A Gem to be Discovered
All too often, students cross the ocean to enroll at the first school they hear about or the first school to send the I-20. As you begin your college search, “Step One” is to learn about what makes higher education in the USA unique. There is no federal ranking system by which to judge or compare schools. The U.S. does not mandate a national curriculum for post-secondary education. There is a wide range of institutional types and educational philosophies that result in unique and autonomous educational systems and choices. Read about them to make sure you know an apple from a mango!
While not entirely unique to the United States, the small, private, residential Liberal Arts College is a gem to be discovered. About 200 private institutions fit into the Carnegie Classification of Baccalaureate College, Liberal Arts – where one of the most valued endeavors is to educate the “whole student.” A liberal arts education prepares students for a lifetime of meaningful and productive work, personal growth, and community leadership. Successful liberal arts students seek education for its own sake rather than limiting themselves to preparation for a specific job. There are are four key characteristics that make this institutional type stand out in the marketplace of U.S. higher education:
I) The Liberal Arts Curriculum: A liberal arts curriculum aims at imparting general knowledge and developing general intellectual capacities in contrast to a professional, vocational, or technical training. Students are expected to become conversant in a broad range of disciplines without sacrificing the rigor of their major field. Regardless of specialty – business economics, psychology, art, computer science, or biochemistry, liberal arts students are taught to stretch and empower themselves to think and work beyond the confines of their discipline so that they can be leaders in our world for years to come.
“The way we ask and answer questions in a liberal arts school reflects the rapid changes that we see in our world. We teach and encourage what is unconventional. To answer important questions, like ‘How should countries cooperate and solve global warming?’ or ‘What product should my company create and market in the next four years?’ – we need interdisciplinary thinkers and problem solvers. Solutions will involve biologists, economists, political scientists and even historians! No single discipline has a monopoly on answering these questions.”
Dr. Amyaz A. Moledina, Assistant Professor of Economics,
The College of Wooster (Ohio)
II) The choice to remain small: Baccalaureate Liberal Arts Colleges have made an informed and intentional choice to remain small. Many have total enrollments of fewer than 2,000 students. Two valuable statistics that are used to evaluate post-secondary institutions are the “student-to-faculty ratio” and the “percent of full-time faculty with a terminal degree” – both particularly important for schools that have chosen to maintain teaching as their top priority. Top-tier Baccalaureate Liberal Arts Colleges boast student-to-faculty ratios as low as eight or nine students to each PhD-level faculty member. The majority of classes at these schools enroll fewer than 20 students per course, and there is a high value placed on the collaborative engagement between students and professors.
“Because I attended a small school, I knew my classmates and my teachers well. Classes were all about open discussions, critical dialogue, and creative writing. Attending a small liberal art school helped me grow and communicate intellectually. I am also confident that my instructors will remember me when I need graduate school recommendations or professional references!”
Sangeeta K. Asre, Colby College ’07 (Maine)
Davis Scholar, and a native of Fiji
III) Private not-for-profit status: Baccalaureate Liberal Arts Colleges are among our nation’s oldest post-secondary institutions. Many were founded with religious education and/or ethnic heritage at their core. While some continue to maintain these affiliations, others have loosened those ties or abandonded them altogether. Their once evangelical missions have, over the years, evolved into a passion for civic engagement and social responsibility. Celebrations of ethnic heritage have been sidelined in some settings, while other institutions have built those ties into colorful campus traditions that create meaning and unity among campus constituents.
These schools have maintained their not-for-profit status, which allows for philosophical autonomy and fiscal independence. They are funded primarily through student fees, private grants, alumni donations and other benefactors who believe in their institutional mission. Most choose to invest in international education, on the premise that preparation of engaged, responsible global citizens is a core mission of liberal education. While comprehensive fees (tuition, room, and board) can be much higher than other post-secondary options, significant financial aid is often available to international students, making this top quality educational experience a realistic possibility for bright students from around the globe. Top ranking institutions, in terms of gift aid to international students, are often Baccalaureate Liberal Arts Colleges.
“ One of the most important aspects of a liberal arts education is the opportunity to encounter differences–of opinion, values, religious faith, and cultural perspectives. This emphasis helps to explain why international students and scholars are such an important part of Liberal Arts Colleges, and why financial support for international students is a major investment of liberal arts institutions.”
Janet Alexander, Assistant Dean and Director, International Student Services, Grinnell College (Iowa)
IV) A Focus on Residential Community: Though the residential campus originated in Great Britain (i.e., Oxford and Cambridge), it has been perfected in the United States. On a residential campus, academic and social activity is conducted 24 hours a day and 7 days a week within a centralized living community. Students, as well as some staff and faculty, live, eat, study, and play within a self-contained college campus. Members of the campus community participate and engage in the learning process together – inside and outside of the classroom. Learning and living are integrated and inseparable.
“Living within the campus community is a natural compliment to a liberal arts education. Most students ‘live in’ throughout their four-year program. Residence halls, special interest houses, and apartment-style facilities offer much more than a traditional dorm or boarding school. Our halls are programmed to enhance the educational experience and to encourage discussions and learning within themed living units – like our Environmental House, Global Awareness House, and a Fine Arts House. Our faculty and our students take the lead in these programmatic efforts and develop a valuable sense of community, belonging, camaraderie and security.”
Nancy Tavelli, Associate Dean of Students for Campus Life
Whitman College (Washington)
Finding the right school is like “finding a needle in a haystack” (to use a U.S.-American idiom). While these four characteristics provide the basic framework of a private Baccalaureate Liberal Arts College, do not assume that all of these schools are the same. Among these 200+ institutions, students will discover a wide variety of innovative programs, distinctive characteristics, and celebrated traditions that keep each place unique. For example, all students at Kalamazoo College (Michigan) are required to participate in Study Abroad. Students at Colorado College (Colorado) take only one class at a time; and students at Reed College (Oregon) receive written assessments rather than grades. All students at Berea College (Kentucky) work on campus to contribute to the community and to “earn” a portion of their educational costs. Smith College (Massachusetts) enrolls only women and Spelman (Georgia) is among our nation’s Historically Black Colleges and Universities. Grinnell College (Iowa) is one of few institutions in the country based on a system of self-governance, and all students at The College of Wooster (Ohio) cap their degree with a full-year Independent Study project. Within every discipine, students at Augsburg College (Minnesota) encounter a credit-bearing opportunity to ‘Engage Minneapolis’ – to establish their commitment to service learning and civic engagement. There are numerous examples of unique characteristics on individual campuses across the nation.
There are also many resources available to help you find the right school in the USA – and the Internet is one of the best. The Annapolis Group website provides information about top quality Liberal Arts programs: www.collegenews.org/theannapolisgroup. Education USA Advisors are located all over the world to provide helpful tips from a local perspective: www.educationusa.state.gov/centers. Most schools have an International Admissions professional who is responsible to support inquiries from students living abroad – contact them! You should view your college search as the first, and perhaps most important, un-graded project of your college career. Enjoy your research. We look forward to meeting you next fall.
Karen Edwards was Director of International Student Affairs at The College of Wooster (Ohio) from 1995-2007. She co-founded the NAFSA Member Interest Group for ‘Liberal Arts Colleges: Small & Residential’ and is currently living in Grinnell, Iowa.