Liberal arts colleges in the United States

Main article: Liberal arts college

Liberal arts colleges in the United States are certain undergraduate institutions of higher education in the United States. The Encyclopædia Britannica Concise offers a definition of the 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 Bachelor of Arts (B.A.), Bachelor of Science (B.S.) and on rare occasion Bachelor of Science in Engineering (B.S.E.) degrees.

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 rather than graduate student TAs (who teach some of the classes at Research I and other universities). They are known for being residential and for having smaller enrollment, class size and student-teacher ratios than universities, but have been exploring the recent trend of online learning as a blended or exclusive environment to offer certain courses.[4] Due in part to a trend in the United States toward higher numbers of students enrolling in science and research universities, liberal arts colleges have decided to explore the idea of creating the traditional environment using online technology, and some liberal arts colleges are now offering entire degree programs online like New England College,[5] Bryn Mawr College [6] and Wesleyan University.[7] In addition, some colleges offer experimental curricula.

Consortia and groups

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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 630 small and mid-sized independent colleges and universities.[8] 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.

Similar consortia include the Claremont College Consortium in Southern California and the Associated Colleges of the Midwest in the Midwestern United States. Additional midwestern groups include the Five Colleges of Ohio, Associated Colleges of the Twin Cities, the Associated Colleges of the Midwest 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

Chapter One ("The Liberal Arts: What is a Liberal Arts Education and Why is it Important Today") of Howard Greene and Matthew Greene's Hidden Ivies: Thirty Colleges of Excellence, 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.[9]

In addition, 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."[10]


College and university rankings guides offer annual issues which rank liberal arts colleges separately from research universities. The Washington Monthly is one such body that provides rankings specifically of liberal arts colleges.[11] U.S. News & World Report also ranks national liberal arts colleges including military academies. Both rankings are displayed below, featuring their respective top 15 liberal arts colleges in the United States.

U.S. News & World Report 2016 Rank[12] Location Washington Monthly 2016 Rank[13] Location
Williams College 1  Massachusetts Bryn Mawr College 1  Pennsylvania
Amherst College 2  Massachusetts Carleton College 2  Minnesota
Swarthmore College 3  Pennsylvania Berea College 3  Kentucky
Bowdoin College 4 (tie)  Maine Swarthmore College 4  Pennsylvania
Middlebury College 4 (tie)  Vermont Harvey Mudd College 5  California
Pomona College 4 (tie)  California Reed College 6  Oregon
Wellesley College 4 (tie)  Massachusetts Pomona College 7  California
Carleton College 8  Minnesota Bates College 8  Maine
Claremont McKenna College 9 (tie)  California Haverford College 9  California
Davidson College 9 (tie)  North Carolina New College of Florida 10  Florida
United States Naval Academy 9 (tie)  Maryland Knox College 11  Illinois
Haverford College 12 (tie)  Pennsylvania Macalester College 12  Minnesota
Vassar College 12 (tie)  New York Williams College 13  Massachusetts
Hamilton College 14 (tie)  New York Wesleyan University 14  Connecticut
Harvey Mudd College 14 (tie)  California Grinnell College 15  Iowa

2007 movement

On 19 June 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 and 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."[14] However, the decision to fill out the reputational survey or not will be left up to each individual college as: "the Annapolis Group is not a legislative body and any decision about participating in the US News rankings rests with the individual institutions."[15] 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."[15] 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 22 June 2007, U.S. News and World Report editor Robert Morse issued a response in which he argued, "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."[16] 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."[16]

SAT optional movement

Bates College, the first coeducational liberal arts in New England, and one of the first to dismiss the ACT/SAT requirement

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.[17] 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.[18]

The Bates study prompted a movement among small liberal arts colleges to make the SAT optional for admission to college in the early 2000s.[19][20] 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."[21]

Sarah Lawrence College, dismissed their standardized test scores requirements in the early 2000s.

