The Ultimate Guide to Liberal Arts Colleges

By Brandi Lucey · August 26, 2023 · 7 minute read

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The Ultimate Guide to Liberal Arts Colleges

When considering where to go to college, a young adult has a dizzying array of choices, including public vs. private schools and colleges vs. universities. There are also liberal arts colleges, which can be appealing to creative types and those seeking a broad education resulting in exemplary problem solving and communication skills.

But what exactly is a liberal arts college? And how are liberal arts colleges different from other colleges and universities?

Liberal arts colleges tend to put more focus on broad academics and personal growth than on professional training programs. An education from a liberal arts college is still valuable in helping students start their careers, but the emphasis is more on producing well-rounded individuals than putting graduates on a specific career track like engineering.

Students can major in a wide range of subjects at a liberal arts college, including the arts, literature, philosophy, social sciences, natural sciences, and even math or engineering. However, these colleges are meant to be a place that values learning, without strictly limiting what students are learning.

Read on to learn more about liberal arts colleges, including what they offer, how they compare to larger schools and public universities, and how you can cover the cost of a liberal arts education.

A More Personal Vibe

Though both universities and liberal arts colleges will help prepare students for entering the working world, there are some differences in what the experience will be like:

1. Liberal arts colleges are smaller. Most classes will have far fewer students than is the case at a university lecture hall, which can have hundreds attending at the same time.
2. Because of the smaller size, it may be easier for students to bond with their professors. The faculty members often have more time to spend with their students.
3. The focus of a liberal arts school is undergraduate education. At universities, there will likely be graduate programs and major research efforts.

A liberal arts college may be the best college fit for students who prefer a more personal experience where they can get to know faculty members and other students.

Those trying to decide which college is right for them can take this eight-question college personality quiz.

💡 Quick Tip: Fund your education with a low-rate, no-fee SoFi private student loan that covers all school-certified costs.

The Admissions Process

The application process for getting into a liberal arts college is similar to other schools. Students will have to submit the usual components: an application with transcripts, test scores, essays, and letters of recommendation.

Liberal arts colleges may have a different focus when it comes to reviewing applications, though, so it’s essential to keep the following information in mind when applying to a liberal arts college.

When it comes to test scores and grades, liberal arts colleges don’t always have specific requirements. Admissions can still be very competitive at these schools, but they’re often more interested in whether or not students challenged themselves in high school. Generally, they want to see that applicants are well-rounded but also have an area of interest they specialize in.

Extracurriculars are important when applying to any college, but liberal arts colleges often value a wide range of activities, not just those that involve leadership.

A liberal arts college may be more likely to value extracurricular activities that are outside the box, so students applying to these schools have more options for what they can get involved in.

The Common Application, which can be used to apply to more than 900 schools, only requires one essay. However, many liberal arts colleges will require at least two supplemental essays. The reason is that these schools tend to put a high value on writing and critical thinking. This can be beneficial for students who have strong writing skills but may be weaker in other areas.

Many liberal arts colleges are also interested in a student’s character and how they’ll contribute to the school, so they may put more weight on letters of recommendation and interviews than other schools.

Top Ranked Liberal Arts Colleges

According to U.S. News’s National Liberal Arts Colleges Rankings for 2022-2023, the top ten liberal arts colleges are:

1. Williams College
2. Amherst College
3. Pomona College
4. Swarthmore College
5. Wellesley College
6. Bowdoin College
7. Carleton College
8. United States Naval Academy
9. Claremont McKenna College
10. United States Military Academy at West Point
11. Middlebury College

Financial Value of a Liberal Arts Education

There’s a stereotype about people who pursue a liberal arts education: that they won’t find financial success and their degree could be useless. This claim isn’t backed by evidence, though, so students who feel like a liberal arts college is the right choice for them shouldn’t be scared away by this false narrative.

The gap in income between those who attend a liberal arts college and those who attend other schools isn’t necessarily linked to the institution.

Instead, it’s determined more by a student’s career path and the market forces at the time, according to two economists who analyzed the payoff of a liberal arts college education.

Another reason for this misconception is that people are unaware of the diverse selection of topics that are studied at liberal arts colleges. If people don’t actually know what is being studied at these colleges, they’ll have a more difficult time conceptualizing what a student’s future could entail.

Though graduates of liberal arts colleges may not earn as much as those from STEM-oriented institutions right away, the economists’ study found that 60% of students ended up in the top 40% of U.S. income after graduation, even if they started out in the bottom 60%.

Choosing where to attend college and whether or not it will have a “payoff” is personal to each student.

Attending a liberal arts college can lead to upward mobility, but students also have to take into account the cost of the education and the availability of financial aid when choosing which school will have the most value for them.

Paying for College

Along with the painstaking process of choosing where to apply for college and making a final decision, there is another difficult process: figuring out the cost of tuition and how to pay for it all.

Luckily, students usually have access to a few options that may help fund the yearly cost of attendance, which goes beyond tuition and fees to usually include room and board, books, supplies, transportation, loan fees, costs related to a disability, and reasonable costs for eligible study-abroad programs.

To figure out financing, a good place to start is by filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). This will let you know if you are eligible for federal financial aid, which includes grants, scholarships, work-study, and federal student loans (which may be subsidized or unsubsidized).

Some private colleges use a supplemental form called the College Scholarship Service (CSS) Profile, to determine how to give out their own financial aid. The form is more detailed than the FAFSA. Almost every college that meets financial need for all enrolled students without federal student loans uses the CSS Profile.

Most liberal arts colleges are private and carry a relatively high “sticker price,” which includes tuition, fees, room and board. But students will typically pay less, and sometimes far less, when grants, scholarships, and other benefits are factored in.

If students will require loans to cover the cost of college, it’s recommended they take out federal loans before private loans, because the former come with benefits that the latter usually do not, like lower fixed interest rates and income-based repayment plans.

Private scholarships are also widely available. Some are need based; others are merit based. They’re offered by schools, companies, community organizations, religious groups, and more.

Private student loans are an option as well. Eligibility usually depends on a student’s income and credit score or those of a cosigner. These loans are available through banks, credit unions, and online lenders and rates and terms vary, depending on the lender.

💡 Quick Tip: Would-be borrowers will want to understand the different types of student loans that are available: private student loans, federal Direct Subsidized and Unsubsidized loans, Direct PLUS loans, and more.

The Takeaway

Whether you choose to go to a state university or a private liberal arts college, the experience will be enriching and can set you up for long-term career success.

Though a liberal arts school isn’t solely focused on teaching students a profession, a Bachelor of Arts from a reputable liberal arts school can lead to a rewarding career. The skills students learn at a liberal arts college — which include communication skills, analytic skills, the ability to work in a team, and a strong work ethic — are ones that often highly valued by today’s employers

While liberal arts colleges are known for their high cost, keep in mind that your actual cost of attendance will likely be much lower than the “sticker price,” once you take grants, scholarships, and other types of financial aid into consideration.

If you’ve exhausted all federal student aid options, no-fee private student loans from SoFi can help you pay for school. The online application process is easy, and you can see rates and terms in just minutes. Repayment plans are flexible, so you can find an option that works for your financial plan and budget.

Cover up to 100% of school-certified costs including tuition, books, supplies, room and board, and transportation with a private student loan from SoFi.

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