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Liberal Arts Colleges

History of Liberal Arts Colleges, Characteristics of Liberal Arts Colleges

Rather than emphasizing a specific course of study or professional training, liberal arts colleges aim to expose students to a wide breadth of courses in the humanities and both physical and social sciences. Although the curriculum varies from college to college, a student's coursework at a liberal arts school would include many or all of the following subjects: history, philosophy, religion, literature, physical sciences (e.g., biology, chemistry, physics), social sciences (e.g., psychology, sociology, economics, politics), the arts (e.g., theater, music, art), languages, and mathematics. Liberal arts colleges tend to stress the importance of teaching by faculty and usually have smaller enrollments.

The Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education is a typology of colleges and universities in America that orders colleges and universities by category. Within the Carnegie Classification system there is a separate and distinct category for liberal arts colleges called "Baccalaureate Colleges—Liberal Arts." Baccalaureate Colleges—Liberal Arts are identified as institutions that "are primarily undergraduate colleges with major emphasis on baccalaureate programs. During the period studied, they awarded at least half of their baccalaureate degrees in liberal arts fields" (Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching website). There are 228 liberal arts institutions, which comprise 15.4 percent of all colleges and universities in the United States. Of these 228 colleges and universities twenty-six are public institutions, comprising 15 percent of this category, and 202 are private not-for-profit institutions, comprising 88.6 percent of this category. There are no private for-profit liberal arts institutions. Clearly, private liberal arts colleges outnumber public liberal arts colleges in the United States.

History of Liberal Arts Colleges

American universities began with the founding of Harvard in 1636, which was modeled after Emmanuel College at Cambridge University. After the founding of Harvard and into the early 1800s, several colleges were founded. These colleges, like Harvard, were small, religiously affiliated institutions. Appropriate curriculum for these colleges became widely debated in the early part of the nineteenth century. As science and technology became more prevalent and began to shape the world, American society called upon its colleges to provide coursework that suited the new era. In reply to these demands, Yale President Jeremiah Day organized a committee to address the aforementioned debates. The resultant document was "The Yale Report of 1828."

"The Yale Report of 1828" called for breadth in curriculum as the writers of the document doubted "whether the powers of the mind can be developed, in their fairest proportions, by studying languages alone, or mathematics alone, or natural or political science alone" (p. 173). The document further states that "the course of instruction which is given to undergraduates in the college is not designed to include professional studies. Our object is not to teach what is peculiar to any one of the professions; but to lay the foundation which is common to them all" (p.173). Since its publication, "The Yale Report of 1828" has become the classic argument for a liberal education and liberal arts colleges in the United States.

In the mid-nineteenth century, Americans began traveling to Germany to obtain their Ph.D.s. The influx of German-educated scholars into to the United States bought a new model for the American college, and created what is now the research university. During this same time, land-grant colleges and technical schools began to develop in the United States. All three of these new types of colleges were focused on specific training, and therefore were antithetical to the liberal arts college. Many of the colleges that were founded on ideals closer to those of liberal arts colleges (e.g. Harvard, Yale, Princeton) became research universities. Other colleges purposefully chose to remain small and committed to a liberal education.

Over time the American liberal arts college has become a small part of the American higher education system. Yet the liberal arts college is flourishing at the beginning of the twenty-first century. Perhaps this is because the liberal arts college is unique in character or perhaps because of the unique character of the students that the liberal arts college produces.

Characteristics of Liberal Arts Colleges

At the heart of the liberal arts colleges are their missions. Most mission statements of liberal arts colleges endeavor to educate the whole student and emphasize education for its own sake rather than for job preparation. Liberal arts colleges tend to be small and private. Many liberal arts colleges have total enrollments of less than 2,000 students with low student-to-teacher ratios. They are also usually residential and value the idea of community. The liberal arts college is invested in teaching, and students and professors often collaborate with one another in the learning process. Oscar Paige, the president of Austin College, characterized the liberal arts college by saying:

The residential nature of our college and of many liberal arts colleges is unique and adds to the value of the educational experience. The liberal arts community is a community that encourages inquiry and investigation and as a result students are challenged to think "outside the box" more on this type of campus then in other settings. Critical thinking, innovation, inter-disciplinary curriculum and personal interaction with faculty all characterize this type of institution. (personal communication with author)

Most liberal arts colleges in the United States were founded by various religious dominations. For example, there are colleges founded by Lutherans (e.g., St. Olaf College, Luther College), Baptists (e.g., Arkansas Baptist College), and Presbyterians (e.g., Rhodes College, St. Andrews Presbyterian College). Many of these colleges have maintained strong religious affiliations into the twenty-first century. Many others maintain links with the church that founded the institution, but have a limited religious presence on campus. Some liberal arts colleges have abandoned all former religious ties.

Liberal arts colleges are often innovative in their programs. In fact, there are many distinct types of liberal arts colleges because of their unique programs. At Colorado College and Cornell College students can take one course at a time. At St. John's College, students study the Great Books. Another special program at several liberal arts colleges is the 4–1–4 semester. Students take four classes in the fall semester, one in-depth class in the month of January, and four classes in the spring semester. Austin College, Calvin College, and Eckerd College are examples of colleges that have 4–1–4 programs. At some colleges students get to design their own program (e.g., Marlboro College). One liberal arts college, Virginia Military Institute, is a military college. Another liberal arts college, Reed College, provides students with written assessments for their complete coursework rather than grades.

Some liberal arts colleges focus on serving particular populations. There are all-women's colleges. Smith College and Mills College are two such liberal arts colleges. Among the nation's historically black colleges and universities are liberal arts colleges (e.g., Morehouse College, Spelman College). One of the few all-men's colleges left in the United States, Walbash College, is a liberal arts institution.

Role of Liberal Arts Colleges in the U.S. System

Liberal arts colleges serve students who wish to become educated citizens and productive members of society. The liberal arts college strives to produce thoughtful, well-rounded citizens of the world. The promise of a liberal arts education is well summed up by Michele Myers, president of Sarah Lawrence College, when she notes that liberal arts colleges provide "an education in which students learn how to learn, an education that emphasizes the forming rather than filling of minds, an education that renders our graduates adaptive to any marketplace, curious about whatever world is around them, and resourceful enough to change with the times."


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LUCAS, CHRISTOPHER J. 1994. American Higher Education: A History. New York: St. Martin's Griffin.

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"The Yale Report of 1828." 1989. In ASHE Reader on the History of Higher Education, ed. Lester F. Goodchild and Harold S. Wechsler. Needham Heights, MA: Ginn.


CARNEGIE FOUNDATION FOR THE ADVANCEMENT OF TEACHING. 2002. "Category Definitions." <www.carnegiefoundation.org>.


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