There is no formal definition of liberal arts college, but one American authority defines them as schools that "emphasize undergraduate education and award at least half of their degrees in the liberal arts fields of study." Other researchers have adopted similar definitions.
Although many liberal arts colleges are exclusively undergraduate, some also offer graduate programs that lead to a master's degree or doctoral degree in subjects such as business administration, nursing, medicine, and law. Similarly, although the term "liberal arts college" most commonly refers to an independent institution, it may also sometimes refer to a university college within or affiliated with a larger university. Most liberal arts colleges outside the United States follow this model.
Liberal arts colleges are distinguished from other types of higher education chiefly by their generalist curricula and small size. These attributes have various secondary effects in terms of administration as well as student experience. For example, class size is usually much lower at liberal arts colleges than at universities, and faculty at liberal arts colleges typically focus on teaching more than research.
From a student perspective, a liberal arts college typically differs from other forms of higher education in the following areas: higher overall student satisfaction, a general feeling that professors take a personal interest in the student's education, and perception of encouragement to participate in discussion. Many students select liberal arts colleges with precisely this sense of personal connection in mind.
From an administrative standpoint, the small size of liberal arts colleges contributes to their cohesion and ability to survive through difficult times. Job satisfaction is also typically higher in liberal arts colleges, for both faculty and staff. The smaller size also makes it feasible for liberal arts colleges to adopt relatively experimental or divergent approaches, such as the Great Books curriculum at St. John's or Shimer, or the radically interdisciplinary curriculum of Marlboro.