So, what is a liberal arts college?

If you are like me, then a liberal arts degree probably means a  focus on arts and sciences. It is hard not to think of arts, humanities, history, social sciences, economics etc when someone says “liberal arts.” I recently came back from a tour of 5 liberal arts colleges on the east coastMiddlebury, Amherst College, Wesleyan, Franklin and Marshall, and Haverford. By all standards, they are amongst the best liberal arts schools in the US. That’s not the point though – the point is that I learned something new about the definition of a liberal arts college.


The new notion of a liberal arts college is different. It is not based on a selection of courses, but is rather a process; a process which makes the students well-rounded personalities that are able to look at a problem from many different angles.


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The idea is that if you pursue a liberal arts degree, you are more than likely not pursuing a specific career. For example, if you do Computer Sciences at UC Berkeley, then you are likely setting yourself up for a career in programming, at least to begin with.


When you pursue a liberal arts degree with an emphasis on Computer Science, you are learning how to solve the big issues and problems, and how to approach them from different angles,  making you well rounded to choose other professions upon graduation. I am not promoting one over the other, but merely pointing out a difference which I was unaware of.


The five colleges that I visited –  there was a common theme of being able to select the courses without much rigidity or boundaries around what you need to graduate. Of course, there are some guard rails around a minimal number of credits in math, social sciences, arts, and humanities.


For the most part, the curriculums are defined as “open” and one has the ability to choose from a wide variety of courses (as large as 1, 000 courses in some schools). Thus, with such latitude, you will find 40%-50% of the students in such colleges pursuing a double major. In some colleges, e.g. Wesleyan, there are NO boundaries – if you don’t like math and don’t want to take a math course in your undergraduate curriculum, you can still graduate. Along the same lines, students interested in pursuing studies that are not offered by a college can create their own majors!


The one other thing which intrigued me was the class sizes; with a smaller student body population and faculty/curriculum matching that of a big university, the class sizes tend to be small – <15 students per class. In some cases, even 5 students per class. With such an intimate setting, it is hard not to learn.  What has further intrigued me about these places is the feel of a community.


Everyone knows everyone. Most of the faculty live close to the campus and may drop in on student events like intramural/college sports, informal movie nights etc. Isn’t that nice? I came from a big school and missed this aspect.


If you are a student who likes a small, close-knit environment, and academic flexibility, it is worth checking out some of the smaller liberal arts colleges.


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