Do students at liberal arts universities have 'harder' courses than students at research universities?

Computer Science curricula at large research universities have 5 to 6 courses per semester. The Liberal Arts model dictates roughly 4 courses per semester. If the load on the student is considered to be equivalent, there must be something special to the teaching in the Liberal Arts model.

How is it that a 4 course Liberal Arts semester is as intensive as a 6 course research university semester?

UPDATE: Many of the comments below say the course load I mention above is inaccurate. I have obtained the figures as follows.

  • The Liberal Arts Computer Science Consortium (LACS) has released 3 LACS curricula in response to ACM/IEEE CS curriculum recommendations. The first in 1986 in response to the 1978 recommendation, next in 1996 in response to the 1991 recommendation and the most recent in 2007 in response to the 2001 recommendation. The 4 year course breakdown in all the LACS recommendations is roughly the same:
    • 4 courses per semester
    • 30-35% CS courses, 10% math, 5% science, and the rest, i.e. 50% or more courses on arts, humanities and social sciences.
  • A typical graduation requirement at a research university is at least 120 credits, which comes to 5 3-credit courses per semester. Many require more than 120 so 6 course semesters are not uncommon.
  • 4
    I don't understand. Are you claiming that most students in computer science at large research universities take 5 or 6 courses per semester? That does not seem accurate: 5 seems a little high and 6 is definitely a stretch. Apr 26, 2014 at 13:53
  • 3
    Yeah, I'm skeptical about the premise here. In my experience, students at both liberal arts colleges and research universities take 4-5 courses per semester. There might be differences in the average number of courses taken, but not by 50%. Apr 26, 2014 at 14:19
  • 2
    It's also very difficult to generalize about "large research universities" and "liberal arts colleges" in this way. My undergraduate institution considers itself a liberal arts college, and requires students to average 5.33 3-unit courses per semester in order to graduate in 4 years. Apr 26, 2014 at 17:01
  • 2
    The maximum allowable courseload at my university is 17 hours = 5+2/3 courses per semester. 12 hours = 4 courses per semester is considered full-time. In my experience, most students tend towards the lower end and pick up extra credits either through advanced placement or summer courses, if necessary. Moreover, overall probably less than half of these courses are in CS (or any other one declared major). I wonder where these counterfactual premises are coming from? Apr 27, 2014 at 1:57
  • 3
    The title of this question does not match its content. Apr 27, 2014 at 8:42

3 Answers 3


You are making several unfounded assumptions:

  • That courses are always 3 credits, so that "4 courses per semester" means 12 credits. I have taken courses that were worth 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5 credits. Many of the science courses I've taken, including math and computer science courses, have been worth 4 credits. Basic sciences that involve a lecture, lab, and recitation have sometimes been 5 credits.
  • That most liberal arts colleges follow the LACS recommendations to the letter.
  • That the LACS recommendations somehow suggest that less than 120 credits are required for graduation. Here is an example of a liberal arts college following the LACS recommendations for CS and requiring 120 credits.

I did half of my undergraduate degree at a liberal arts college and then transferred to a large research university for the other half. There was virtually no difference in my courseload between the two - I took exactly one credit more in my two years in the research university. I just pulled up my transcripts, and this is what I took each semester:

Part 0

I transferred in 30 credits in humanities, etc. from college courses taken while in high school.

Part 1 - Liberal Arts College

  1. 16 credits, 4 classes (4, 3, 4, 5)
  2. 13 credits, 3 classes (4, 4, 5)
  3. (Summer) 3 credits, 1 class (3)
  4. 19 credits, 5 classes (3, 4, 5, 4, 3)
  5. 12 credits, 4 classes (3, 3, 4, 2)

Part 2 - Research University

  1. 16 credits, 4 classes (4, 4, 4, 4)
  2. 19 credits, 5 classes (4, 3, 4, 4, 4)
  3. 16 credits, 6 classes (3, 4, 1, 3, 3, 2)
  4. 13 credits, 4 classes (4, 3, 3, 3)

(My undergraduate degree was in Electrical Engineering, with a minor in Computer Science.)

