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Note: Using "school" as an alternative word, because "college" and "university" have different implications for degree level awarded, at least in the US. Edit: apparently I made the last part up — that’s my mistake.

Everywhere I see people talking about / posting about the differences, the tone of writing makes it seem like these are mutually exclusive sets of "schools". Is there something about the operations of a research "school" that makes it incompatible with the values of a liberal arts "school", or vice versa? Or is it just a coincidence that there isn't any such institution?

I also see people mention that Europe doesn't have this distinction, but I'm not sure how to use that information for answering my question.


P.S. - while I have some idea what these terms mean (from an undergrad at a liberal arts college and a Ph.D. from a large research university), don't be afraid to elaborate on / clarify terms in your responses.

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    ""college" and "university" have different implications for degree level awarded" - What are you basing this on? I don't think that's true in the US at all. The words sometimes provide information about the type of institution but not necessarily and there are certainly both colleges and universities offering the exact same level of degree.
    – Bryan Krause
    Apr 19 at 12:57
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    There are definitely "liberal arts" schools that are also (very serious) research institutions. For instance, Princeton is a self-described liberal arts institution, and definitely also a research institution. Apr 19 at 13:09
  • @BryanKrause I think you’re right — it’s just the trend I had seen, but I guess I was wrong in thinking it was a rule :) some other people provided examples like Dartmouth College. Apr 19 at 15:31
  • @JakobStreipel thank you for the link! Apr 19 at 15:32
  • @AidanW.Murphy The difference can be more meaningful outside of the US. E.g. I have found people in Canada confused when I referred to my university as "college". I don't think anyone in the US would even appreciate a difference.
    – Tashus
    Apr 20 at 3:10

3 Answers 3

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No, what you are saying simply is not true. Some "liberal arts colleges" have PhD programs, like Bryn Mawr College, Wesleyan University, and Tufts University. Some have nursing colleges like Adelphi University. Some "research universities" are called "college" like Dartmouth College. In the USA, the words university and college are used interchangeably, without firm rules regarding the types of degrees that they can offer. The word "school" is overloaded because it also refers to pre-college education.

Everywhere I see people talking about / posting about the differences, the tone of writing makes it seem like these are mutually exclusive sets of "schools". Is there something about the operations of a research "school" that makes it incompatible with the values of a liberal arts "school", or vice versa? Or is it just a coincidence that there isn't any such institution?

They are not mutually exclusive. Some liberal arts colleges weight research equally important as teaching. Examples include Bowdoin College, Wesleyan University, and most of the NESCAC (Williams, Amherst, etc.). Meanwhile, some "research schools" weight teaching as roughly equally important to research, especially R2 universities. Furthermore, some research universities have a designated teaching track, where professors can get tenure based solely on teaching and not at all on research. A great early example is Uri Treisman at UT Austin. Harvard University has the preceptors. I've also got a friend who is a teaching professor at UC Irvine. These kinds of jobs are becoming increasingly common because even big research universities recognize the importance of good teaching. Lastly, this classification of "research only" vs "teaching only" seems to leave out regional universities, which make up a huge percentage of tenure track jobs in the USA. I don't know much about them, but I know that success at such a place requires both teaching and research (not sure how they are weighted).

What is true is that there's a correlation between "liberal arts college" and weighting teaching the same or greater than research, and between "research university" and weighting research the same or greater than teaching. However, the values at these types of institutions are not "incompatible." Even at a big research university, the faculty and administration do not want students to fail. Even at a small liberal arts college, the faculty and administration do want faculty to publish, become respected scholars, win grants, etc. Some extremely strong researchers work at liberal arts colleges because they prefer small classes, incentives to develop deep relationships with undergraduate students, a well-resourced environment where funding does not depend on the (often crazy) state legislature, the ability to teach a wide variety of courses, summers that are truly "off" because there is no expectation to remain on campus, etc.

