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Liberal arts colleges in the United States

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Pomona College, a liberal arts college in Claremont, California

Liberal arts colleges in the United States are undergraduate institutions of higher education in the United States that focus on a liberal arts education. The Encyclopædia Britannica Concise defines liberal arts as a "college or university curriculum aimed at imparting general knowledge and developing general intellectual capacities, in contrast to a professional, vocational, or technical curriculum".[1] Generally, a full-time, four-year course of study at a liberal arts college leads students to earning the Bachelor of Arts or the Bachelor of Science.

These schools are American institutions of higher education which have traditionally emphasized interactive instruction (although research is still a component of these institutions) at the undergraduate level. While there is no nationwide legal standard in the United States, the term "university" is primarily used to designate graduate education and research institutions, and is reserved for doctorate-granting institutions,[2] and some US states, such as Massachusetts, will only grant a school "university status" if it offers graduate programs in multiple disciplines.[3]

These colleges also encourage a high level of student-teacher interaction at the center of which are classes taught by full-time faculty. They are known for being residential and may have smaller enrollment, class sizes, and student-teacher ratios than universities.[4]

Consortia and groups[edit]

Liberal arts colleges are also often associated with larger bodies or consortia. The largest association of private liberal arts colleges in the United States is the Council of Independent Colleges, with more than 650 small and mid-sized independent colleges and universities.[5] The Council of Public Liberal Arts Colleges is a consortium of public liberal arts colleges. Many liberal arts colleges belong to the Annapolis Group, Oberlin Group, Women's College Coalition, and the Consortium of Liberal Arts Colleges. A number of liberal arts colleges are involved in Project Pericles or the Eco League.

Other well-known consortia in the Eastern United States include the Little Three, Colby-Bates-Bowdoin Consortium, the Seven Sisters Colleges, and the Little Ivies. Four Eastern colleges, along with the University of Massachusetts Amherst, are also part of the Five Colleges Consortium in Western Massachusetts and three Eastern colleges comprise the Tri-College Consortium.

In Southern California, five liberal arts colleges with adjoining campuses and two graduate schools together form the Claremont Colleges.

Consortia in the Midwestern United States include the Associated Colleges of the Midwest, Five Colleges of Ohio, Associated Colleges of the Twin Cities, and the Great Lakes Colleges Association.

Groups in the Southern United States include the Associated Colleges of the South and the Seven Sisters of the South.

Purpose and goals[edit]

Chapter One of Howard Greene and Matthew Greene's Hidden Ivies: Thirty Colleges of Excellence, "The Liberal Arts: What is a Liberal Arts Education and Why is it Important Today", defines the goals of a liberal arts education in the following manner:

In a complex, shifting world, it is essential to develop a high degree of intellectual literacy and critical-thinking skills, a sense of moral and ethical responsibility to one's community, the ability to reason clearly, to think rationally, to analyze information intelligently, to respond to people in a compassionate and fair way, to continue learning new information and concepts over a lifetime, to appreciate and gain pleasure from the beauty of the arts and literature and to use these as an inspiration and a solace when needed, to revert to our historical past for lessons that will help shape the future intelligently and avoid unnecessary mistakes, to create a sense of self-esteem that comes from personal accomplishments and challenges met with success.[6]

College placement counselor Loren Pope writes that at the liberal arts colleges he lists in Colleges That Change Lives:

The focus is on the student, not the faculty; he is heavily involved in his own education. There are no passive ears; students and faculty work so closely together, they even coauthor publications. Teaching is an act of love. There is not only a mentor relationship in class but professors become hiking companions, intramural teammates, dinner companions, and friends. Learning is collaborative rather than competitive; values are central; there is a strong sense of community. They are places of great synergy, where the whole becomes greater than the sum of the parts. Aspirations are raised, young people are empowered.[7]


College and university rankings guides offer annual issues that rank liberal arts colleges separately from research universities. The Washington Monthly and U.S. News & World Report provide rankings specifically of liberal arts colleges.

