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Coming to the US for College? 13 Things You Should Know

We return to our CEO Elizabeth Sawyer’s porch for another socially distanced interview with Senior College Admissions Counselor Grant Calder, who brings almost 30 years of experience with US college counseling to the table and presents us with a wealth of insight. He sits with us to answer some of the most commonly asked questions about US colleges that we hear from international students considering traveling to the states to further their higher education.

What does “liberal arts” mean? What are the pros and cons of a “liberal arts” education? What’s the difference between college and university in the US? Are international students eligible for financial aid? Do big-name universities really offer a better experience and credentials than a small college? What’s the best approach to the application process? Do most US colleges even want international students?

If you’re from outside the United States considering coming to the US for college, this is an invaluable interview – read on.

Elizabeth: Hello everybody, and welcome back to the porch for another talk with Grant Calder. Today, we're really shaking it up a little and we are on the back porch for a change of scene!

Grants Calder is a very seasoned college counselor. He has been Co-director of College Counseling at Friend’s Central School outside of Philadelphia for about 27 years and has also been a consultant with Bennett for as long.

Today, we're going to focus our discussion on the kinds of questions that we know international students have when they are considering coming to the US for college.

Hi again Grant, welcome back and thank you for joining us for yet another conversation about US colleges. And today, what I'd like to talk about is, if US College is really for non-US students who might be considering coming here. I guess, to start with, the most obvious and complicated of questions: students around the world hear the term “liberal arts.”

Could you begin by explaining what “liberal arts” is, given that it's a hallmark of US Higher Education?

Grant: That's a great question, and I'm still trying to figure it out. But briefly, the “liberal arts” idea - and it has some connections, obviously, to its European roots - is an education that is supposed to be broader and less focused than a typical university program anywhere else in the world. It’s supposed to be an opportunity for students to explore, to figure out what it is they want to do, and then to focus, to some degree. In the rest of the world, all of those questions are expected to have been answered before students start at a university.

What are some of the pros and cons of a liberal arts education that students should consider?

Grant: Well, the downside is that, in a sense, it takes longer. The process of getting to the point where you focus almost exclusively on one subject is set back, sometimes several years.

The plus is that students at liberal arts colleges and universities in the United States get to have a broader exposure to potentially a variety of fields, and American employers and institutions like that. They appreciate students who come to them with academic backgrounds in more than one area.

Essentially, starting university abroad is more like going straight to graduate school from high school. Going into a liberal arts program is going into a four-year “in-between” stage that can be more focused, or less focused. But is its own special package that doesn't really exist anywhere else.

Could you maybe give us an example of that? Let's say that a student wants to become a doctor or lawyer. How would it be different in the US going into liberal arts, versus going to university in, say, a European country?

Grant: Those are actually perfect examples. So, in Germany, if you want to become a medical doctor, you go to university from secondary school. You finish your Arbitur, then you go to university and you study medicine. In the US, you can't do you that. You finish your secondary school, and then you have to go through a four-year “undergraduate” program, which generally is going to mean it’s a liberal arts program. You can study a related field; for example, you can major in biology or chemistry, but you can't go to medical school until you've completed that first degree.

And that's part of this idea of having a broader background. The great thing is, you can go to college in the United States and major in anthropology, or political science, or Spanish, or Chinese, and then go to medical school, too.

You just mentioned “colleges” and “universities.” Could you explain the difference between them?

Grant: Another good question, which doesn't have an exact answer, but the term “college” is obviously an old one, and it is used in the UK and in various contexts, but in the United States that has its own special definition.

In general, a college is an institution that specializes in that first four years after secondary school before graduate school. The degree earned at the end of that is called a bachelor's degree.

In general, a university is a place that offers both the undergraduate program (the first four years) and various graduate programs.

Could you give us some idea of how to organize all of the possibilities out there with colleges and universities, in terms of size, shape, location, etc?

Grant: Yes – I do this constantly with my advisees and families. There aren't any “rules.” The divisions are artificial, but it helps us to think about higher education by breaking it up in some chunks.