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    This answer is very good. As a data point, I am a professor at Amherst college, and indeed we definitively value research more than teaching at the hiring stage, and equally if not slightly more than teaching at the tenure stage. I regularly publish with undergrad students in top venues in my field, and have won NSF grants.
    – Matteo
    Apr 19 at 14:48
  • Thank you very much for the put-together answer, I really appreciate it :) especially for the number of examples you’ve provided! Apr 19 at 15:33
  • I would not say "college" and "university" are completely interchangeable. There definitely is at least a little bit of implication as to type of school, level, and academic focus. There are definitely exceptions, especially in names, but for instance I have never once heard someone describe graduate school as "college" in the US.
    – tox123
    Apr 19 at 19:15
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    @tox123 They don't call it "university", either, though. They call it "grad school". And for undergrads it's called "college" whether the name of the institution has the words University or College in the name. Yes, there are some different implications of the two words but not enough to assume the type of institution without more information.
    – Bryan Krause
    Apr 19 at 22:01
  • I'd like to correct one minor thing: Tufts University used to be a liberal arts college maybe 50 years ago back when it was still Tufts College, but nowadays it is an R1 research university with multiple graduate and professional schools. The undergraduate cohort is somewhat still smaller than most R1 universities, but that's about it. Source: I'm an alumunus.
    – xuq01
    Apr 23 at 13:40
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Current answers are good, but I'll add a little more context about 1. how this works outside the US (my experience is in Australia, your local mileage may vary) and 2. the very long tail of US universities that don't fit simply into the framework. (This is my first answer, hope it's okay!)

  1. Yes, this is a very American distinction. The concept of the "[selective] liberal arts college", an undergrad-focused institution with high expectations for students, a focus on "letters and sciences" subjects, and relatively less focus on research output, doesn't exist in much of the world. Partially this is because the "liberal arts education" itself is very American -- the number of "gen eds" and unrelated electives an American student takes is much, much higher than their counterparts in the outer-Anglosphere or the EU generally will. I've been in both systems and like the US one more for its flexibility and scope, but they both have advantages. (Note: I know Australia and continental Europe here, but other countries may be very different again.)

    But beyond that, the [S]LAC itself is American in that it possesses a few traits rarely seen elsewhere in the world. Private universities are very rare in a lot of countries, and often have worse reputations than their publicly-funded counterparts, not better. In Australia, the best universities are all public; there's one major private university, and a lot of people seem pretty skeptical its existence possesses any value. The stereotype I notice Brits having of private universities is "ways to suck money from rich kids who couldn't get in anywhere good and international students who have been sold ideas of London". The US has exceptionally many universities in general, and exceptionally many private four-year institutions in particular (private non-bachelor's-degree tertiary institutions are more common in the rest of the Anglosphere).

    There are also just exceptionally many universities in America, which combined with a large population allows for a long tail of tiny universities. LACs are definitionally small. "Respectable small university focused on non-technical/non-vocational degrees" isn't something with a good carved-out category in most of the world. Here, again, the private tertiary education institutes that exist are more vocational on average than the big public ones (even the private universities, rather than TAFEs/community college equivalents).
  2. In an academic framework, people talk a lot about "R1 vs SLAC", because these are the most desirable jobs for most academics. (R1 is kind of a fake category -- North Dakota State is R1, South Dakota State is R2 -- but that's a different problem.) This is far from representative of the degree-granting institutions Americans attend. Most four-year colleges and universities in America can't be simply fit into this framework.

    While ~all American four-year universities are liberal-arts-focused by an international standard, many (and growing) have a very vocational focus, independently of whether they offer graduate degrees or not. (In Carnegie terms, these slot into all of Doctoral/Professional, the Master's categories, and the Bachelor categories.) An increasingly big market is "vocationally-focused universities that are available largely online and where it's possible to accelerate a degree". These are very off the radar of most academics -- they tend to be wholly adjunct-staffed and don't send many students to big research programs -- but they are reshaping the American educational landscape. (In practice, a large share of academia's adjunctification is about schools like this that straight up didn't exist in a recognizable form 30 years ago.)

