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US liberal arts colleges versus research universities: five key differences

11 Jun, 2022
US liberal arts colleges versus research universities: five key differences

Students electing to pursue higher education in the United States will undoubtedly feel overwhelmed by the sheer volume of schools, choices, majors and specializations. Finding the right school involves understanding significant differences.

Many students will struggle at first to decide if they want to attend top ranked National Research universities or if they want a different experience at a Liberal Arts College. To help students make an informed decision, here are five key factors to consider when choosing between Research Universities and Liberal Arts Colleges.


Because student population directly affects all other aspects of the campus experience, students will need to understand themselves, how they learn best and what kind of experience they want to have. Choosing a Nationally Ranked Research University often means a huge population of both undergraduate and graduate students. For example, Arizona State University has a population of almost 60,000 students. As such, students will need to be independent and do well in large settings in order to be successful.

With the larger size of Research Universities comes more choices of offerings: degrees, majors, campus facilities, dorms, research centers, libraries, athletics and student life.

On the other hand, Liberal Arts Colleges are generally much smaller, with the largest being a few thousand students and the smallest with less than 100. These schools are often a better match for students who enjoy a tighter sense of community and a more familiar environment.

Degree choices

Liberal Arts Colleges primarily offer undergraduate Bachelor’s Degrees, though some do boast Master’s Degree programs. Generally speaking, there are fewer choices of majors, and these tend to be the more traditional subjects of study: English, History, Mathematics, Arts and Sciences. These schools usually also feature professional degree programs in Business, Education and Psychology.

Aside from the traditional undergraduate Bachelor’s, Research Universities also offer a huge variety of Master’s programs as well as Doctorate degrees.

Research Universities are often broken up into different schools within the institution: Liberal Arts, Science and Engineering, Business, and Medicine. These institutions are usually the best match for students who want to pursue Engineering, Computer Science and Business in a competitive environment.

The classroom

Students who want to be able to get to know their professors in a small classroom will find that Liberal Arts Colleges offer an advantage. The vast majority of Professors in these schools will be teaching faculty, which means that the majority of their time is spent in the classroom or working one on one with students in office hours. With more discussion based learning, professors guide students to uncover the course content by making meaningful connections with the material.

Many classes at Research Universities, especially introductory ones can be very large, even more than a few hundred. In these large classes, there will be little room for discussion and the format will be more lecture-based, perhaps with small group recitations that meet once a week to unpack the course lectures.

Research Universities employ world-class faculty, many of which have a large amount of fame in their fields; however, these professors don’t always teach undergraduate students. Instead, Graduate Assistants and Teaching Assistants might lead your classes. Many full professors will be more engaged with research, and mentoring graduate students, so there may not be much chance to interact with those Nobel Prize winning professors that help attract students to the universities.

Campus life

Some Research Universities offer NCAA Division I Athletics, which is reserved for the most competitive Athletics programs, and these sporting events usually bring the campus together in a huge display of campus pride with students wearing campus colors and their team’s logo to every event. For those not interested in sports, many Research Universities offer hundreds of clubs and on campus activities that reflect diverse interests, hobbies and passions of the student body. Greek Life, that is Fraternities and Sororities are also common at many large universities. These schools might also have on campus concert halls and art museums that bring in the public regularly.

Liberal Arts Colleges might offer fewer choices for sports, clubs and entertainment, but students will have an easier, and less intimidating time getting involved in something they love. Because of the strong community at Liberal Arts Colleges, it can be easier to make friends, and as a result, be encouraged by them to try something new: audition for a play, sing with the jazz ensemble, participate in community service or host a student fashion show.

Graduate school readiness

Due to the close relationships developed in small classes within a small community, Liberal Arts Colleges can offer an advantage when it comes to finding ever-important recommendation letters from professors. Research Universities will have name recognition, but may not give you as much access to faculty, so letters might be harder to come by.

Students who graduate from Liberal Arts Colleges will also be used to text-based analysis, thus providing the grounding in theory that many graduate programs favor. On the other hand, Research University grads might be able to have more impressive projects to show off on graduate applications.

Both schools offer internship options, but Research Universities might have more partnerships to simplify that process for students. Liberal Arts College students often find their own internship, which after the initial challenges of finding placement, can lead to greater ownership and a better 'fit' for what they want to do in the future.