Liberal arts colleges

Liberal arts colleges play an important role not only in the higher education system, but within society at large. They support the development of broad knowledge and abilities, including the critical thinking, research and communications skills necessary to overcome global problems.

There are more than 200 liberal arts colleges in the United States. According to Carnegie Mellon, these institutions enroll less than 3,000 students and courses are taught by regular faculty. For students, that means individualized attention and more opportunities to participate in original research projects. Nearly all states have at least one liberal arts college. Here are the number of liberal arts schools in each region, as reported by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), along with liberal arts degrees at all types of colleges:


No. of liberal arts Colleges

No. of colleges with online liberal arts degrees

No. of colleges with liberal arts degrees

Far West (CA. OR, WA, NV, AK, HI)




Rocky Mountains (ID, MT, UT, WY, CO)




Southwest (AZ, NM, TX, OK)




Plains (MO, KS, IA, NE, MN, ND, SD)




Southeast (AR, LA, MS, AL, FL, GA, SC, NC, TN, KY, VA, WV)




Great Lakes (IL, IN, OH, MI, WI)




Mideast (PA, NY, NJ, DE, MD, D.C.)




New England (CT, MA, RI, VT, NH, ME)




Total (all 50 states)




Liberal arts college degrees

Liberal arts degrees tend to emphasize the liberal arts and humanities, but liberal arts college programs tend to align with the NCES' Liberal Arts & Sciences classification, which includes art, the humanities, and the social, physical and biological sciences. Contrary to popular belief, liberal arts schools do not minimize math and the sciences. According to Carnegie Mellon, at least a third of science Ph.D. candidates in 2014 earned their bachelor's degrees from liberal arts institutions. It is safe to say few graduate students attend liberal arts colleges, however, simply because few institutions offer such programs.

Though advanced degrees are limited are liberal arts colleges, their breadth of disciplines are decidedly not. Here are just some of the top liberal arts majors:

  • Education
  • English
  • Communications
  • Business
  • Marketing
  • Art
  • History
  • Religious Studies
  • Environmental Studies
  • Psychology

Note that an increasing number of liberal arts schools offer online courses and degrees. Online liberal arts degrees are ideal for working students, full-time professionals, parents and anyone else for whom campus-based courses are difficult.

Advanced degrees for liberal arts college graduates

Liberal arts colleges offer fewer master's and doctoral degrees than other institutions, yet research from the AAC&U indicates their graduates are more likely to earn advanced degrees. These pursuits are associated with better employment rates, career outlooks and earnings: the average 2013 salary of liberal arts college graduates with advanced degrees was 42 percent, or about $21K, higher than those graduates with bachelor's degrees alone.

The limited number of graduate programs available liberal arts colleges often align with the types of careers their graduates commonly assume. The AAC&U reports the most popular career among liberal art graduates with Ph.D.s is college professor. In this case, students study the subject about which they are most passionate — like history, English or political science — then teach it themselves. Other common liberal arts graduate programs:

  • Education Administration
  • Business
  • Psychology or Counseling
  • Social Work
  • Art
  • English or Communications
  • Law

Online liberal arts degrees become more prevalent with each passing year, even at the graduate level. These programs are ideal for students unable to attend campus-based courses, like working professionals, parents and rural students.

Q&A with an expert

Wells College President Jonathan C. Gibralter, Ph.D.

Dr. Jonathan C. Gibralter serves as the 19th president of Wells College, a private liberal arts college in Aurora, He holds a bachelor's degree from the State University of New York at Binghamton, a master's from New York University and a Ph.D. from Syracuse University.

What is the role of liberal arts colleges in the higher education system?

JG: Liberal arts colleges are very different from other sectors of American higher education. We create small, safe environments and educate our students to face the world as creative, thoughtful graduates who know how to think, reason and write. Our students are familiar with the arts and learn the value of relationships in a world that is becoming increasingly impersonal as technology use grows.

What are some of the benefits of attending a liberal arts college?

JG: We promote civic responsibility and help students learn about themselves and the contributions they can make in the workplace and in the lives of others. After 30 years of service to public colleges and universities and now serving as president of a private institution, I believe in the necessity and value of small liberal arts colleges for an education that benefits students, their communities and the world.

Are there any specific careers or industries toward which your graduates tend to gravitate?

JG: Liberal arts graduates do not have "typical" career trends because their education focuses, first and foremost, on how to think about and navigate the world in which they live. Many go on to graduate school in any field of their choosing because they enter their occupations with something most employers say that they want — an educated populace who know how to work collaboratively with others and who rely on the ability to think creatively. The world needs more people who think and act creatively and collaboratively to solve some of our incredibly complex problems.

What advice can you offer prospective students considering liberal arts colleges?

