Quite possibly, most people will have heard the term “liberal arts college” but won’t have any idea what it really means.

I’m going to introduce and then ultimately advocate liberal arts colleges. I think these institutions offer some of the best educational opportunities to be found anywhere. And yet they’re an option that immigrant families in particular are not taking advantage of.

A brief overview of colleges

There are two types of private institutions: universities and colleges. A university, by definition, is an institution that is comprised of both an undergraduate and a graduate program. Liberal arts colleges generally do not have graduate schools.

This explains to a certain extent why the average immigrant family is not as familiar with liberal arts colleges as they are with universities. Many first-generation immigrants came to the U.S. with undergraduate degrees already in hand, with the express purpose of continuing their graduate studies in the U.S. As a result, we are all familiar with schools like MIT, UC Berkeley, and the University of Michigan. We are less familiar with Harvey Mudd College, although it has one of the best undergraduate engineering programs in the nation. This lack of information puts immigrant students at a severe disadvantage because it prevents them from exploring some of the best options the U.S. education system has to offer.

What is a liberal arts college?

First let’s look a bit more closely at what a liberal arts college is. The Annapolis Group, a non-profit alliance of the nation’s top liberal arts colleges, characterizes the purpose of a liberal arts education “as developing students’ intellectual and personal capacities to:

  • think clearly, analytically, creatively, and critically;
  • understand the various ways disciplinary and interdisciplinary programs in the arts, humanities, natural and social sciences construct knowledge and create meaning;
  • make effective use of technology;
  • work collaboratively and successfully within diverse social environments;
  • communicate effectively;
  • grapple insightfully with ethical problems, adopt considered and rationally defensible moral positions, and then apply their ethical judgments through action with consistency and compassion; and
  • embrace the obligation to function as informed, responsible citizens of their local, regional, and national communities and, ultimately, the world.”

This is not the school for the student who is absolutely sure of his or her career goals and wants to get from point A to point B in the quickest way possible. For example, a student who wants to become a pharmacist sooner rather than later is best served by applying to a school with a five-year pharmacy program. However, for students who don’t have such specific aims, a liberal arts education is one of the best luxuries they can experience.

Liberal arts colleges provide fertile, nurturing intellectual environments in which students can think, learn and stretch themselves while figuring out what to commit to.

Now it’s true that students at universities can also spend a year or two finding themselves before settling on a major. So what really makes a liberal arts college unique?

What makes a liberal arts college unique?

Probably the most important thing for immigrant families to consider is the seemingly minor fact that liberal arts colleges are only for undergraduates. This makes a significant difference to a student’s educational experience.

Most families are not aware that in a university, the majority of funding and resources are allocated to the graduate program. Why? Because it is graduate students who bring a university prestige and endowments through their research. Undergraduates just don’t take top priority. Undergraduate teaching will inevitably be passed on to graduate students, and students might spend four years at a university without becoming a recognizable face to a single professor.

Let’s do a quick comparison:

University: At a school like UC Berkeley, lecture halls hold up to six hundred students and the introductory physics lecturer might well be a 24-year-old Ph.D. candidate.

Liberal Arts College: At a liberal arts college, on the other hand, many classes are made up of 15-20 students on average, and all the professors are, well, actual professors, since there are no graduate students around!

My point can be brought home with some data about liberal arts college alumni. Although only 4% of American college graduates are educated at liberal arts colleges, their alumni account for:

  • 23% of U.S. educated Nobel Laureates
  • 14% of tenured Harvard Law professors
  • 9% of the nation’s wealthiest CEOs (as ranked by Forbes)
  • 27% of U.S. presidents.

You should consider liberal arts colleges

The moral? Immigrant parents and their students are strongly urged to consider liberal arts colleges. Schools like Williams College and Amherst College represent, in my opinion, some of the best higher educational institutions worldwide. Obviously, the liberal arts option isn’t going to be right for everyone. But students and their families should know that it is an option and an excellent one at that.

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