Liberal Arts Colleges vs. Research Universities: A Brief Guide.

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Pomona College, a liberal arts college ranked ahead of Columbia, Cornell, Dartmouth, and the University of Chicago on the Forbes Top Colleges List

Towards the end of the Senior year of high school, it is traditional for seniors to give juniors advice on the incoming application season. Some of us recommend working on essays in the summer, some say that there’s always room for improvement for SATs and ACTs, and some say to just relax and know that everyone ends up happy wherever they go. 

My one recommendation strayed from the norm a little bit; I recommended to apply to more liberal arts colleges. A common misconception among high school students and parents is that a liberal arts college and a student with any interest in STEM do not match, that liberal arts colleges do not accommodate STEM majors and minors. However, this could not be less true. 

The difference between a liberal arts college and a research university is that a liberal arts college focuses on learning in an extremely intimate environment, and on solely a undergraduate level; a research university prioritizes research predominantly for masters and doctorate students, while still providing an undergraduate experience for students with opportunities to research on the graduate level. 

This isn’t a stink piece on research universities. Research universities are fantastic institutions– they serve as the premiere facilities for the advancement of knowledge on a global scale. They also are amazing in the vast opportunities that they provide students to be involved in such research activities. 

But is undergraduate education as carefully nurtured and cared for at research universities as it is at liberal arts colleges? Almost always, the answer is no. A common complaint at research universities is that professors are terrible teachers, that they have clearly only been hired for the purpose of leading research. At top liberal arts colleges, such complaints  are difficult to be found. 

As for the lack of STEM misconception, to some extent it is actually true. At liberal arts colleges, there will most likely be a lacking amount of research opportunities compared to research universities. But if research is not a primary aim of an undergraduate student, in terms of teaching, many liberal arts colleges excel in STEM majors over research universities. Schools like Reed College, Harvey Mudd College, and Carleton College are world-renowned for their mathematics and engineering undergraduate programs. 

 Liberal arts colleges are definitely not objectively better than research universities. However, as a student ponders of which schools to apply to this fall, I recommend to them all to at least not rule out liberal arts colleges.


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