Liberal Arts Degrees Explained: Courses, Content & Careers

With the liberal arts growing in popularity amongst international students, we’ve explored why a liberal arts degree is so great at preparing your students for the working world, and how and where they can apply.

liberal arts college

Liberal arts degrees these days are most closely associated with North America, although the concept of a liberal arts education originated in ancient Greece (as a way of creating voters with a well-rounded enough understanding to use their political power wisely).

In fact, there may be advisors and teachers elsewhere who don’t have an airtight definition of the liberal arts. If that’s you, don’t worry. The truth is, there aren’t really hard and fast parameters for what a liberal arts education entails - it’s suitably liberal!

Perhaps as a result of this loose definition, there are some who wonder whether a liberal arts degree is the most sensible choice in terms of career prospects, or if it’s as academically rigorous as, say, STEM. You might even encounter parents who are hesitant about their children embarking on a liberal arts education.

But these kinds of misconceptions can come between students and an education which is not only really valuable, but perfectly suited to their interests and abilities.

If you do want to get a better understanding of what learning at a liberal arts college looks like, how your students can go about applying, and what they stand to gain from this kind of education, you’ve come to the right place. In this article, we’ll be tackling just those questions.

And with liberal arts colleges’ popularity with international students growing exponentially, we know you’re likely already fielding questions on these courses.

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What does a liberal arts education look like?

Broadly speaking, the liberal arts degree of today has retained the ethos of its ancient forefather. Contrary to popular belief, it isn’t limited to just the arts. Usually, students will study fields spanning humanities, arts, social sciences and natural sciences.

And while it’s been largely adopted by the North American education system, there are actually liberal arts colleges and courses around the world!

So if you have students who are interested in this approach, or students who might not have considered liberal arts as an option, make sure to banish these common misconceptions as they begin their university research. The liberal arts system is wider in its subjects and geographical spread than many realise.

What will liberal arts students study?

The notion of a liberal arts education is quite flexible. Adaptability is pretty much baked into the structure of these degrees, so for the most part students can make the programme their own - a bit like an educational buffet.

Of course, students are usually expected to maintain the diversity that a liberal arts education so values, particularly at the outset of their degrees. Although they can often choose a major after their first year (and sometimes after the second), students who choose the liberal arts are sure to get a well-rounded education and learn about all kinds of subjects during the course of their degree.

Here are just some of the fields which liberal arts colleges teach:

  • Humanities (e.g. literature, history, philosophy)
  • Arts (e.g. theatre, painting, music)
  • Social sciences (e.g. economics, psychology, sociology)
  • Natural sciences (e.g. chemistry, physics, mathematics)

How is education delivered at a liberal arts college?

The structure of liberal arts colleges, as well as the varied and largely theoretical topics, mean that their teaching style can be quite different to what students at other universities encounter.

In many ways, instruction at a liberal arts college is the opposite of vocational education. Students have a vastly varied workload, as opposed to really honing in on one craft. They’ll also spend a lot of time reading, writing, thinking and discussing. Another important distinction is that liberal arts colleges (and courses) often allow students to build their own degree to meet their interests. That would be very tricky on a vocational course!

Liberal arts degrees and vocational courses: not so different after all?

But there are also features that the two not-so-polar opposites share. Liberal arts degrees, like vocational ones, tend to have much smaller class sizes. In fact, liberal arts colleges themselves are far smaller than traditional universities. That means students get a much more intimate experience. They’ll get to know their professors and their classmates, and even students that they don’t have any classes with.

Because of this, students are expected to contribute much more actively than at a larger university. After all, there’s no realistic way to expect every student in a 100+ seat lecture hall to get involved. But in a seminar of a dozen, everyone will have their chance to share ideas and opinions.

Another point of similarity with vocational courses - which demonstrates how liberal arts degrees can differ from more traditional academic programmes - is that, particularly in the ‘arts’ category of subjects, students can get stuck into some hands-on learning. Do they want a change from intellectual seminars or a break from the library? They might have a painting class or a theatrical rendition to look forward to!

This brings up an important point about liberal arts education: it’s very much an interdisciplinary approach to learning. Students will be expected to not just switch between creative craft, theoretical thought and scientific study, but to bring these all together.

Where can students undertake a liberal arts education?

The obvious starting point for a student keen to study the liberal arts is researching dedicated liberal arts colleges. The majority of these are in the USA. Those spread around the globe also tend to be based on the American model.

But bear in mind that there are other options aside from explicit liberal arts colleges. Students can undertake a liberal arts education elsewhere: some universities have dedicated liberal arts college within their proverbial umbrella. Meanwhile, an increasing number of institutions have opted to create a liberal arts department, or a liberal arts degree within an existing department.

