Which is Better: A Liberal Arts College or University?

Which is better — a liberal arts college or a university?

Last night I had a conversation with one of my nephews, who is torn between attending Truman State University, a wonderful public liberal arts college, or the University of Missouri in Columbia, which happens to be my alma mater.

I’m proud of Tommy for being so thoughtful in trying to choose the right school. Unlike most teenagers, Tommy is not strictly framing his choice as a decision between a “big” school and a “little” school. When students view their choices in this way, most kids opt for the big school that’s got  Division I sports, the greater campus buzz and more facilities.

What Tommy understands is that the key difference between a university and liberal arts colleges boils down to their mission. Liberal arts colleges focus on teaching undergrads and doing so in a more intimate learning environment that encourages meaningful student-teacher bonds.  In contrast, the main purpose of a university is to support faculty research and graduate education, while undergrads, who are relatively cheap to educate in lecture halls, foot much of the bill.

Anyone who reads my blog much will know that I am an enthusiastic fan of liberal arts colleges.  My daughter attends a liberal arts school – Juniata College in Pennsylvania — and my son, who is a high school senior will be attending a liberal arts college in the fall. He just doesn’t know which one yet.

I do appreciate, however, that a liberal arts education isn’t for everyone. In fact, Tommy’s decision is harder because he is thinking about majoring in journalism. The University of Missouri enjoys a national reputation for its journalism school, which I happened to attend many moons ago. Attending Mizzou’s J School is the only reason that would make me pause when enthusiastically recommending Truman. That said, I gave Tommy a series of questions to pose to J School folks about how the school is preparing students for 21st-century journalism.

Coincidentally, The Chronicle of Higher Education rolled out a special report on liberal arts education in today’s issue. (Unfortunately, you will need a pass to read them.) It’s a timely topic since many people dismiss liberal arts degrees as irrelevant today. A large number of students and parents believe that career-oriented degrees, such as business and engineering, is the only ticket to a job in this wretched economy.

In the special report, the president of Goucher College wrote a piece that focused on the seven biggest misconceptions of a liberal arts college. I’m going to summarize those myths in my next post.

Lynn O’Shaughnessy is the author of The College Solution and she also writes a college blog for CBSMoneyWatch.

More Reading:

The Beauty of Liberal Arts Colleges

Finding a Great College in Your Region

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  1. Dear Lynn:
    I agree with you a lot. Currently, I teach in a univsity here in Taiwan. Frankly, people here in Taiwan, we do not know much about what a liberal art’s education is about, much less the importance of Liberal art’s colleges. I got my PhD from Dartmouth thirteen years ago. Some of my classmates went to small colleges, e.g., Hamilton College, Skidmore College, …, prior to becoming graduate students in the PhD program at Dartmouth. I found that they all did extremely well during their PhD careers. This makes me notice the quality of the education that liberal art’s colleges can provide.
    May I ask you one question regarding the quality of liberal art’s education? Do you believe in that the quality of private liberal art’s colleges is better, compared to those public ones? If you do, can you tell me why? Many thanks!
    jyuann from Taipei, Taiwan

  2. Lynn,

    If your son is undecided, I would be glad to introduce him to my alma mater. Wittenberg University (Springfield, OH) provides a great private liberal arts experience for 2000 students annually. 😉

    On another note, I appreciate the insight and wittiness of your articles and blog postings.