What Is a Liberal Arts College?


A lot of people have misconceptions about what liberal arts colleges are.  They are not arts schools.  They may or may not have liberal leanings when it comes to politics.  Liberal arts colleges focus on undergraduate education instead of graduate or professional degrees.  They may offer majors in a variety of subjects.  (Check out the acceptance rate to medical schools from many liberal arts science majors!)  These colleges are not community colleges or inferior to universities.  In fact, many top-rated liberal arts colleges are more competitive than most universities when it comes to admissions.

Why do I keep recommending liberal arts colleges?

  • Smaller classes mean students get more personalized attention
  • Huge focus on real world application of knowledge – internships, undergraduate research, hands-on learning
  • Campus resources are devoted to undergraduates (money, time with professors—almost no TA’s, campus programs, research opportunities)
  • Great preparation for and acceptance into graduate and professional schools
  • Environments where students are helped with the transition from high school to college (small seminars, professors who know students by name, smaller campus feel)
  • Higher graduation rates than big state universities
  • Great education!

What is the educational emphasis at liberal arts colleges?

Liberal arts colleges tend to focus exclusively on undergraduate education: the sequence of classes required for a student to earn a bachelor’s (or “four year”) degree. This means that campus programs and funding are focused on undergraduate education. Faculty at liberal arts colleges can devote more time to teaching undergraduates and assisting them with research opportunities. It is almost unheard of to have a teaching assistant (TA) teach a class at a liberal arts college. And it is not unusual for professors to call or check in on students who have been absent from class.

What is the curriculum like at a liberal arts college?

Liberal arts colleges operate on the belief that if students are taught critical thinking and communications skills, they will be able to apply them to any field of study or profession.  A liberal arts curriculum begins with a foundation in literature, philosophy, language, history, mathematics, and science and allows students to develop their intellectual abilities, rather than study for a single professional or vocational program. This type of academic preparation doesn’t hold graduates back when it comes to future endeavors.  Ask any liberal arts college you visit about the success of their graduates.  You will find employment and acceptance rates that rival any other schools on your list.  (Grad schools and employers know the quality of work these grads are used to producing!)

How big are liberal arts colleges?

Most liberal arts colleges have 2,000 or fewer students. Classes are traditionally small–fewer than 20 students. The low student-to-faculty ratio allows students to work closely with their professors. Most liberal arts graduates will have had multiple opportunities for hands-on projects, research, internships, and other collaborations with faculty by the time they graduate. Many liberal arts colleges have made these experiences a required part of the curriculum. This close collaboration and personal interaction wouldn’t be possible on a campus with tens of thousands of students.

What is the student experience like at a liberal arts college?

Most liberal arts colleges are residential, most students live on campus making it easy to work on group projects or continue a discussion once class ends. Liberal arts colleges seek to connect classroom learning and campus experiences to real world applications.  Part of this process lies in the collaborative nature of the education at these colleges. These are not commuter schools or places where a student can drop in unnoticed to pick up a credit or two.  They are communities.  Liberal arts colleges rarely have big Division I athletics programs, but they often have Div. II or III teams and plenty of club and intermural sports. (Colorado College is a small liberal arts school with a Div.I Ice Hockey team!) Student life is sometimes more involved at these schools because they create such a sense of community.


Not everyone is looking for a liberal arts college experience.  It is not the place to skip class for most of the semester, try to hide while you catch a nap in the back of the lecture hall, or try to commute in just to pick up a class credit.  I know a lot of students have a hard time imagining a college with fewer students than their high school, but I wish more families would keep an open mind and visit a liberal arts college or two before making any decisions.

Colorado College

Did You Know?

Martianus Capella, a Roman scholar in the fifth century AD, defined seven liberal arts essential to a classical education:  grammar, rhetoric, dialectic, music, arithmetic, geometry, and astronomy.  These seven subjects were the foundation of a liberal arts education in the medieval universities and were known as the seven pillars of wisdom.

