other divisions such as graduate schools, law school, med school, research contracting divisions, hospital divisions, etc
    As a practical matter, the key thing to note is that a "liberal arts college" means a smaller school that focuses exclusively on undergraduate education.

    You would think so, right? But then why exactly is Bryn Mawr considered to be a LAC? After all, Bryn Mawr has a number of graduate programs. In fact, Bryn Mawr's major claim to fame is that it was the first women's college to offer graduate degrees, including doctorates.

    http://www.brynmawr.edu/gsas/
    http://www.brynmawr.edu/socialwork/

    Even Williams College, the prototypical LAC, has some graduate programs.

    http://www.williams.edu/cde/academics.htm

    Washington & Lee has a law school.

    http://law.wlu.edu/

    The truth is, there really is no well-defined boundary between a LAC and a university. I don't see why Bryn Mawr can be classified as a LAC, but not, say, Princeton, or Dartmouth, or Brown.
  • interesteddadinteresteddad Posts: 23,463Registered User Senior Member
    Sakky:

    As I pointed out, there is a lot of gray area.

    If you want to get technical, we could go to the Carnegie classification rules and find out the max percentage of grad students to move from their baccalaureate college to university category. This is the classification system that USNEWS uses.

    For example, the Clark Art Institute has a Masters in art history program through Williams College. But, it is insignificant relative to the undergrad focus of the school.

    Similarly, Swarthmore almost added a PhD program in Physics through the Bartol Foundation and its nuclear research facility located on campus. The college opted not to do so, but -- like Williams -- it wouldn't have changed the classification of the school.

    The current threshold for baccalaureate colleges in the Carnegie Classification is fewer than 50 Masters degrees awarded each year and fewer than 20 doctoral degrees. There is a mechanism by which Carnegie grants exceptions. If I recall, Bryn Mawr is seeking an exception because they grant more than 50 Masters degrees each year, but the school is clearly of the scale and focus of a liberal arts college.

    Likewise, there are universities where undergrads play a larger or smaller role in the overall focus of the institution.
  • gellinogellino Posts: 3,017Registered User Senior Member
    Then why are Wesleyan, Colgate, Bucknell all called university?
  • johnwesleyjohnwesley Posts: 4,610- Senior Member
    In the case of Wesleyan, the name was chosen in 1831 at a time when there wasn't much differentiation between the terms university and college. There may have been some thought that "university" was a slightly more dignified term. But, it would be another thirty years, at least, before the first American Ph.D was conferred and another fifty before Wesleyan would confer even its first M.A..

    In other words, we make a big deal out academic organization now because of the way the knowledge explosion that took place at the end of World War II proceeded to sharpen the difference between teaching and research, and the subsequent need for specialized degrees. But, 175 years ago, "The Origin of the Species" hadn't even been published yet.
  • JuJuJuJu Posts: 285Registered User Junior Member
    Wesleyan offers nearly a dozen graduate programs, (Colgate, Bard, Oberlin, Smith, Washington & Lee, etc. also offer graduate programs.) However, these liberal arts schools focus on undergraduate education, (e.g. full-time profs teach most courses, no or few TAs.)
  • TourGuide446TourGuide446 Posts: 3,099- Senior Member
    There are lots of LACs that are named "university"--including the ones mentioned in post#10 plus a bunch more...Lawrence U, Denison U, University of the South, Furman, etc.

    There are also real universities which are called "college": Dartmouth College (very interesting history behind this title), College of William and Mary (also historical), and Boston College (BU got there first--over the years some people [often profs who thought their research was not taken seriously because they were at a "college"] have begged BC to become Boston Catholic University or Boston College University or some other ridiculous name...those of us who went there love the current name and wouldn't have it any other way).
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