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The Liberal Arts College Difference

“Have you considered applying to a liberal arts college,’’ the admissions consultant asks. The student stares back, blankly. “What’s a liberal arts college?” Sigh. This scenario has been repeated often enough, particularly with international students considering studying in the U.S., that an explanation seems in order.

Liberal arts colleges are small undergraduate institutions, typically with 1,600 to 4,000 students, that are dedicated to the humanities, the sciences, and the social sciences. As that initial conversation indicates, they are not the high-profile institutions international students tend to hear about with globalized brands and every kind of merch, but they have sterling reputations inside the U.S. for providing a rigorous student-centered education and successful career outcomes.

All subscribe in different ways to a classical tradition of education that supports scholarship and inquiry across a range of disciplines, based on the conviction that areas of knowledge intersect. This is distinct from career-focused preparation in a single subject. Some have a mission that frames their curriculum and campus life. In the U.S., pre-med students, biologists, chemists, and other scientists often seek a liberal arts education because of the strong knowledge base it provides, and for this same reason, medical schools and other specialized degree programs usually embrace it.

For students more familiar with the university model, an important distinguishing feature of liberal arts colleges is their focus on undergraduate learning. Unlike a university, these schools offer only bachelor’s degrees, not graduate programs, and there are usually no graduate students on campus. They focus on teaching and the undergraduate experience more than research. They also tend to be more campus-bound than many universities, which is why most are located outside of urban settings, and they are overwhelmingly residential, with freshmen and even sophomores often required to live in student dorms.

For students considering liberal arts degrees, but who may be hesitating for fear they result in poor job prospects or a weak return on their tuition dollars, think again! A 2020 study by the British Academy finds that arts, humanities, and social science graduates in the UK are just as likely to be employed as their counterparts with science, technology, and engineering degrees; these graduates are equally or better represented in the information, communications, and finance sectors than counterparts from other disciplines; and, because of the core, transferable skills they have gained, they are resilient to economic upheaval and as likely to remain employed during downturns as STEM graduates.

Liberal arts colleges are most common in the U.S., and include Swarthmore, Bates, Vassar, Williams, Whitman, Pomona, Reed, Rhodes, Wooster, Agnes Scott, Oberlin, Grinnell, Macalaster, Carleton, Sewanee, and Smith. The Netherlands drew on the U.S. experience to launch its own model in the 1990s, establishing honors colleges at the country’s renowned research universities to provide small-scale, student-focused learning in the humanities and social sciences. The UK offers rich courses in the liberal arts at many of its universities, but the distinct liberal arts college is missing from the country’s higher ed landscape.

Liberal arts colleges may be a good choice for students who seek an intimate campus community with small classes and opportunities to get to know their professors and their peers. Their small size enables them to provide personalized support to students, both inside and outside the classroom, which can reduce the risks of anonymity and disconnectedness that students may experience at larger schools. They can be flexible and experimental because they are small. They tend to be expensive because they are private, but many are eager to accept international students as part of their commitment to diversity in community and learning, and may offer generous need-based and merit aid.

The choice about where to study after high school is fundamentally about ‘’fit’’ – that shorthand for all the factors that will help a student feel that she belongs. For international students, a liberal arts college may be that supportive home away from home.


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