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The Educational Benefits of a Small Liberal Arts College

On a recent visit to Swarthmore College, I took a few moments to explain the benefits of attending a small liberal arts college.

If you prefer, you can read the transcript  below.

Mark Montgomery
Educational Consultant


I’m here today on the campus of Swarthmore College, outside of Philadelphia, and it’s an absolutely gorgeous spring day.  You can see behind me the peony garden, the trees are in bloom.  It’s just a fantastic time to visit a college campus.  Of course, it’s always important when you’re visiting a college campus in this kind of weather, to remind yourself that the winter, well, it’s not quite so green.

But, as it happens, today I received an email from a young man in China who was asking me the difference between a college and a university.  And of course, for the Chinese or any foreign student, this nomenclature, the words we use to describe university versus college gets very confusing.  Probably because part of the problem is that the universities sometimes are made up of colleges.  So, it gets a little bit confusing.  But, let’s talk about the difference between a university and a liberal arts college.

A liberal arts college, like Swarthmore, is focused entirely upon undergraduate education, focusing on providing the bachelor’s degree and only an undergraduate education.  There are no graduate students here, there are no teaching assistants.  Every class is taught by one of the permanent or sometimes a part time, but a member of the teaching faculty.  Their whole reason for being here is to teach undergraduates.

A university, by contrast, is larger, generally speaking, but also is made up, as I say, of different schools.  So there might be a school of business, a medical school, a school of nursing, a school of engineering, all kind of different schools or colleges within the university.  The other thing about a university is that many different degrees are offered.  So it may include the bachelor’s degree, as well as the master’s degree and doctoral degree.

So you have lots of other different kinds of students on campus pursuing other levels of degrees.  One of the effects of that is that many of the professors also teach undergraduates, as well as graduate students.  So you will find, on university campuses, again, depending on the size, that you will find many of  your courses are taught by a professor for the lecture, but then lab periods or discussion sections are held and supervised by graduate students.

Here at Swarthmore, however, everything is geared to serving the undergraduate.  So every class, as I say, every discussion section, every lab is taught, not by some graduate student, but by the professors who make up the teaching staff of the university.  So when I’m explaining this to anyone, any student anywhere, I remind them that the next step of your life is the bachelor’s degree.  To go to a college that is focused entirely upon getting you that bachelor’s degree, that often can make a lot of sense.

Now, you may sacrifice in terms of size, you may sacrifice in terms of the resources, the facilities that might be offered at the major research institutions, but remind yourself, if you are an undergraduate, you are pursuing that undergraduate degree, the first collegiate degree.  You’ll go to graduate school if you want and you can go to a bigger university.  But I recommend, especially when you walk around this beautiful location and see the students who are focused entirely upon their own learning, there’s no one else that is distracting the professors from those undergraduates, this is a pretty amazing form of American education and I recommend that my Chinese students really consider it carefully before they assume that a university would be the better way to go.





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