    Many "regional" or "directional" colleges exist that are large, offer grad programs, skew vocational, and don't produce tons of research. The CSUs are often good examples of this. "Directional" comes from an impression that these often have a "direction" in their names (Eastern Southern Northwestern State U), as opposed to the "flagship" that gets the state name without caveats.

    There is also an extremely long tail -- far longer than you think, if you are not a member of this world -- of private religious institutions. A small number of larger schools of this kind (Liberty, Bob Jones, noncentrally Brigham Young) are well-known, but the tail of private evangelical Christian (and, less commonly but still noticeably, Orthodox Jewish) schools is incredibly long. These don't fit neatly into categories developed for more secular schools.

(Note: I've used "LAC" and especially the ambiguous acronym "SLAC" here to describe the "selective" end, given the question's framework. This isn't a universally-agreed-upon distinction, but it's tricky to describe the whole range of American universities otherwise, and in particular the things that make [S]LACs very unlike private universities elsewhere.)

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    +1 this is a great answer (and, welcome to academia.SE). In my answer, I tried to gesture to the fact that an "R1 vs SLAC" dichotomy misses regional colleges. You are spot on about online vocational programs, religious universities, etc. I might add that for-profit universities are some sector of the US landscape that I personally don't know much about. Another type not mentioned yet is community colleges. Apr 20 at 14:15
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There is very little that distinguishes the curriculum of a bachelor's degree from a "liberal arts school" from any other 4-year institution in the US. All^ US bachelors degrees have a strong emphasis on a liberal arts education. We call out the alternatives by other names: they are technical schools, or professional schools: degree programs focused on a profession rather than a broad base of education.

The main identifying features of a "liberal arts college" that contrasts them with all these other liberal arts schools that aren't named as such are size in terms of number of students, and scope.

Unlike larger universities, they are less likely to have attached professional programs (usually post-graduate programs, like medical or law schools). They are also less likely to have a large graduate program and may have no graduate students at all, or may only have graduate programs in a couple specific fields. In some fields this puts an immediate damper on research output because research in those fields is performed mostly by graduate students; no students, no researchers. It also relates to what I see as the biggest curriculum difference between liberal arts colleges and larger schools, which is that undergraduates at a school with a graduate program can often take graduate courses as upper-level electives, and these are usually much more specialized, advanced courses than are available at a smaller liberal arts school.

Of course size or branding do not exclude research as a function; David White's answer correctly identifies some institutions that bill themselves as liberal arts schools but have a strong research reputation as well. However, I think this is mostly tautology; institutions labeled "liberal arts colleges" are small and not focused on research, and if they were to grow and focus on research more we'd be far less likely to name them "liberal arts colleges". It's not so much that these things must be different from their creation but rather that the label itself is dependent on those differences; it's not that a liberal arts college is unable to also be a research university, but that the more research an institution takes on the more likely it is to get the "research university" label. It's not that they can't be research-focused schools but that they aren't. Borrowing one of the examples from that answer, Dartmouth has branded themselves as a liberal arts college and might occasionally end up on someone's list of liberal arts schools, but anyone looking closely should notice they're an Ivy-league research school.

In summary: all US 4-year colleges/universities are liberal arts schools. Those that also do a lot of research are known as "research universities", leaving the label "liberal arts school" to mostly mean "schools that are not research universities".

^ Saying "all" here ensures someone will comment with some exceptions which saves me the time of looking for them myself.

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    I believe that MIT, CalTech, and the service academies all fall under the (quite broad) ‘liberal arts’ banner. If they do, pretty much every 4 year institution does.
    – Jon Custer
    Apr 19 at 17:57
  • @JonCuster I think I would agree with that. Still waiting for someone to argue an exception, though.
    – Bryan Krause
    Apr 19 at 18:40

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