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Should international students consider liberal arts colleges?

interstride logo by Interstride
December 18, 2023

For international students, one of the first steps to pursuing higher education in the United States is deciding what type of school to attend. International students have many options available to them when it comes to choosing a college or university. Among those choices, liberal arts colleges offer many benefits that make them a compelling choice for international students. Depending on your education goals, career aspirations, and personal needs, you may want to consider liberal arts colleges.

What is a liberal arts college?

Liberal arts colleges are institutions that emphasize undergraduate education. They are distinct from other types of colleges and universities in their goal of developing well-rounded individuals through holistic education encompassing not only academics but also critical thinking skills, relationship building, and cross-cultural awareness. 

With a focus on general education courses, most liberal arts colleges offer students the flexibility to explore different disciplines before choosing their major. You usually cannot get a professional degree such as a nursing or accounting degree at a liberal arts college, but these schools offer many majors in a variety of subjects including: 

  • Humanities
  • Social sciences
  • Natural sciences
  • Math
  • Computer science
  • Fine arts

There are approximately 200 liberal arts colleges in the US. The vast majority of these colleges are private institutions, which means they are privately funded and do not receive government funding. Some of the top private liberal arts colleges in the US include Williams College in Massachusetts and Pomona College in California. 

Interstride Tip! If you want to learn more about liberal arts colleges in the US, check out the liberal arts colleges with the most international students in 2022.

What’s the difference between liberal arts colleges and universities? 

Universities in the US are typically bigger than liberal arts colleges and often offer a broader variety of undergraduate and graduate degrees. Because of their large size, universities often have larger campuses with lots of amenities and social events. Universities usually have more academic programs, research opportunities, and course offerings than colleges.

Colleges in the US come in many forms, but we are focusing on one type – liberal arts colleges. Liberal arts colleges tend to be smaller than universities. That means smaller class sizes, a more personalized learning experience, and a tight-knit community. Liberal arts colleges usually only offer bachelor’s degrees. They will have more limited academic majors and elective courses to choose from compared to large universities. They may also be more expensive than public universities but may offer more financial aid. As an international student, there are both pros and cons of liberal arts colleges.

Benefits of liberal arts colleges for international students

  • Comprehensive education: Liberal arts colleges typically focus on interdisciplinary learning and offer students the chance to learn more about subjects they might not otherwise such as philosophy. 
  • Skill development and hands-on learning: Liberal arts colleges also teach students how to learn, allowing students to develop skills such as critical thinking, problem-solving, communication, and much more. At many liberal arts colleges, emphasis is also placed on learning outside of the classroom through volunteering, community service, and on-the-job training.
  • Class size: As liberal arts colleges tend to be smaller, the student-to-faculty ratios are typically smaller as well. For international students who may be adjusting to new academic settings and cultural norms, smaller class sizes offer more opportunities for faculty interaction and extra attention.
  • Diversity and inclusion: In almost all cases, liberal arts colleges value diversity, inclusion, and belonging on their campuses. Several liberal arts colleges encourage cross-cultural education and global awareness, which can create a welcoming environment for international students.
  • Career development: Liberal arts colleges tend to have trained career services centers and strong alumni networks. These resources are especially helpful for international students when deciding what field or career to pursue after graduation.

Disadvantages of liberal arts colleges for international students

  • Limited research opportunities: Liberal arts colleges tend to have fewer research opportunities and smaller labs. This can be a disadvantage for some students, depending on their career goals or academic aspirations.
  • Higher cost: Liberal arts colleges tend to have higher tuition than other types of colleges and universities. International applicants are not eligible for federal financial aid in the US, but liberal arts colleges often provide more institutional aid than big public universities.

Should I apply to a liberal arts college in the US?

Apply to liberal arts colleges for your bachelor’s degree if you are looking for an interdisciplinary education, small class sizes, and consistent opportunities to interact with faculty. Liberal arts colleges can provide a vibrant, tight-knit campus community. 

To help offset the cost of attending a liberal arts college, look for institutions that offer scholarships specifically to international students. You may also want to measure the return on investment (ROI) of your degree from a liberal arts college before you apply. ROI on higher education in the US varies greatly based on the school, degree program, and several other factors. Your desired field of study and career path may be better suited for a research-focused university than a liberal arts college, so compare the ROI of both. 

Wrap up on liberal arts colleges for international students

Liberal arts colleges are important for international students to consider, as they can provide a comprehensive education and a sense of community, making it a bit easier to adjust to life in the US. Depending on your personal preferences and goals as an international student, a liberal arts college might be the best path for you. Take time to reflect on what you want your college experience in the US to be like and what you want to get out of your degree.