There are also universities which don’t declare themselves to be liberal arts colleges, but have a distinct liberal arts flavour in their educational philosophy.

Thanks to the wide range of options available, a liberal arts education might be a good option for more students than you realise!

Where are there liberal arts colleges?

For students who want to attend an institution which explicitly and exclusively aligns itself with the liberal arts, a liberal arts college is the way to go. North America has the highest concentration of liberal arts colleges, and it’s where the modern-day version of a liberal arts education is most popular. Aspiring liberal arts students might begin their search here.

But some students might have other destinations they would prefer. Maybe they want to be closer to home, or don’t feel confident living in an English-speaking country. Whatever their reasoning, there are other options.

In fact, there are liberal arts colleges on every continent. Although there may not be as many options as in the USA, it’s an approach that’s growing in popularity.

A liberal arts college by any other name...

But remember, liberal arts colleges might not always have that explicit label. In the Netherlands, for example, there are liberal arts colleges which belong to larger universities, but are known as university colleges. There are also examples like John Cabot University and The American University of Rome whose names wouldn’t indicate that they are liberal arts colleges at all.

Students who hope to study in Asia have a handy resource in the Alliance of Asian Liberal Arts Universities (AALAU), where they can seek a college and programme that suits them.

There are also many dedicated liberal arts colleges within larger universities. Some famous examples include Harvard College and Yale College, both of which provide liberal arts education.

The subjects and approach will be very similar to those at a liberal arts college, so this might be a good idea for students who have a particular country or institution in mind. It’s also a way to get the student experience of being at a large-scale university (more on that later) while receiving a liberal arts education.

Ultimately, it’s important for students to research thoroughly, particularly if they have a specific destination in mind.

Where are there liberal arts degrees?

Another option students have is to attend an institution which isn’t itself a liberal arts college, but does offer a Bachelor’s degree in the liberal arts.

This widens students’ net considerably. Over the past decade, many universities have begun offering liberal arts degrees. University College London even gives graduates from its interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences degree a BASc - a sort of hybrid between a BA and a BSc which recognises the varied approaches and subjects which its students learn.

As with liberal arts colleges themselves, liberal arts degrees can be found all over the world.

Where are there institutions which embrace a liberal arts ethos?

Finally, there are some higher education institutions which adopt the liberal arts in their philosophy and teaching, without necessarily taking liberal arts labels in their names or degree programmes.

These kinds of institutions are typically found in the USA, whose system allows for more flexibility in students’ study. Whereas students in a country like the UK apply to a subject-specific degree (like English Literature or Sociology), students in the USA can study a broad range of subjects, and later declare a major - and sometimes more than one.

As a result, some American universities stretch this malleable curriculum even further. For example, Stanford prides itself on the “unusual degree of academic freedom" all its students enjoy, and the fact it “embodies the cornerstones of a strong Liberal Arts education". While it’s not a liberal arts college or degree, students will still receive a liberal arts education.

Note: A liberal arts education is often hiding under another name or institution, especially outside of North America. Make sure students research all their options thoroughly!

Student life at a liberal arts college

Of course, when students are making decisions about their next steps, it’s not just the education they’ll be thinking about. The overall experience is really important, too. After all, this is three or four years of their lives!

Liberal arts colleges do offer a very different student experience than larger universities. As we mentioned, they’re almost always much smaller, creating an intimate community for students and faculty.

This is heightened by the fact that liberal arts colleges tend to be entirely residential, with students staying on-campus throughout their degrees. As a result, people often spend a great deal of time around the campus, and students will come to recognise most of the faces they pass.

Extracurricular activities

One side-effect of their smaller population is that liberal arts colleges usually have fewer extracurricular offerings. For students who want to be involved in a whole myriad of clubs, activities and societies, the options might seem a little limited.

Because they tend to have less funding, the extracurriculars liberal arts colleges do have can also be more modest than their university counterparts. Students dreaming of televised sports games with thousands of screaming fans, or hotly anticipated plays with an orchestra and a lengthy cast-list may have to rethink their choice of a liberal arts college. It’s exactly for these kinds of students that opting for a liberal arts programme elsewhere is such a good idea!

It’s not all bad news on the extracurricular front, though. For those students who don’t hope university clubs will be the springboard to a dazzling career, liberal arts colleges offer some benefits.

Because the population is smaller, as are the societies’ scope and funding, students have more opportunities to get involved. Whereas a university newspaper would likely be dominated by journalism students and run rigorously and seriously, a liberal arts college’s publication could welcome aboard most students keen to take part, finding a role even for those less journalistically gifted.

Benefits of attending liberal arts colleges

There are lots of things that make a liberal arts education attractive. For students who haven’t researched this option, or parents who might need a bit of convincing, here are some of the compelling benefits of liberal arts colleges.