Liberal arts colleges – colleges that focus only on liberal arts, that don't have graduate programs, tend to be smaller. In size, they are often in the 2000 student range. That is a big group; there are hundreds of them in the United States.

Then, I like to think of there being this “middle group” - small to medium-sized universities that often tend to still focus on the undergraduate programs, but offer a few kinds of graduate programs, and not necessarily a wide range of them. They vary in size, from a few thousand to over 10,000 students.

And then, there is a group of big universities. These are both public and private, and they tend to be 20,000 students and up… as many as 60,000! They offer undergraduate programs in a variety of areas, and often graduate programs across the board, from law schools to medical schools to Ph.D. programs to masters programs… the whole nine yards.

What are some other hallmarks of the US college experience, as compared to what would be typical at a university in another country?

Grant: That's a really important distinction.

The vast majority of American colleges and universities offer a residential component. This is not true of community colleges, but the four-year institutions which offer the bachelor's degree and graduate programs - almost all of them - have large residential perks, and they expect students to come live on campus. The academic aspect is only part of the package, and that's a big difference between the American system, such as it is, and European/Asian systems.

The additional aspects include all kinds of quasi-academic and completely unrelated academic activities – organized sports, opportunities for students to participate in university press, radio stations, and service organizations, fraternities and sororities… it's just a huge world that, for a lot of American students, is a bigger part of their experience than a strictly academic one.

You have worked with a lot of international students coming to the US for college. What observations might you have about how they have approached the application process here, made their lists of colleges to apply to, and so forth?

Grant: There are some there are some definite patterns. So, it makes perfect sense that International students tend to focus on the big-name universities, being that those are the ones they’ve heard of. They also reasonably assume that a credential from a place that they've heard of and that their communities have heard of will serve them better if they come back to their home countries to work.

However, there are literally thousands of institutions in the United States, and it is often disappointing and frustrating to me that their focuses are so narrow. It also means that a relative handful of American universities receive a huge bulk of the applications from international students and that, of course, makes admission to those places for those students extraordinarily competitive. They get frustrated by that, but they don't have to be. They just need to spread themselves out.

Elizabeth: So, what advice would you give those students on how to spread themselves out?

Grant: My general advice is that, if you're an international student and you're determined to apply to a couple of the Ivy Leagues and to a couple of the big state universities that you've heard of – the University of Michigan or the University of California, Berkeley, for example – that's great! And, you should also apply to some other great institutions that you and that people back home haven't necessarily heard of, [because they] are going to provide you with the same (and sometimes even better) training and preparation.

Going back to that original breakdown I talked about – liberal arts colleges, small to medium-sized universities, and large state and private universities. International students cluster to a great extent in the large public and private university group, when they apply. They should look very carefully at some of these small and medium-sized universities and, in the best case, they should look at some of the wonderful little arts colleges. The liberal arts colleges have the hardest time drawing international student applicants because international students haven't heard about them. They don't really know what a college is, and so they tend to shy away from applying these institutions. But that's the reason why institutions are so receptive to applications from them.

You brought up a very good point that students typically will apply to a school whose name they recognize, because they're thinking about when they go home again, and essentially, they want that name recognition back in their home country. So understandably, they might be nervous to apply to small liberal arts colleges that they haven't heard of. Why should they apply to those schools?

Grant: A good question, and there are multiple good answers. The first one is that there is just no question at the undergraduate level, in many cases, you get much more for your money at a small liberal arts college. That's all they do: they specialize in working with students who are in those first four years – the undergraduate program. They provide smaller classes. They provide more support. They provide more attention. Students have much more opportunity to develop relationships with their professors. And ironically, they often have more opportunities to get involved in research, either scientific or in the social sciences or humanities, that will result in their being able to publish or produce results that are going to also be a part of the package they have to offer when they graduate.

Students think to go to a big place makes sense if they're looking for research opportunities, because “there's lots of research going on there”. But it's exactly at the small liberal arts colleges that professors need undergraduates to work with them on research. There are no graduate students there. The undergraduates are their “labor pool”, and the professors have the time and the focus to train and work with these students. Their preparation is, in my long experience, often much better than the preparation that kids get at that students get big places that are famous, but whose priority is not undergraduates.