  • Thanks. So what then was the difference between the Liberal Arts College and Research University? Was there a higher proportion of humanities courses at the Liberal Arts college?
    – wsaleem
    Apr 27, 2014 at 20:52
  • @wsaleem Why do you assume there was a difference? The curriculum requirements were very similar at the two schools.
    – ff524
    Apr 27, 2014 at 20:53
  • I assume a difference in the CS curricula because of the fundamental difference between the two types of institutions - in teaching vs. research and in depth vs. breadth.
    – wsaleem
    Apr 27, 2014 at 21:20
  • There were differences in things like UG advising, class sizes in science courses, availability of research opportunities, etc. but none as far as curriculum requirements or teachers' expectations.
    – ff524
    Apr 27, 2014 at 21:23
  • That is very interesting to me. Was the CS curriculum then an anomaly at your Liberal Arts college, in that it was the same as at a research university? Other commenters have pointed out how Engineering programs at Liberal Arts colleges are anomalies.
    – wsaleem
    Apr 27, 2014 at 21:27

As with other commenters, I think the premise here is flawed.

I teach at a public liberal arts college which is typical of many. (Certainly our curriculum and requirements are in line with other schools in the COPLAC Council of Public Liberal Arts Colleges.)

Our students are required to complete 120 credits to graduate, which over four years averages to 15 credits a semester, or five 3-credit courses. I don't believe there is any serious difference in student course load when compared to large research universities (but maybe someone will prove me wrong).

The main distinction about teaching at a liberal arts college is that the overall curriculum is broader, and students do not focus on specialization as much as integration of diverse subject areas. Instead of taking 70 or 80 credits of (say) computer science, our students take only 40-45, with the other two-thirds of their degree consisting of courses in other areas. In this way, students build a broad, integrated perspective which incorporates their major into a study of the world at large. The focus at liberal arts colleges is to help students become better critical thinkers, decision makers, and problem solvers, rather than becoming subject matter experts in a narrow discipline.

  • I think you may be overstating the curricular differences between liberal arts colleges and research universities. I teach at a research university, and I just looked up the degree requirements in CS: it is 18 courses or 54 credits. This includes freshman level courses for non-majors that I imagine many CS majors would place out of. In my own department (math) the major requirements are less. Apr 27, 2014 at 1:53
  • Overall I don't know of any US research university where students are required to take more than 50% of their coursework in the area of their major. As someone who advises undergraduates, I can say that it is fairly common for a student to change majors during their third year, and with careful planning they can probably still graduate in four years. Also, with all due respect to my undergraduate students, very few of them are graduating as "subject matter experts" in any discipline, however narrow. Apr 27, 2014 at 1:54
  • 120 hours is also the requirement for most majors at my research university, although engineering majors are slightly higher (128 to 134). My department's engineering major requires 64 hours of coursework within the major, out of 128 total.
    – JeffE
    Apr 27, 2014 at 4:01
  • The exception is engineering: my school required 36 classes in four years to graduate, but engineers needed as many as 41 to finish the major and the general requirements. [Twenty-nine classes (70%) were the major and its prerequisites.]
    – aeismail
    Apr 27, 2014 at 12:39
  • @aeismail: Yes, I agree that engineering is exceptional. In fact, many (most?) US research universities have a "college of arts and sciences". That's what I was describing (and that's where CS lives), and that model is equal to first order to the liberal arts model. If you are studying engineering or architecture or are in a conservatory, things will really be different. Apr 27, 2014 at 17:13

Teaching at a Liberal Arts school (in the United States), there is a lot more "teaching" expected. Largely, you do not have TAs for your classes, meaning you not only do all the lecturing, but also the grading and lab work associated with the course. Furthermore, Teachers at Liberal Arts Schools are expected to take a serious interest in the undergraduate body since there usually are no graduate students (hence few TAs).

I am not sure if they are equivalent, and certainly my advisor my research university only teaches 4 classes a year as well. I'd say his teaching load is far less than my professors at the Small Liberal Arts school I attended for undergraduate. That being said, he also has 4 graduate students he advises, which I think end up being a lot more work.

So from a class prospective, teachers at Liberal Arts schools tend to spend more time teaching. But from an advisement perspective, research universities tend to be more intensive. It probably evens out, though I have no first hand experience.

  • Thanks. My question was from the student's perspective. Is there something special in the way the Liberal Arts student is taught (by prof or by TA) such that her 4-course semester "load" is comparable to that of her research university colleague doing a 6-course semester?
    – wsaleem
    Apr 26, 2014 at 9:14
  • @wsaleem: The average course load is not 6 courses, even at schools like MIT—or in majors like engineering.
    – aeismail
    Apr 27, 2014 at 12:40
  • The answer doesn't seem to address the question.
    – user1482
    Apr 27, 2014 at 22:42

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