2007 movement[edit]

On June 19, 2007, during the annual meeting of the Annapolis Group, members discussed the letter to college presidents asking them not to participate in the "reputation survey" section of the U.S. News & World Report survey (this section comprises 25% of the ranking). As a result, "a majority of the approximately 80 presidents at the meeting said that they did not intend to participate in the U.S. News reputational rankings in the future."[8] The decision to fill out the reputational survey or not will be left up to each individual college since "the Annapolis Group is not a legislative body and any decision about participating in the US News rankings rests with the individual institutions."[9] The statement also said that its members "have agreed to participate in the development of an alternative common format that presents information about their colleges for students and their families to use in the college search process".[9] This database will be web based and developed in conjunction with higher education organizations including the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities and the Council of Independent Colleges.

On June 22, 2007, U.S. News & World Report editor Robert Morse responded, writing, "in terms of the peer assessment survey, we at U.S. News firmly believe the survey has significant value because it allows us to measure the "intangibles" of a college that we can't measure through statistical data. Plus, the reputation of a school can help get that all-important first job and plays a key part in which grad school someone will be able to get into. The peer survey is by nature subjective, but the technique of asking industry leaders to rate their competitors is a commonly accepted practice. The results from the peer survey also can act to level the playing field between private and public colleges."[10] In reference to the alternative database discussed by the Annapolis Group, Morse also argued, "It's important to point out that the Annapolis Group's stated goal of presenting college data in a common format has been tried before ... U.S. News has been supplying this exact college information for many years already. And it appears that NAICU will be doing it with significantly less comparability and functionality. U.S. News first collects all these data (using an agreed-upon set of definitions from the Common Data Set). Then we post the data on our website in easily accessible, comparable tables. In other words, the Annapolis Group and the others in the NAICU initiative actually are following the lead of U.S. News."[10]

SAT optional movement[edit]

Bates College, the first coeducational liberal arts college in New England, and one of the first to dismiss the ACT/SAT requirement
Sarah Lawrence College dismissed their standardized test scores requirements in the early 2000s.

A number of U.S. liberal arts colleges have either joined, or have been important influences on, a movement to make the SAT optional for admission, in response to criticisms of the SAT.

Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine and Bates College in Lewiston, Maine were among the first to institute SAT-optional programs in 1969 and 1984, respectively.[11] In 1990, the Bates faculty voted to make all standardized testing optional in the college's admissions process, and in October 2004 Bates published a study regarding the testing optional policy, which was presented to the National Association for College Admission Counseling. Following two decades without required testing, the college found that the difference in graduation rates between submitters and non-submitters was 0.1%, that Bates' applicant pool had doubled since the policy was instated with approximately 1/3 of applicants not submitting scores, that non-submitting students averaged only 0.05 points lower on their collegiate Grade Point Average, and that applications from minority students rose dramatically.[12]

The Bates College study prompted a movement among small liberal arts colleges to make the SAT optional for admission to college in the early 2000s.[13][14] Indeed, according to a 31 August 2006 article in The New York Times, "It is still far too early to sound the death knell, but for many small liberal arts colleges, the SAT may have outlived its usefulness."[15]

Sarah Lawrence College and Pitzer College dropped their SAT test score submission requirement for their undergraduate applicants in 2003 and 2004 respectively,[16] thus joining the SAT optional movement for undergraduate admission. The former president of Sarah Lawrence, Michele Tolela Myers, described the rationale for this decision in an article for The Washington Post on 11 March 2007, saying: "We are a writing-intensive school, and the information produced by SAT scores added little to our ability to predict how a student would do at our college; it did, however, do much to bias admission in favor of those who could afford expensive coaching sessions." As a result of this policy, in the same Washington Post article, Myers stated that she was informed by the U.S. News & World Report that if no SAT scores were submitted, U.S. News would "make up a number" to use in its magazines. She further argues that if SLC were to decide to stop sending all data to U.S. News & World Report, their ranking would be artificially decreased.[17][18] U.S. News issued a response to this article on 12 March 2007 that stated that the evaluation of Sarah Lawrence is under review.[19]

As of 2007, according to U.S. News & World Report, Sarah Lawrence was the only "major" American college that completely disregarded SAT scores in its admission process.[19] Currently Sarah Lawrence accepts SAT scores, but submitting these scores remains optional.[20] Other liberal arts colleges that have since begun to no longer consider the SAT include Shimer College and Hampshire College, which is "test blind" in both admissions and financial aid decisions.[20]

