What Is a Liberal Education?

Liberal Education is an approach to learning that empowers individuals and prepares them to deal with complexity, diversity, and change. It provides students with broad knowledge of the wider world (e.g. science, culture, and society) as well as in-depth study in a specific area of interest. A liberal education helps students develop a sense of social responsibility, as well as strong and transferable intellectual and practical skills such as communication, analytical and problem-solving skills, and a demonstrated ability to apply knowledge and skills in real-world settings.

The broad goals of liberal education have been enduring even as the courses and requirements that comprise a liberal education have changed over the years. Today, a liberal education usually includes a general education curriculum that provides broad learning in multiple disciplines and ways of knowing, along with more in-depth study in a major.

To learn how liberal education is adapting to 21st century needs, read about The LEAP Challenge and engaging all college students in signature work on significant questions and problems important to them and to society.

Essential Learning Outcomes

Through LEAP, AAC&U has defined a robust set of "Essential Learning Outcomes" that students develop through a 21st century liberal education. Beginning in school, and continuing at successively higher levels across their college studies, students can prepare for both responsible citizenship and a global economy by achieving the essential learning outcomes.

  • See the "economic case" for liberal education and the Essential Learning Outcomes.
  • See the "civic case" for liberal education and the Essential Learning Outcomes.

Often-Confused Terms

Liberal Education: An approach to college learning that empowers individuals and prepares them to deal with complexity, diversity, and change. This approach emphasizes broad knowledge of the wider world (e.g., science, culture, and society) as well as in-depth achievement in a specific field of interest. It helps students develop a sense of social responsibility; strong intellectual and practical skills that span all major fields of study, such as communication, analytical, and problem-solving skills; and the demonstrated ability to apply knowledge and skills in real-world settings.1

Liberal Arts: Specific disciplines (i.e., the humanities, sciences, and social sciences).

Liberal Arts College: A particular type of institution—often small, often residential—that facilitates close interaction between faculty and students, and whose curriculum is grounded in the liberal arts disciplines.

Artes Liberales: The historical basis for the modern liberal arts, consisting of the trivium (grammar, logic, and rhetoric) and the quadrivium (arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music).

General Education: That part of a liberal education curriculum that is shared by all students. It provides broad exposure to multiple disciplines and forms the basis for developing essential intellectual, civic, and practical capacities. General education can take many forms, and increasingly includes introductory, advanced, and integrative forms of learning.

The Changing Nature of Liberal Education


Liberal Education in the
Twentieth Century

Liberal Education in the Twenty-First Century


  • intellectual and personal development
  • an option for the fortunate
  • viewed as non-vocational
  • intellectual and personal development
  • a necessity for all students
  • essential for success in a global economy and for informed citizenship


  • through studies in arts and sciences disciplines ("the major") and/or through general education in the initial years of college
  • through studies that emphasize the essential learning outcomes across the entire educational continuum—from school through college—at progressively higher levels of achievement (recommended)


  • liberal arts colleges or colleges of arts and sciences in larger institutions
  • all schools, community colleges, colleges, and universities, as well as across all fields of study (recommended)

Adapted from College Learning for the New Global Century, Association of American Colleges and Universities, 2007, page 18, figure 5.

More on Liberal Education

In Historical Perspectives

"Those persons, whom nature has endowed with genius and virtue, should be rendered by liberal education worthy to receive, and able to guard the sacred deposit of the rights and liberties of their fellow citizens; and . . . they should be called to that charge without regard to wealth, birth or other accidental condition or circumstance." --Thomas Jefferson, 1779

In 1862, President Abraham Lincoln signed into law the Morrill Act to set up a system of public colleges throughout the United States.  The purpose of these land-grant colleges was, in part, to "promote the liberal and practical education of the industrial classes in the several pursuits and professions in life" (emphasis added).

"We want one class of persons to have a liberal education and we want another class of persons, a very much larger class of necessity, to forgo the privileges of a liberal education." --Woodrow Wilson, 1909

"Education is by far the biggest and the most hopeful of the Nation's enterprises. Long ago our people recognized that education for all is not only democracy's obligation but its necessity. Education is the foundation of democratic liberties. Without an educated citizenry alert to preserve and extend freedom, it would not long endure." -- Truman Commission on Higher Education, 1947 (see "Higher Education for Democracy" for more details).

"Of all the civil rights for which the world has struggled and fought for 5,000 years, the right to learn is undoubtedly the most fundamental." --W.E.B. DuBois, 1949

"When we ask about the relationship of a liberal education to citizenship, we are asking a question with a long history in the Western philosophical tradition. We are drawing on Socrates' concept of 'the examined life,' on Aristotle's notions of reflective citizenship, and above all on Greek and Roman Stoic notions of an education that is 'liberal' in that it liberates the mind from bondage of habit and custom, producing people who can function with sensitivity and alertness as citizens of the whole world." --Martha Nussbaum, Cultivating Humanity: A Classical Defense of Reform in Liberal Education, 1998

In the Twenty-first Century

"Education serves democracy best when it prepares us for just the kinds of questions we face now: questions about a wider world, about our own values, and about difficult choices we must make both as human beings and citizens. . . . The approach to higher learning that best serves individuals, our globally engaged democracy and an innovating economy is liberal education." —AAC&U Board of Directors, 2002

"The only education that prepares us for change is a liberal education. In periods of change, narrow specialization condemns us to inflexibility--precisely what we do not need. We need the flexible intellectual tools to be problem solvers, to be able to continue learning over time." —David Kearns, Xerox, 2002

"This approach to liberal education--already visible on many campuses--erases the artificial distinctions between studies deemed liberal (interpreted to mean that they are not related to job training) and those called practical (which are assumed to be). A liberal education is a practical education because it develops just those capacities needed by every thinking adult: analytical skills, effective communication, practical intelligence, ethical judgment, and social responsibility."—Greater Expectations: A New Vision for Learning as a Nation Goes to College, AAC&U, 2002

"This division has not always existed. Both education and engineering have deep roots in our history as a nation. Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin, each in his own way, recognized that discovery and innovation are the twin pillars of a democratic society." —Joseph Bordogna, NSF, 2003

"It should not be liberal education for some and narrow or illiberal education for others....Access to educational excellence is the equity challenge of our time."— AAC&U Board of Directors, The Quality Imperative, 2010

"So what does business need from our educational system?  One answer is that it needs more employees who excel in science and engineering and the remainder of a workforce that is exposed to enough science and mathematics to function in the rapidly evolving high-tech world.

But that is only the beginning: one cannot live by equations alone. The need is increasing for workers with greater foreign language skills and an expanded knowledge of economics, history and geography. And who wants a technology-driven economy when those who drive it are not grounded in such fields as ethics?" —Norman Augustine, former Chairman and CEO of the Lockheed Martin Corporation, 2013

Statement on Liberal Education

Read the Statement on Liberal Education approved by the AAC&U board of directors (1998).

Other Publications on Liberal Education

The LEAP Vision for Learning (pdf)

College Learning for the New Global Century (LEAP Report)

Greater Expectations: A New Vision for Learning as a Nation Goes to College

Practicing Liberal Education

According to a 2013 survey conducted by Hart Research Associates on behalf of AAC&U, 74 percent of employers would recommend this educational approach to college-bound students. After Hart Research “tested” the definition of liberal education in the employer surveys. The employer research found that 3 out of 4 employers would recommend this kind of learning to others—and for their own children. For a full report on the survey and its complete findings, see www.aacu.org/leap