Understanding the Differences between Liberal Arts and Sciences Colleges and Universities

Red Stone Building

As high school juniors and sophomores begin to make sense of the college terrain and research and visit colleges to determine where they will later apply, understanding the differences between liberal arts and sciences colleges and universities is an important first step.

Liberal Arts and Sciences Colleges:

Liberal arts and sciences colleges are neither “liberal” nor focused on the arts. In fact, while generally known as liberal arts colleges, they offer sciences in their curriculum. One of the things that distinguish them from larger universities is their general focus on the varied academic disciplines in the liberal arts and sciences as opposed to more specialized or career focused disciplines. Some examples of disciplines in the liberal arts and sciences are biology, psychology, art history, chemistry, political science and English.

Liberal arts and sciences colleges tend to be smaller than universities and often but not always focus on teaching undergraduate students and do not have programs and schools for graduate students. They can provide opportunities for students to feel like a big fish in a small pond and to connect with faculty members who serve as mentors and whose focus is only on undergraduate students.

Generally one applies directly to the College rather than to a specific school within. While the application will likely ask the student to indicate academic areas of interest one isn’t applying into a specific major. So, for example, a student applies to Oberlin College and indicates interest in but doesn’t apply into neuroscience directly from high school. As such there is generally the flexibility to choose one’s major by the end of sophomore year.


Universities are usually larger institutions that have colleges or schools subsumed under that umbrella.

While the specific colleges they include and the names of those colleges vary, they may include a College of Arts and Sciences and additional entities such as a College of Engineering, College of Business, College of Communications, College of Health Sciences and others. The liberal arts and sciences majors found in liberal arts and sciences colleges are typically available through a university’s College of Arts and Sciences.

Beyond those liberal arts and sciences disciplines, a university may offer additional majors that may be deemed specialized or pre-professional. For example, they may offer majors in finance, international business and general management through the College of Business and mechanical engineering and aerospace engineering through the College of Engineering. Students interested in other more specialized majors like sports management will likely need to apply to the specialized college in a larger university that houses that major. When applying to a university often one must decide about major and apply into both the School and the major directly from high school. So, for example, a student applies to Syracuse University’s Newhouse School of Communications and specifically to its public relations major directly from high school.

Whether an institution is called a university or college doesn’t in itself necessarily identify its structure. Some liberal arts and sciences colleges offer majors in disciplines like engineering and business that are more commonly found in colleges within a larger university. For example, Union College, Lafayette College and Smith College offer engineering as a major and Skidmore College offers business. And some schools that are named university, like Colgate University, are actually a liberal arts and sciences college without schools subsumed under that name.

Published in the Back to School sections of The Scarsdale Inquirer, The Rivertowns Express and The Record-Review on August 21, 2015.

The CEP is the Certified Educational Planner which Jane holds, and is the mark of distinction for independent educational consultants and high school counselors.

Jane Hoffman is a Certified Educational Planner (CEP). The CEP is the mark of distinction for independent educational consultants and high school counselors. It reflects the highest level of professional achievement and signifies extensive knowledge and commitment to the profession and to providing the highest quality of service to students and families. It is conferred only after demonstration of expanded institutional and professional knowledge.

CEPIECANACACJane Hoffman is an active member of a number of professional associations in college admissions and counseling, including the American Institute of Certified Educational Planners (AICEP), the Independent Educational Consultants Association (IECA) and the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC). Jane is a graduate of IECA’s Practices and Principles Training Institute and adheres to IECA’s Principles of Good Practice. Since it is important to remain current, Jane frequently attends national conferences and participate in professional exchanges that provide the latest information on admission policies, practices, trends and developments. Jane regularly visit colleges and meets with admissions officers to learn about each school’s culture, educational programs, institutional priorities and admissions practices. Ongoing professional development activities also include taking courses online, completing webinars and consulting with colleagues.