What is a Liberal Arts College?

Jun 2024

8 Minute Read

Tagged as: Choosing a School/Program

Discusses the differences between "college" and "university" in the US, what liberal arts colleges are (and names a few), and how some colleges are smaller parts of universities (aka "the college of arts and sciences")

There are over 4,400 colleges and universities in the United States. Formally, a college denotes a constituent part of a university. In popular usage, college is the general/colloquial term for any post-secondary undergraduate education in the US. However, in other English-speaking countries like Canada and the UK, this is not necessarily the case.

"University" versus "College"

There is no standardized definition of the term "university" in the United States, although it has traditionally been used to designate research institutions.1 Institutions change over time, but sometimes they cannot or will not change their names. For example, Boston College is actually a university. It still has a relatively small enrollment (about 4,500 students), but it offers any graduate degrees (although it did not when it began as a college). Boston University is an entirely separate institution with over 33,000 students.

One thing that most institutions referred to as "universities" have in common is that the minimum degree they award is the bachelor’s (four-year) degree. A "college" (or "community college") in the US is a post-secondary institution that awards associate’s (two-year) degrees.

Only a few colleges in the US will award bachelor’s degrees. Casper College in the sparsely-populated state of Wyoming, for example, has created an online partnership with several four-year universities in order to offer degrees beyond an associate’s. Such degrees are largely offered in fields that are currently in high demand.

Generally speaking, we at Occam Education use the term "university" to mean "four-year institution" in our posts. We also use the term "school," which generally refers to any educational institution.

What is a liberal arts college?

Liberal arts colleges (primarily a US term) typically enroll fewer than 5,000 students and focus on professors teaching undergraduates as opposed to professors performing research. Some prominent colleges include Middlebury College in Connecticut, Wellesley College in Massachusetts, and Claremont McKenna College in California.

What are colleges within universities?

The term "college" has another definition when it is used within a university, and this usage is common to both US and UK universities.

Many universities separate their areas of study according to colleges (often called schools). The size and scope of such colleges varies dramatically. At the State University of New York (SUNY) at Binghamton, the Harpur College of Arts and Sciences has more than 7,000 undergraduates in 29 departments and 12 interdisciplinary degree programs in the fine arts, humanities, natural and social sciences, and mathematics. Binghamton’s College of Community and Public Affairs, on the other hand, offers only one undergraduate major: human development. As another example, Harvard University has a division within it called Harvard College (most undergraduate students study within Harvard College).

Similarly, many universities have colleges that are renowned in their own right. For example, the Peabody College of Education and Human Development at Vanderbilt University and the Mendoza College of Business at the University of Notre Dame are highly esteemed in their respective fields. Often you have to apply and be accepted by the university first and then perform well in your first year of studies to enter the college. This is the case at the University of Michigan and its Ross School of Business. At some universities – such as University of California at Berkeley, New York University and the University of Pennsylvania – applicants mark the colleges to which they are applying. In these cases, some colleges (The Wharton School at Penn; Stern School of Business at NYU) will be more difficult to enter.

Sometimes, a particular area of study is accessible from multiple colleges or schools within a university. At Cornell University, for instance, the biological sciences major is available to students enrolled in either the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences or the College of Arts and Sciences. The curricula of the two programs, though obviously similar, varies slightly from one Cornell college to another.2 Oftentimes students may study outside of their college by earning a minor or second major from a separate college.

Finally, whether you're starting to apply to colleges or are just beginning your college search, Occam's free app, Wend, is now available on the App Store! With free test prep, college search tools, and essay-writing guides, Wend has everything you need to navigate the college application process with ease.


  1. Related terms: school, post-baccalaureate institution, post-secondary institution, institution of higher education. 
  2. Related terms: minor, major, specialization, course, subject 

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