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When I applied to college, I was a prospective engineering major, and let me tell you, it was confusing as hell. I was under the impression that every engineering program was exactly like any other. I thought the only difference was how the prestige of the college attended affected the job search after graduation. I mean, they’re all engineering programs, right? Don’t they just teach the same things? HA, WRONG.

Since you’re reading this article and most likely have an interest in engineering, then you probably already know that there are quite a few branches of engineering and even more subdisciplines and specialties. To accommodate the variety, all colleges’ programs are different, which is why research is essential before applying to a program. But maybe you haven’t done that research quite yet… Maybe you were like me and just applied to a ton of schools you know nothing about (not the wisest move, but it happens). Well, before you make the final college decision, you should definitely know the general differences between studying engineering at universities and studying engineering at liberal arts colleges (LACs).


Universities, or technical institutes, tend to be quite large and well-known. Think of Stanford, Cornell, Carnegie Mellon, or other schools on this list—or schools similar to those on this list. Because they often offer graduate programs, there is an emphasis on research experience. Undergraduate STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) students nation-wide aim to land research positions with graduate students or professors at these types of institutions, because this looks pretty good on résumés.  Attending a research-oriented university gives these students a head start at making the connections with their professors and peers necessary to land one of these positions. This is one of the main reasons why engineers normally prefer a vocational type of program at a university.

However, it should be noted that because of the size of some larger research universities, it might be harder to get close to professor and grad students–if tons of students are vying for the same position to work with a particular professor, it might be tough to get exactly what you want.

Liberal Arts Colleges

LACs are typically private, very small colleges. Think of Williams, Bowdoin, Barnard, Haverford, etc. LACs have small classes and focus on solely undergraduate education. Their emphasis is on breadth as well as depth when it comes to education, and because of this, many students who aren’t comfortable declaring a major right away attend LACs.

LACs often don’t have engineering programs, so, most engineers don’t attend LACs; it’s just common sense. However, with the changing times, LACs have added 3-2 (some are 4-1) engineering programs, in which a student spends 3 years at the LAC and one year at a partnering university. At the end of the five years, the student most often receives two degrees: one from each school. This way, the student can receive a personalized, broader education from an LAC, but also learn everything needed to become an engineer, which, excluding the awesome colleges like Harvey Mudd and Smith that do have their own engineering programs, LACs most often can’t provide alone.

LACs offer the opportunity for a greater number of opportunities to work with professors and grad students as an undergraduate, and because of this more personalized attention, more focus is spent on learning research techniques and lab etiquette.

Why I Chose the LAC Experience

Initially, I chose Scripps College because of financial reasons. Hands down, they gave me an offer I just couldn’t afford to refuse, whether they had an engineering program I liked better than Northwestern’s or not. But additionally, I wasn’t choosing Scripps only for its engineering program like I would have been if I had chosen another college. In the end, I chose Scripps because it just fit me; I wanted to attend a women’s college, the financial aid was what I needed, I wasn’t 100% sure if I wanted to go into engineering after all, and I knew that I wanted to expand my other interests outside of engineering, too.

In the end, it was the best choice, because I’m not even an engineering prospie anymore. The bottom line is that you should still consider LACs even if you think you want to be an engineer. Universities are great if you think they’re perfect for you, but consider LACs if you’re just not quite sure. Good luck! P.S. Since I know I didn’t go into very much detail (like I said, all programs are different and it’s hard to put them all into a box), here are some more resources on 3-2 programs and other similar engineering programs: a U.S. News Blog on 3-2 programs, more comparison between research universities and LACs by, and Williams College’s 3-2 program, as an example.

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the author

Jasmine is a Computer Science major at Scripps College in sunny Claremont, California. Besides writing and editing for The Prospect, Jasmine works as a copy editor for [in]Visible Magazine, a writer for Persephone Magazine, and a communications intern for Whirlpool Corp. When she's not binge watching Grey's Anatomy, she enjoys not wearing shoes (no matter the weather), petting strangers' dogs, and jamming on her ukulele. She can be reached by email at

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  1. Pingback: Books For Engineers | 25 Jan, 2014

    […] Engineering Majors: Large Universities vs. Liberal Arts Colleges … I applied to college, I was a prospective engineering major, and let me tell you, it was confusing as hell. I was under the impression that every engineering program was exactly like any other. I thought the only difference … […]

  2. Bradley on November 7, 2015

    Thanks for the insights. The only 3 colleges in the article I have not heard of before are: Mudd, Smith, Scripps. I will do a little digging. Thanks.

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