They prepare students for their next steps

The flexible approach of a liberal arts programme prepares students well for the varied and ever-changing demands of the job market. Graduates will have the dexterity to change approaches quickly, as well as great teamwork, communication and critical thinking skills. These are all characteristics which are high priorities for employers.

Because liberal arts graduates have such a rounded education, they’re also equipped to join many different professions. We'll look at this more in the next section.

For those not scrambling to join the job market right after graduation, liberal arts colleges can also be a great choice. They prepare students well for postgraduate education. In fact, it’s been said that more liberal arts college graduates attend graduate school than other students, undertaking both arts and humanities doctorates. 

It’s understandable, insofar as liberal arts colleges do tend to impart the skills and attitudes which postgraduate study demands. There’s a high level of class participation, independent and critical thought, and writing essays. Smaller liberal arts colleges can also allow students to participate in research, lending them invaluable experience.

They provide a high quality of teaching

At larger universities, students are often taught by teaching assistants (graduate students with almost no teaching experience). By contrast, liberal arts college classes are almost always taught by faculty members.

What’s more, the faculty at liberal arts colleges tends to focus much less on research compared to their university counterparts. That means their attention is weighted much more towards teaching. They can give students more and better attention.

As a result, students at liberal arts colleges generally feel that their professors take a personal interest in their education. They also tend to get more personalised and constructive feedback.

“A modern liberal arts education takes whatever you’re passionate about — history, medicine, music, law, neuroscience, engineering, poetry, teaching, biology — and helps you understand how it will impact the world around you.”

Bowdoin College: Admissions

Practical considerations

Once students (and parents) are sure that a liberal arts approach is the way to go, it’s time to think about the practicalities.

Applying to a liberal arts college

For the most part, applying to a liberal arts college will be much like applying to any other university. In the USA, almost all liberal arts schools are listed on applications like the Common App or Coalition App.

Still, these kinds of institutions are much more likely to have their own application processes and requirements than more traditional universities. Sometimes they ask for additional materials - think extended essays, or samples of work from a variety of subjects.

As with most things, there are no definitive rules. Students should do their research well ahead of time, so they know exactly what they’ll need and have time to prepare. If they’re applying from overseas, there will likely be further materials to gather - as there would be for any international application.

Cost of a liberal arts education

Budget is naturally an important consideration for anyone contemplating higher education. Most liberal arts colleges are private institutions, and have higher fees than public universities. The fact that there are more resources allocated to each student (e.g. fewer students per professor) can also push up fees.

On the other hand, many liberal arts colleges can provide generous financial aid and scholarships. These are available based on both merit and need, so students may not have to rule out liberal arts colleges for budgetary reasons - although admittedly, it’s usually harder for international students to receive financial aid. Applicants from overseas might therefore want to target merit-based scholarships more than the need-based options.

Of course, students can always look into undertaking liberal arts education at a different institution and see whether that might be more affordable.

What do graduates do next?

Higher education in itself is really valuable, and it tends to be a wonderful time in students’ lives. But it’s also a stepping stone to their next chapter. You’ve probably found that for many of your students, the doors their degree opens are front of mind when making decisions.

Luckily, liberal arts degrees keep a lot of doors wide open! There’s the postgraduate study option we discussed earlier, with many different subjects available to students with such an interdisciplinary degree.

There are also lots of career pathways open to graduates. With too many to list, we’ll give just a few examples. Of course, these can depend on the shape students give their degree, including the major they choose.

  • Advertising and marketing
  • Graphic design
  • Publishing
  • Museum curation
  • Behavioural counseling
  • Health work/education
  • Journalism

Students can even go onto more career-oriented graduate education, like medical, business or law schools, so their options really are open!

Which students are suited to liberal arts colleges?

While liberal arts education has lots of attractive features, it won’t be the right fit for everyone. So how can you determine which students you might guide towards liberal arts colleges as they create their university shortlist?

These are some of the factors that can indicate whether a student will thrive in a liberal arts college:

  • Students who don’t have a particularly strong preference or aptitude for a particular subject, but instead shine across the board.
  • Students who like bringing together ideas from different lessons.
  • Students who are full of energy and thoughts in the classroom, and keen to share these with the group.
  • Students whose focus is more in academics than in extracurricular activities.
  • Students who like having a close circle of friends and a collaborative, friendly relationship with their teachers.
  • Students who aren’t certain of their ultimate career goals.
  • Students who are undecided about their major or field of study.

And if you really want to ensure students find their perfect fit when it comes to higher education courses, you can download our free eBook! It’s full of in-class activities and self-assessments which can help students match their interests and strengths to their best-fit courses and create a thoughtful university shortlist.

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