The full list of SAT optional schools is given by FairTest,[21] an American educational organization that "advances quality education and equal opportunity by promoting fair, open, valid and educationally beneficial evaluations of students, teachers and schools. FairTest also works to end the misuses and flaws of testing practices that impede those goals."[22]

Oldest American liberal arts colleges[edit]

University Date founded Founded by Founding religion Ref.
College of William and Mary 1693/1889 James Blair. Closed from 1861 to 1869 and from 1882 to 1889 when it reopened with a new faculty and administration as a state normal school. Eventually became a liberal arts college again. Episcopalian [23]
St. John's College 1696/1783 Absorbed King William's School, which was founded by members of St. Anne's Parish in 1696. Closed from 1861 to 1865. New curriculum and administration and almost completely new faculty in 1936. Episcopalian [24]
Washington College 1723 William Smith Episcopalian [25]
Moravian College 1742 Benigna, Countess von Zinzendorf Moravian [26]
Washington and Lee University 1749 In 1749, Scotch-Irish pioneers who had migrated deep into the Valley of Virginia founded a small classical school called Augusta Academy, some 20 miles north of what is now Lexington. Presbyterian
Dartmouth College 1769 Eleazar Wheelock Puritan (Congregational) [27]
College of Charleston 1770 William Bull Episcopalian [28]
Salem College 1772 Moravians Moravian [29]
Dickinson College 1773 Pennsylvania General Assembly Non-denominational [30]
Hampden-Sydney College 1775 Samuel Stanhope Smith Presbyterian [31]
Transylvania University 1780 Thomas Jefferson & Virginia Legislature Episcopalian [32]
Washington & Jefferson College 1781 John McMillan, Thaddeus Dod, & Joseph Smith Presbyterian [33]
Becker College 1784 Ebenezer Crafts and Jacob Davis Non-denominational
Franklin & Marshall College 1787 Lutheran Ministers Lutheranism [34]
Hamilton College 1793 Samuel Kirkland Presbyterian (informally) [35]
Williams College 1793 Ephraim Williams Congregationalist [36]
Bowdoin College 1794 Massachusetts State Legislature Congregationalist [37]
Tusculum University 1794 Hezekiah Balch and Samuel Doak Presbyterian
Union College 1795 Board of Regents of the University of the State of New York Non-denominational [38]
Hartwick College 1797 John Christopher Hartwick Lutheranism
Middlebury College 1800 Jeremiah Atwater Congregationalist [39]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Liberal Arts: Encyclopædia Britannica Concise". Encyclopædia Britannica. Archived from the original on 2007-09-06. Retrieved 2007-07-08.
  2. ^ U.S. Department of State: Types of Institutions Archived 2009-06-25 at the Wayback Machine
  3. ^ Massachusetts Board of Education: Degree-granting regulations for independent institutions of higher education "A university must meet the requirements of a four-year or senior college, and must provide graduate programs in four or more distinct professional fields of study. A university must clearly identify graduate studies as a distinct element within its organization, and must provide the additional faculty, facilities, and resources necessary to support sound graduate programs."
  4. ^ Conflicted: Faculty and Online Education, 2012 Survey Download. Babson.qualtrics.com. Retrieved on 2013-08-02.
  5. ^ "Members of CIC".
  6. ^ Green, Howard and Matthew Green. Hidden Ivies: Thirty Colleges of Excellence (New York: Harper Collins, 2000), 12
  7. ^ Loren Pope. Colleges That Change Lives (New York: Penguin Group, 2006), 6
  8. ^ Jaschik, Scott (20 June 2007). "More Momentum Against 'U.S. News'". Inside Higher Ed. Archived from the original on 12 April 2021. Retrieved 8 July 2007.
