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What is the difference between a liberal arts college and a research university?

Sarah Fischer

Sarah Fischer
Assistant Vice President of Admission

Sarah Fischer

What is the difference between a liberal arts college and a research university, and what does that mean?

There are more than 4,000 different colleges and universities in the United States alone, that vary dramatically in terms of size, location, and academic offerings. Two common types of these institutions are research universities and liberal arts colleges. Each has their own set of advantages, and it is important to consider which one is right for you.

Research Universities

Research universities tend to be much larger in size, some with as many as 40,000 students. They offer a wide range of degree programs — such as bachelors, masters, PhD programs — and they tend to have both undergraduate and graduate students.

Liberal Arts Colleges

Liberal arts colleges, like Grinnell, tend to be much smaller in size, ranging from about 1,500 to 5,000 students. They tend to have a much more flexible curriculum, with students able to take classes across a wide range of academic areas.

For example, at Grinnell, you won’t declare a major until the end of your second year, so you’ll have a lot of time to fully explore the curriculum and gain a wide range of experiences and knowledge.

Regardless of the field of study you are interested in or what your major ends up being, don't be fooled by the words “liberal” and “arts”. They do not represent a political affiliation or ideology, and these institutions offer a range of classes and majors in STEM fields, the humanities, and social studies as well as the arts.

So, when looking at colleges and universities, you should consider whether you are interested in large classes or prefer a more intimate setting; whether you want to focus on a particular field of study from the get-go or spend some time exploring different academic areas.

I hope this helps you narrow down the type of college or university that will be right for you and I wish you all the best with your college search process.

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