St. John’s College (Santa Fe, NM)

Here are more details I learned during my visit:
For fun students go climbing or skiing, hang out at coffee shops, or visit with friends. Some campus parties are themed around the readings and since everyone on campus takes the same classes students can have fun getting into the theme.

Both students who met with me said the same thing — after visiting campus they couldn’t imaging not coming to St. John’s.

Math is part of the program, but it is different than high school math. In high school students memorize rules then solve problems. At St. John’s students learn how and why these rules were developed.

Lab covers all types of sciences. Students recreate original experiments. The goal is to figure it out, so labs are unguided. This is perfect for the student who wants to know why. Both of my student guides raved about how they actually learned things from lab, unlike high school labs that told them every step and what they were supposed to learn.

Tutors (instructors) teach in all subjects. My guide, AJ, has a sophomore music tutor who holds a Ph.D. in astrophysics from Stanford. Tutors guide students through the material, so they aren’t expected to specialize or narrow their abilities.

Because everyone takes the same classes over four years, students don’t leave campus during the school year for study abroad or internships in other cities. St. John’s offers scholarships for summer internships and students can study abroad during summer months.
St. John’s students have a strong work ethic. In small classes that are discussion based it is hard to cut class or not do the reading. Because students don’t earn grades, they are encouraged to work for the sake of learning and improving.

Freshman year students begin reading original texts in Ancient Greek. AJ told me that after learning to translate from Greek, he feels he can learn anything. It has taught him that he has the ability to figure anything out.

Students never take tests at St. John’s. They write a couple papers for each of their four classes every semester. I was surprised because these weren’t huge research papers; most papers are 3-12 pages long.

For study groups and support students have a “core”: a group a 4-5 students who share their exact same class schedule.

Both student guides told me they were so interested in what they were doing that “it doesn’t feel like work.” They take four classes a semester and probably spend 15-30 hours a week reading.

St. John’s isn’t for everyone, but students who think they might like the program should try the Summer Academy for High School Students. For one week over the summer, rising juniors and seniors can experience St. John’s for a week.

St. John’s is willing to admit a smart willing student who has a less than perfect high school record. In fact some St. John’s students had low grades in high school because they were bored or didn’t complete busy work.

If what you’ve hear makes you think St. John’s College might be a good fit, I’d encourage you to visit. St. John’s isn’t right for everyone, but it is perfect for the smart, thinking student who wants more out of college than lectures and grades.


College Visit: Elizabethtown College


In my recent visit of liberal arts colleges in Pennsylvania, Elizabethtown College (E-Town) was the first stop.  It is a campus with just under 2000 students, 85% of which live on campus.  Elizabethtown (the actual town) has about 12,000 residents and a nice college-town feel with shops, bookstores, restaurants, and coffee houses.  The campus is close to Harrisburg and Hershey and with an Amtrak station nearby students are just a few hours from New York or Washington DC.

E-town is just down the road from the Mars Chocolate manufacturing facility.  Many days the sweet smell of cocoa permeates campus.  Students call these “chocolate days.”  Unfortunately, the wind from the other direction can bring smells from area farms, so “chocolate days” can be alternated with “cow days”!

Our group of counselors was invited to a reception at the college president’s home.  He lives a block or two from campus and students are frequently invited to dinner at his home.  Lots of professors liveOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA in the town and as my student guide shared, it is common for professors to meet students outside of class or office hours to talk.

I spoke with a science professor who said he chose to come to Elizabethtown College because he gets to make an impact with his students.  He had previously worked at a more prestigious university, but felt there was more pressure to research and publish than to teach.  At Elizabethtown he found a better balance and feels the campus is really dedicated to learning and teaching.  Throughout my visit, I found students and faculty who said teaching, learning, and doing are actual priorities not just marketing ideas designed to draw students to campus.