  9. ^ a b "ANNAPOLIS GROUP STATEMENT ON RANKINGS AND RATINGS". Annapolis Group. 19 June 2007. Archived from the original on 26 June 2007.
  10. ^ a b Morse, Robert (22 June 2007). "About the Annapolis Group's Statement". U.S. News & World Report. Archived from the original on 2 July 2007.
  11. ^ Epstein, Jonathan P (2009). "Behind the SAT-Optional Movement: Context and Controversy" Journal of College Admissions, n204 p8–19.
  12. ^ "SAT Study: 20 Years of Optional Testing". Bates College Office of Communications and Media Relations. October 1, 2004.
  13. ^ "Not Missing the SAT". Inside Higher Ed. October 6, 2006.
  14. ^ Bruno, Laura (April 4, 2006). "More universities are going SAT-optional". USA Today. Retrieved 7 May 2010.
  15. ^ Lewin, Tamar (August 31, 2006). "Students' Paths to Small Colleges Can Bypass SAT". The New York Times. Retrieved 7 May 2010.
  16. ^ Gross, Jane (13 November 2003). "Sarah Lawrence College Drops SAT Requirement, Saying a New Writing Test Misses the Point". The New York Times. Retrieved 7 May 2010.
  17. ^ Tolela Myers, Michele (11 March 2007). "The Cost of Bucking College Rankings". The Washington Post.
  18. ^ "Would U.S. News Make Up Fake Data?". Inside Higher Ed. 12 March 2007. Archived from the original on 26 July 2017. Retrieved 8 July 2007.
  19. ^ a b "U.S. News Statement on College Rankings". U.S. News & World Report. 12 March 2007. Archived from the original on 5 January 2013.
  20. ^ a b Peligri, Justin. "No, the SAT is not required. More colleges join test-optional train". USA Today. Archived from the original on 8 September 2014. Retrieved 8 September 2014.
  21. ^ "SAT Optional 4-Year Universities". Fairtest. Archived from the original on 2007-10-21. Retrieved 2007-07-08.
  22. ^ "About Us". fairtest.org. Archived from the original on 2007-06-30.
  23. ^ "William - History & Traditions". www.wm.edu. Retrieved 2016-04-20.
  24. ^ Tilghman, Tench Francis (1984). The Early History of St. John's College in Annapolis. Annapolis: St. John's College Press.
  25. ^ George Washington to William Smith, August 18, 1782. George Washington Papers, Library of Congress
  26. ^ "College History". Archived from the original on 2011-06-14. Retrieved 2011-06-13.
  27. ^ "History & Traditions Dartmouth College". www.dartmouth.edu. Retrieved 2019-06-02.
  28. ^ Colyer Meriwether (1889). History of Higher Education in South Carolina. Government Printing Office. p. 57. Retrieved Dec 27, 2009.
  29. ^ "Our History | Salem College". www.salem.edu. Retrieved 2016-04-20.
  30. ^ "Dickinson College - History of Dickinson". Archived from the original on 2009-08-22. Retrieved 2009-10-08., Retrieved 2009-10-08.
  31. ^ "H-SC | H-SC Receives Mellon Grant for Western Culture | Hampden-Sydney College". Hsc.edu. 2014-10-01. Archived from the original on 2015-09-24. Retrieved 2015-11-12.
  32. ^ "Transy 1st Para". Retrieved 2016-12-10.
  33. ^ Wickersham, James (1886). A History of Education in Pennsylvania, Private and Public, Elementary and Higher. Lancaster, Pennsylvania: Inquirer Publishing Company. pp. 400–401. Retrieved 2010-09-12.
  34. ^ "1st paragraph of History section". Fandm.edu. Archived from the original on 2010-07-30. Retrieved 2011-03-12.
  35. ^ "Hamilton College- History & Traditions". www.hamilton.edu. Archived from the original on 2016-08-18. Retrieved 2016-08-10.
  36. ^ "Williams College Presidents". Williams College. Archived from the original on August 23, 2007. Retrieved 2007-09-15.
  37. ^ "The Charter of Bowdoin College - Office of the President". www.bowdoin.edu. Archived from the original on 2016-03-25. Retrieved 2016-01-12.
  38. ^ "History and Traditions - Union College". www.union.edu. Retrieved 2016-04-20.
  39. ^ "History | Middlebury". Middlebury. Retrieved 2016-04-20.

Further reading[edit]