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The Ivy Coach Daily

May 20, 2023

What Is a Liberal Arts College and What Should Students Know?

Williams College has topped the annual US News & World Report ranking of “Best Liberal Arts Colleges” for 20 straight years (photo credit: Tim4403224246).

It’s a term you’ve likely heard quite frequently as your child navigates the elite college admissions process: liberal arts college. But what exactly is a liberal arts college? And why do so many people fail to realize just how good these schools are? Many misconceptions surround the term and what constitutes a true liberal arts college. So let’s find out!

Defining “Liberal Arts College”

Liberal arts colleges are four-year institutions distinguished by their focus on the undergraduate experience. Many of these schools offer limited graduate studies — if at all. The schools tend to boast smaller student bodies with smaller class sizes. They tend to be more expensive than large public universities. And they emphasize the study of the arts, sciences, social sciences, and the humanities rather than pre-professional interests such as business or engineering.

In short, these institutions position themselves as bastions of learning to nourish the mind rather than prepare for a specific career. Of course, institutions that don’t dub themselves liberal arts colleges, including large public research universities offering pre-professional focuses as well, often emphasize their appreciation for the liberal arts too. So it can get confusing!

Misconceptions About Liberal Arts Colleges

But let’s clear up some confusion by debunking some commonly held misconceptions about liberal arts colleges.

Liberal arts colleges do not cater exclusively to students whose politics skew left of center. While we understand the name might be off-putting to some, the liberal in liberal arts colleges means freedom, and the full term essentially translates to freedom of the mind. America’s top liberal arts colleges seek out diversity of thought — they aim to admit students of all different political persuasions so their students’ beliefs will be questioned and even challenged.

Liberal arts colleges do not aspire to admit a homogenous student body all drawn from the upper echelons of the socioeconomic spectrum. Instead, liberal arts colleges endeavor to welcome a diverse incoming class — one filled with students of varying races, faiths, sexual orientations and gender identities, and socioeconomic statuses. While it’s true that some liberal arts colleges — even some top ones — struggle to attract diverse students, these institutions remain steadfast in their pursuit of diversity.

The 25 Best Liberal Arts Colleges in 2023

For 20 straight years, Williams College has topped the annual US News & World Report ranking of “Best Liberal Arts Colleges.” And while Amherst College has taken the crown ten times since the inception of the US News rankings in 1987, the school typically plays bridesmaid to the Williams bride.

Below is the 2023 US News ranking of “Best Liberal Arts Colleges” in America:

College/UniversityUS News 2023 Rank
Williams College#1
Amherst College#2
Pomona College#3
Swarthmore College#4
Wellesley College#5
Bowdoin College#6
Carleton College#6
United States Naval Academy#9
Claremont McKenna College#9
United States Military Academy at West Point#9
Middlebury College#11
Washington and Lee University#11
Smith College#13
Vassar College#13
Davidson College#15
Grinnell College#15
Hamilton College#15
Barnard College#18
Colgate University#18
Haverford College#18
United States Air Force Academy#18
University of Richmond#18
Wesleyan University#18
Colby College#24
Bates College#25

Advantages of Liberal Arts Colleges vs. Universities

While even large public universities often offer liberal arts curriculums, because of their focus on the undergraduate experience, liberal arts colleges tend to score high marks in their emphasis on teaching, interaction in the classroom, and vibrant extracurricular offerings.

As we at Ivy Coach always tell our students, one does not need to major in business to enjoy a thriving career on Wall Street. One does not need to major in biology (though one can at a public university or a liberal arts college!) to attend medical school. One does not need to attend an institution with a designated “pre-law” track to attend law school — nor does following such a track distinguish a candidate when applying to America’s top legal institutions.

America’s Top Liberal Arts Colleges Regretfully Lack Brand Recognition

America’s liberal arts colleges are some of our nation’s most prestigious, selective institutions. Some of these institutions offer far better educations than many schools ranked in the top 50 of the annual US News & World Report ranking of “Best National Universities.”

Yet outside of the United States — and even in certain parts of our country — many don’t realize just how top-notch and challenging to get into these schools are, which is a real shame. In fact, it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy why some of these schools struggle to attract diverse student bodies — despite their stated goals — since many international applicants and racially and socioeconomically diverse American students don’t have these schools at the top of their minds.

In short, many liberal arts colleges — even the very top ones — lack brand recognition. It’s a sad reality, one we hope will change in the years to come as more and more parents and students realize that America’s top liberal arts colleges offer some of the finest educations in all the world.

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