JG: Students considering their options for college should consider the liberal arts if they want a mix of challenge and support to achieve their personal best. Our faculty and staff get to know who students are and their dreams for the future — and then we help them set a course to achieve those dreams. We offer experiences in service learning that are unparalleled in higher education.

Common careers for liberal arts college graduates

One feature that distinguishes liberal arts colleges from other institutions is their emphasis of broad knowledge and skills. According to Fortune, employer surveys show companies consistently prefer excellent communication, problem-solving and critical-thinking skills over targeted career skills. As a result, liberal art college graduates work in all industries. Here are some of the most common careers for liberal arts graduates, as reported by the AAC&U. Employment details are provided by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (bls.gov, 2015):

Job title

National mean annual salary


Projected job growth


Total U.S. employment


Entry-level education

Elementary school teacher


6 percent


Bachelor's degree

Child, family and school social workers


12 percent


Bachelor's or Master's degree

Chief executive officers


-1 percent


Bachelor's degree

Education administrators, K-12


6 percent


Master's degree

Postsecondary education administrators


9 percent


Master's degree

Postsecondary teachers


13 percent


Master's or Doctoral degree



6 percent


Doctoral or professional degree

Judge or Magistrate


1 percent


Doctoral or professional degree

Common misconceptions about liberal arts colleges

Misconception: Liberal arts colleges are for art and humanities majors and those who have not yet figured out what they want to do.

  • Fact: This common belief exemplifies the conflation of generalized liberal arts and humanities degrees with liberal arts colleges. Liberal arts college programs cover a myriad of disciplines, including mathematics, the sciences, business and technology. Reports indicate that overall, liberal arts graduates are overrepresented among science and engineering Ph.D. candidates, chief executive officers, legislators and other types of leaders.

Misconception: Liberal arts schools offer limited degrees and certificates.

  • Fact: It is true that liberal arts colleges focus primarily on bachelor's degrees and certificates, but a few schools have expanded their options to include graduate certificates and even master's degrees. Also keep in mind that their graduates are statistically more likely than those of every other type of institution to earn master's and doctoral degrees.

Misconception: Liberal arts graduates have a disadvantage in the job market.

  • Fact: Four out of five employers say they value the communication, critical-thinking and problem-solving skills one expects from a liberal arts education more than targeted career skills. This gives them a great deal of flexibility when choosing — or changing — professionals. Employment rates among liberal arts graduates also tend to mirror or, for those with graduate degrees, even overtake those of other college graduates, as do average earnings. When it comes to professionals with graduate degrees, liberal arts graduates actually earn more than those with professional degrees.

How can I enroll in a liberal arts program?

While Carnegie Mellon notes that they tend to be more selective than other institutions, liberal arts colleges' admissions processes are quite similar. Some institutions require applicants to report to campus for face-to-face interviews, even when said students are applying to online programs. Perhaps the most important step admissions hopefuls can take toward gaining entry to and succeeding in liberal arts colleges, however, is taking the time to fully research schools and applying to programs that suit their abilities, preferences and career goals best.

1. "How Liberal Arts and Sciences Majors Fare in Employment: A Report on Earnings and Long-Term Career Paths," Debra Humphreys, Patrick Kelly, Association of American Colleges an Universities, January 22, 2014, https://www.aacu.org/publications-research/publications/how-liberal-arts-and-sciences-majors-fare-employment-report
2. "Small Science? The facts and myths about science careers in liberal arts colleges," Karen F. Greif, Carnegie Mellon, http://www.carnegiemellon.edu
3. "Distincttively American: The Residential Liberal Arts College," Steven Koblik, Stephen Richards Graubard, 2000, https://books.google.com/books?id=O0R_cEeuDswC&pg=PP1&ots=I698rtOZqv&dq=Distinctively+American:+The+Residential+Liberal+Arts+College
4. College Navigator, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Statistics, http://nces.ed.gov/collegenavigator/
5. "Liberal Arts Graduates and Employment: Setting the Record Straight," Association of American Colleges and Universities, 2014, https://www.aacu.org/sites/default/files/files/LEAP/nchems.pdf
6. Why critics are wrong about liberal arts degrees," Wilson Peden, Fortune, November 13, 2012, http://fortune.com/2015/11/13/liberal-arts-degrees-critics/
7. "Business Careers for LIberal Arts Majors," College of Liberal Arts & Sciences, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, http://www.las.illinois.edu/students/career/business/
8. The Humanities Workforce, Humanities Indicators, Commission on the Humanities & Social Sciences, American Academy of Arts & Sciences, http://www.humanitiescommission.org/
9. Occupational Employment Statistics, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2015, http://bls.gov/oes/home
10. Occupational Outlook Handbook, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2015, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/home.htm

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