Elizabethtown College Campus Focus:

  • Personalized attention and relationship-centered learning.  The student to faculty ratio is 12:1 and the average class has 16 students.  Students feel their professors know them and their goals and really push them to succeed.  This is the type of school were a good student can become a great student.
  • Graduation.  The university is looking to enroll graduates not just first year students.  Admissions and financial aid seek to help enroll students who are prepared and able to finish four years.  Once students enroll, academic programs are in place to encourage success.
  • Real world learning.  86% of graduates had an internship, study abroad, or research experience at E-town.  This is not a campus where these things are talked about to impress potential applicants but not actually promoted among the student body.
  • Employment.  You may wonder if liberal arts graduates are competitive in the market.  Elizabethtown grads are doing well in this economy.  The survey of the last graduating class found 74% were employed full time and 26% were in graduate school.  They attribute a lot of their success to the real world experiences students have.

Elizabethtown College Academic Programs:

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERANo matter what programs students enter at Elizabethtown College, they will learn how to think, communicate, write, and adapt to the demands of their field.  Freshmen all participate in a First-Year Seminar (FYS).  Each FYS has a specific theme and involves interactive activities such as field trips, guest lectures, plays, and films; students are exposed to opportunities in the area.  FYS professors serve as first-year advisors, so students receive regular guidance and help with their academic goals from a professor who knows them well.

Instead of fulfilling a long list of required “basics”, E-town students select course from 8 areas of understanding:

  • Power of Language – 2 classes
  • Mathematics – 1 class
  • Creative Expression – 1 class
  • Western Cultural Heritage – 1 class
  • Non-Western Cultural Heritage – 1 class
  • Natural and Physical Sciences – 2 classes
  • Social Sciences – 1 class
  • Humanities – 1 class

Students could fulfill these eight areas in one year and quickly get into advanced classes in their major.

Because all freshmen will take the seminar and courses in these eight areas, it is fine for students to enter E-town as “undecided”.  The reality is that many students change their majors multiple times from senior year of high school when they apply until they ultimately graduate.  The way Elizabethtown College structures its academic programs and advising makes it easy for students to experience different fields and receive informed guidance in selecting the major that is right for them.



Elizabethtown College Admissions:

Admission to E-town is on a rolling basis.  Application review begins in mid-October and the goal is to send a decision three weeks after a student applies.  There are some competitive programs with a December 15 deadline, so check for your particular major.

In general, well-rounded students do well at Elizabethtown College.  The admissions office is looking for a good match in

  • Academics
  • Co-curricular activities
  • Social and personal style (integrity, work ethic, interest in school, persistence, etc.)

Ideal students will match E-town’s campus climate and will have the ability to think on their feet and effectively communicate with strong writing skills.


  • In 2012– 3,732 students applied; 2,598 were accepted.
  • 32% of admitted students were in the top 10% of their high school class.  (This means that there is still room for you at E-town if you are a good student, but not in the top 10%!)
  • Average SAT scores are 1030 – 1230 (reading + math)
  • 88% of freshmen return for their sophomore year – a good retention rate!
  • 21 of the applicants were valedictorian or salutatorian
  • Over 50% of first year students are offered merit scholarships
  • The financial aid budget is $28 million
  • Students in the top 10% or with a 3.5/4.0 from a non-ranking school do NOT need to send SAT scores for admission (but they can help for merit scholarships)

Who would like E-Town:

Elizabethtown College is right for good students who are looking for a school where they will receive personalized attention and opportunities for real world learning.  Students who earned A’s and B’s in high school and want to be involved in college will find opportunities here.  (The largest student organization on campus is E-Motion a dance group, that performs all styles of dance and is open to all students, regardless of dance training or talent.)

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAStudents looking for undergraduate programs in Occupational or Physical Therapy will like E-town’s strong programs and opportunities for early admission to graduate programs. It is one of the few schools where students take their first Occupational Therapy classes freshmen year. The 3-3 Physical Therapy Program allows students to study Biology for three years at Elizabethtown then continue for three years at Thomas Jefferson University and receive a Doctor of Physical Therapy degree.

I got a good feeling from the campus.  Students I met were happy.  They felt there was a good balance between academics, activities, and social life.  I said this before, but Elizabethtown is one of those colleges that will take a good student and turn him or her into a GREAT student.  I only wish it were closer to me, so I could get more students to visit.