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The Small, Private, Residential Liberal Arts College
A Gem to be Discovered

As you begin your college search, your first step 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 preparing for a specific job. Four key characteristics 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 universal intellectual capacities in contrast to professional, vocational, or technical training.  Students are expected to become conversant with 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 empower themselves to think 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, Associate Professor and Director of Social Entrepreneurship, Department 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 choose 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 they highly value collaborative engagement between students and professors.


"One of the things I have come to value greatly is the small class size and individual attention we get from professors - during class time and during their office hours. Classes are structured in a manner that calls for thoughtful student participation and there is much emphasis placed on clear and concise writing.  Small class sizes also mean that you get to know your fellow students very well, which is great for making new friends!"

Gayatri Jayal, from New Delhi, India
Grinnell (Iowa), class of ‘11

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.  Some continue to maintain these affiliations. Earlham (Indiana), for example, maintains its Quaker roots, and Westmont (California) clearly articulates its Christian identity.  Others have loosened those ties or abandoned them altogether.  In some cases, their once evangelical missions have 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.  Luther (Iowa), for example, celebrates its Norwegian heritage in ways that impact the curriculum and the co-curriculum.

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, and donations from alumni and benefactors who believe in their institutional mission. Most choose to invest in international education, on the premise that preparing 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.  Institutions that rank near the top in terms of gift aid to international students are often Baccalaureate Liberal Arts Colleges

"International students play an integral role at a liberal arts college. Their opinions often challenge the assumptions expressed by U.S. students and faculty in the classroom. Their lifestyles can bring diversity and new ideas to campus life. Their presence provides opportunities for our community to look beyond borders. Scholarships to support international student enrollment are a major investment, but we believe it is well worth it!"

Greg Caldwell, Associate Dean of Students and Director of International Students and Scholars, Lewis & Clark College (Oregon)

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.


"Students living on campus have the opportunity to create intentional smaller communities within the larger College environment. Our halls range in size from 12 students to over 200.  Students pick the type of home that suits them best. They work with faculty, staff and peer counselors to create programs within the halls that fit their social and academic interests.  We believe that academic life extends well beyond the classroom; it permeates student’s lives and helps them develop as life-long learners."

Bethany Nohlgren, Associate Dean of Students & Director of the First-Year Experience, Bard College (New York)

Finding the right school is like "finding a needle in a haystack" (to use a U.S.-American idiom).  While these four characteristics describe 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) and Cornell (Iowa) take only one class at a time; and students at Reed (Oregon) receive written assessments rather than grades.  St. John’s College (Maryland & New Mexico) engages students in a pure liberal arts curriculum, featuring ‘the great books.’ Oberlin (Ohio) and Lawrence (Wisconsin) both feature Music Conservatories.  All students at Berea (Kentucky) work on campus to contribute to the community and to "earn" a portion of their educational costs.  Smith (Massachusetts) enrolls only women and Spelman (Georgia) is among our nation's Historically Black Colleges and Universities.  Grinnell (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 discipline, students at Augsburg (Minnesota) encounter a credit-bearing opportunity to “Engage Minneapolis” – to establish their commitment to service learning and civic engagement.  There are numerous examples, far too many to mention here, of unique characteristics on individual campuses across the nation.

Many available resources can 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: <collegenews.org/theannapolisgroup>.  Education USA Advisors are located all over the world to provide helpful tips from a local perspective: <educationusa.state.gov/>.  Most schools have an International Admissions professional who will answer inquiries from students living abroad – contact that person!  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.

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