Sarah Lawrence College and Pitzer College dropped their SAT test score submission requirement for their undergraduate applicants in 2003 and 2004 respectively,[22] thus joining the SAT optional movement for undergraduate admission. The former president of Sarah Lawrence, Dr. 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, Dr. Myers stated that she was informed by the U.S. News and 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 and World Report, their ranking would be artificially decreased.[23][24] U.S. News issued a response to this article on 12 March 2007 that stated that the evaluation of Sarah Lawrence is under review.[25]

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.[25] Currently Sarah Lawrence accepts SAT scores, but submitting these scores remains optional.[26] Other liberal arts colleges that do not consider the SAT include Shimer College and Hampshire College, which is "test blind" in both admissions and financial aid decisions.[26]

The full list of SAT optional schools is given by FairTest,[27] 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."[28]

List of liberal arts colleges in the United States

Oldest liberal arts colleges in the United States

University Date founded Founded by Founding religion Ref.
College of William and Mary 1693 James Blair Episcopalian [29]
St. John's College 1696 Maryland Colonyists Masonic [30]
Washington College 1723 George Washington Episcopalian [31]
Moravian College 1742 Benigna, Countess von Zinzendorf Moravian [32]
College of Charleston 1770 William Bull Episcopalian [33]
Salem College 1772 Moravians Moravian [34]
Dickinson College 1773 Pennsylvania General Assembly Non-denominational [35]
Hampden-Sydney College 1775 Samuel Stanhope Smith Presbyterian [36]
Washington & Jefferson College 1781 John McMillan, Thaddeus Dod, & Joseph Smith Presbyterian [37]
Franklin & Marshall College 1787 Lutheranism Ministers Lutheranism [38]
Hamilton College 1793 Samuel Kirkland Presbyterian (informally) [39]
Williams College 1793 Ephraim Williams Congregationalist [40]
Bowdoin College 1794 Massachusetts State Legislature Congregationalist [41]
Union College 1795 Board of Regents of the University of the State of New York Non-denominational [42]
Middlebury College 1800 Jeremiah Atwater Congregationalist [43]
Colby College 1813 Jeremiah Chaplin Northern Baptist [44]
Centre College 1819 Kentucky General Assembly Presbyterian [45]
Amherst College 1821 Zephaniah Swift Moore Congregationalist [46]
Trinity College 1823 Thomas Church Brownell Episcopalian [47]
Kenyon College 1824 Philander Chase Episcopalian [48]
Lafayette College 1826 James Madison Porter Presbyterian [49]
Wesleyan University 1831 Wilbur Fisk Methodist [50]
Gettysburg College 1832 Samuel Simon Schmucker Lutheranism [51]
Wabash College 1832 Caleb Mills Non-denominational [52]
Haverford College 1833 Religious Society of Friends Non-denominational [53]
Oberlin College 1833 John Jay Shipherd Presbyterian [54]
Wesleyan College 1836 Rev. George Foster Pierce Methodist [55]
Mount Holyoke College 1837 Mary Lyon [56]
Willamette University 1842 Jason Lee Methodist [57]
College of the Holy Cross 1843 Benedict Joseph Fenwick Catholic [58]
Beloit College 1846 Friends for Education (group) Congregationalist [59]
Grinnell College 1846 Josiah Bushnell Grinnell Congregationalist [60]
Earlham College 1847 Indiana Friends Quakerism [61]
Muhlenberg College 1848 Frederick A. Muhlenberg Lutheranism [62]
William Jewell College 1849 Robert S. James Baptist [63]
Bates College 1855 Oren Burbank Cheney Free Will Baptism [64]
Eureka College 1855 abolitionists from Kentucky Christianity [65]
Berea College 1855 John Gregg Fee Non-denominational [66]
Elmira College 1855 Friends of Education (group) Non-denominational [67]
Rhodes College 1855 Charles E. Diehl Presbyterian [68]
Albright College 1856 Jacob Albright with members of the Evangelical Association Evangelicalism [69]
Newberry College 1856 Reverend John Bachman Lutheranism [70]
Boston College 1859 Benedict Joseph Fenwick Jesuit [71]
Whitman College 1859 Cushing Eells Christianity [72]
Bard College 1860 John Bard Episcopalian [73]
Wheaton College 1860 Laban Wheaton Anglican Church [74]
Vassar College 1861 Matthew Vassar Non-denominational [75]
Swarthmore College 1864 a committee of Quakers Quakerism [76]
Dean College 1865 Dr. Oliver Dean Universalism [77]
Carleton College 1866 Charles Augustus Wheaton Congregationalist [78]
Benedict College 1866 Bathsheba A. Benedict Baptism [79]
Wellesley College 1870 Pauline and Henry Fowle Durant Non-denominational [80]
Smith College 1871 Sophia Smith Non-denominational [81]
Colorado College 1875 William Jackson Palmer Non-denominational [82]
Bryn Mawr College 1885 William Penn Quakerism [83]
Pomona College 1887 A group of Congregationalists Congregationalist [84]
Barnard College 1889 Annie Nathan Meyer Non-denominational [85]


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Further reading

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