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What is a Liberal Arts College and what are the benefits?



The recent visit by top ranked US liberal arts colleges has prompted Internationally Educated to write about liberal arts colleges, including their uniqueness and value. Sydney and Melbourne were fortunate to have Claremont McKenna College, Pomona College and Swarthmore College present at school campuses.


Having attended a liberal arts college myself I can speak of their value and am a declared advocate.


The US higher education system allows student to pursue a four year bachelor’s (also called an undergraduate degree) at either a liberal arts college (LAC) or a research university. The title of the degree earned at each type of institution is the same, either a Bachelors of Arts or Bachelor of Science; however, the experience in earning either degree is very different.


The main focus at a liberal arts college is on the undergraduate academic experience. LAC’s are usually private institutions with a smaller student body population (less than 5,000 students), foster the student experience, and emphasize participation and creative thinking within the classroom. Liberal arts colleges are known for teaching students ‘how to think’, with an intended outcome of learning an array of subject matter in addition to a chosen major or area of study.


Liberal arts colleges provide students with direct access to professors who teach their courses rather than a teaching assistant or post graduate student which is more common at larger research institutions. As a result of direct contact with professors, as well as not having to compete with post graduate students, research, internship and/or work opportunities can be more accessible at liberal arts colleges. Faculty are world leaders in their respective fields who have a passion for teaching at the undergraduate level.


While a liberal arts degree is known to prepare a well-rounded student who can think critically across a broad and diverse range of topics, the areas of subject matter extend well beyond the ‘arts’. Typical academic majors which students pursue at a LAC include science, humanities, social science and creative arts. Liberal arts degrees prepare students for a constantly changing work force with a focus on their nominated major. Students seeking professional degrees such as law or medicine will require additional post graduate studies beyond their Bachelor’s degree. Students who wish to pursue post graduate studies in a professional field can choose from an array of undergraduate majors at a liberal arts college to support an application for post graduate studies. For example, if a student is interested in studying a post graduate law degree they can major in Political Science, English or Humanities at a LAC rather than pre-law which may be more common at a larger institution.


Most LACs are private institutions where larger research universities tend to be public institutions. The term ‘college’ and ‘university’, which American’s use interchangeably, does not necessarily align with a liberal arts college or research university as you may expect. Examples of this are Dartmouth College which is a research institution and Denison University which has a liberal arts emphasis and focuses on undergraduate studies. It’s confusing, but we can help! This link will provide a list of Liberal Arts Colleges by state.


What are the benefits of studying at a LAC?

Many students pursue LAC’s as they’re drawn to the smaller student body, lower student to faculty ratios and direct access to professors and their extended opportunities. Studying at a LAC can relieve the academic pressure to define a student’s area of study by preparing them for a changing society -students demonstrate adaptability and aptitude for a breadth of subject matter before choosing a major rather than focusing on an academic area exclusively.


Larger Research Institutions

Looking beyond liberal arts colleges are larger research universities. These are usually public in nature (each US state has at least one public university; the larger states have one in each large city). These research universities offer undergraduate (Bachelor’s) degrees but are more known for their emphasis on post graduate research. United States research universities are similar to universities here in Australia.


What is the value of a LAC to Australian students?

Within Australia there is no similar educational institution to liberal arts colleges. A liberal arts degree will prepare students for a constantly changing work force where students are able to draw on their problem solving and communication skills. Liberal arts colleges will further develop skills that will not be taught at Australian universities or larger research universities found in the US. These differences will allow LAC graduates to draw on these skills as they enter the job market.


In my experience I have found the networking opportunities at liberal arts colleges to be exceptionally strong. As each graduating class is made up of between 300-1200 students, career services (a department of the college) and fellow alumni are very willing to assist students in networking and career development – they are familiar with the rigour of your degree and support it.


Pursuing a degree in the US at either a liberal arts institution or a research university allows students to pursue an array of university courses in a number of academic disciplines before they are required to confirm their area of study which is focused on the third and fourth year of the degree. Once students enter the workforce, either in the US or globally, they will recognise their liberal arts education will continue to serve them very well.


International students studying in the US are provided 12 months optional practical training (OPT) work opportunity to pursue opportunities in their field of study after completing their degree. STEM students have an OPT extension of 24 months in which they can apply for a total of 36 months to work in the US in their field of study. The OPT program is a US government initiative and applies to students studying at both liberal arts colleges as well as research universities.


Internationally Educated works with students and their families to identify best fit US universities. Once identified, we create a unique strategy to guide students through the complex US admission process ensuring their application is as comprehensive and competitive as they are unique.


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