While many students don’t know the exact difference between a liberal arts college and a regular university, the distinction is an important one that underlies the two schools’ main concept. Depending on your major and expected vocation, this distinction is necessary to learn – it can determine which college will be better suited to your interests and strengths and the focus of your education. In this blog, we’ll discover the important differences between liberal arts colleges and universities, and their effects on you, the student. 

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What is the Main Difference?

The overarching difference is specialization. If you were to go to a university, you would declare a major either immediately or within the first year, then focus primarily on that field. Most colleges require 120 credit hours to earn a degree (30 per year), and a majority of those will be major-related at a university. On the other hand, at a liberal arts college, you will likely spend more time exploring different fields and getting a well-rounded education. 

Critical Differences


While the cost isn’t extremely different – top liberal arts colleges like Harvey Mudd and Amherst will cost a similar amount to top Universities like Stanford and Harvard – there is a slight difference. Liberal arts colleges, on average, cost about $10,000 more than a university. This is because there are often more resources on a per-student basis, such as a lower student/faculty ratio and more emphasis on a small, intimate campus setting. On the other hand, because large universities can host tens of thousands of students, they can be cheaper – however, you will have to acclimate to such a large setting, and it’s easy to get lost in the crowd.

Curriculum Offered

The main distinction that you will face as a student will be a difference in curriculum. Liberal arts colleges seek to promote a well-rounded atmosphere where students learn STEM research and writing skills and knowledge of the humanities. This is similar to the International Baccalaureate program in some high schools. On the other hand, universities will have a significant specialization and dedicate most of their curriculum to that. This isn’t a hard and fast rule – for example, Columbia is known for its Core Curriculum, whereas Brown has a very open curriculum. 


Class Size

The class size and the general atmosphere and culture will be far more intimate at a liberal arts college than at a university. Liberal arts colleges will focus on having many professors per student and small class sizes. Universities, on the other hand, have substantial class sizes, especially for freshmen. While this isn’t bad for everyone, universities are much larger, and it may feel hard to make connections with professors. Simultaneously, the size of a university means there may be more opportunities or resources available.

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Class Style

As a result of the smaller class size at liberal arts colleges, the classes are often taught in small lecture halls. This results in professors knowing most of their students, akin to most high school classes. On the other hand, university freshmen classes can have 200 or more students in a single room, creating a large barrier to professor-student connections. In universities, the style of teaching is generally a large seminar until students advance to smaller upper-division classes.

Is Post-Graduate an Option?

For both college types, post-graduate degrees are an option. Even if you are STEM-centered, there may be a liberal arts college for you – for example, Harvey Mudd is one of the top CS schools despite its liberal arts background. For both colleges, you can apply to postgraduate programs afterward, although universities are more likely to offer a graduate school themselves. Since universities are more research-centric, you may have better opportunities as a student at a large university, as research experience may make your graduate application more appealing.

Resource Allocation

The resource allocation of liberal arts colleges and universities is largely dependent on the school and the interests of the area – for example, despite Harvard’s prestige in academics, there is a significant focus on some of its sports (e.g., rowing). In contrast, Columbia is often noted for having a lacking school spirit for athletics. Nonetheless, on average, universities are more likely to have sports teams as their large class size makes popular sports like football more profitable and popular. Both schools will spend the majority of their money on academia, although universities will focus more on research, whereas colleges may focus on student development and teaching facilities. 

university Campus

Campus life for universities and liberal arts colleges are very different. Liberal arts colleges are small and intimate, so you are likely to know many of your graduate class people and be more involved in your college community. On the other hand, universities are large and will often focus on sport or large school-spirit events. Campus life is very dependent on the school’s culture – even large schools may have little partying and outward school spirit if it does not fit the interests of the student body.

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Extracurricular Activities

While both universities and liberal arts colleges will offer a plethora of extracurricular activities, there may be more resources and clubs available at a large university. Since universities have more students, there’s usually more diversity of clubs and more resources given to the clubs for funding or growth. Either way, you are likely to find something that interests you – if not, you can always start your club! However, if you are looking for competitive athletic involvement, a university is likely to go.

application writing

Admissions Process

Almost all schools are now listed on typical applications like the Common App or Coalition App. However, liberal arts schools are more likely to have their application, which would require you to write several separate essays to apply. Once again, this isn’t a hard and fast rule – for example, MIT, a university, has a separate application (MyMIT). No matter which route you decide to take, you should do your research beforehand, so you know how to apply.

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Which Option is Best for You?

The decision between a liberal arts college and a university is an incredibly subjective and personal one. While there are some significant differences in education, the differences in environment and culture (and other factors like location and cost) should all be considered. If you are still unsure, visiting the colleges you wish to apply to is a great way to get acquainted with the campus culture. 

Closing Thoughts 

Many factors come into play when deciding your final list of colleges to apply to, but the type of college is one student often gloss over despite its importance. As listed above, there are many differences between liberal arts colleges and universities. Depending on your personal preferences, they can either be a boost or hindrance to your college experience. With that in mind, we firmly believe you should take these differences into account and compare the colleges before you apply.

You have to do your research – visit the campus, learn about the culture, talk to alumni – do whatever you can to get a better idea of college life. There’s much more to a college than prestige, and finding an institution that fits your unique needs and interests is far more suitable than applying to the first few you can think of. So, before you finalize your list, we recommend you do everything you can to compare and weigh each college’s advantages – this is a big decision to make, and you should treat it as such!