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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.

You mentioned there that maybe you get more for your money at a liberal arts college. That takes us to the question of funding US colleges or universities, which are known for being very expensive. Is there a difference in the cost from one type of school to another?

Grant: That's a great question, and it seems like there would be because they come in such different sizes and shapes. I often joke with my colleagues on the college side (they're not necessarily amused!) – my feeling is that the small liberal arts colleges should cost a lot more for the undergraduate programs than the big public and private universities because the undergraduates at the liberal arts colleges get so much more attention. But that's not the way it works. The costs are often relatively similar.

I would say that the reason that the big public and private universities can charge the same amount for their undergraduate programs as the small liberal arts colleges is - what people are really paying for is name recognition. The liberal arts colleges are delivering more of an education package for that same money, but that's the way the consumer culture works.

So, large public/private universities are going to continue to charge as much, as long as students - especially international students - are lining up outside the doors to get in.

When US students are applying to college, you know figuring out the financial piece of it is always a big part of that, and many of them get financial aid. Is financial aid available for international students? Are there scholarships for non-US students?

Grant: There absolutely are. That's been a big change over the course of my career. When I started, basically, if you were coming from abroad, you were expected to pay whatever the retail cost was.

It's important to understand that financial aid breaks down into two big chunks. One is called “need-based aid”, which is given on the basis of your perceived ability to pay. Colleges have methodologies for working that out. The other piece [called “merit-aid”] is just discounts that are given to students, as a way of attracting students who look ­­­particularly attractive to colleges and universities.

International students are eligible for both. It's harder for them to get “need-based” financial aid, but there are more and more colleges universities who are providing it, and they are certainly eligible for “merit aid”, which is really just discounting that the colleges do in order to attract students they want. And liberal arts colleges, because they have a harder time drawing international kids, are much more likely to offer those kids discounts of some sort, because they know that's the way to get them to choose their small liberal arts college over a big-name public or private university.

In general, how enthusiastic are US colleges and universities when it comes to accepting international students?

Grant: I think that sometimes it’s confusing for international students when they're looking at US colleges and universities. The simple answer is that American colleges and universities love international students, they really love international students, and they would love to have more.

If you are an international student and you're applying to one of the Ivy Leagues or to a big public research university that everybody has heard of, it's incredibly competitive, but in the big sense, even those universities love international students. The University of Pennsylvania, which is one of the Ivies, has an international student population now that's over 20% of their total. That's a lot of students! The total population of the University is 20,000+! That's common for these big universities. Lots of American colleges and universities would love to have more international students, and they are extremely interested in getting applications so that they can offer those students spaces and work with them to find ways to make it affordable.

For those students who know that they want to come to the US for college, and consider actually coming here earlier so that they can finish secondary school or what we call high school here – what is the college application process like for those kids, who are originally international, but who actually graduate from a US high school?

Grant: It's a great question, and the answer is – it's complicated.

We have a number of international students at Friend’s Central, where I teach and do counseling, and the international students who spend three or four years with us tend to have great experiences. They love the time that they spend there, they feel that they're extremely well prepared when they go on to college and university.

But to be fair, it is also true that if you are applying as an international student, you may be given a little bit of extra consideration if you are applying directly from your home country. The sense is, somehow, that those international kids who have already spent two to four years in the United States and have already had this “US experience”, and have enjoyed that advantage already. American colleges and universities aren't going to give them extra consideration just because they have been here already.

On the other hand, the fact they've been here makes them better risks as admits to these institutions. So, it depends on the institution, it depends on what kinds of applications they're getting, but it is not fair to say that if you go to an American high school for a few years before you go to American university or college that you are necessarily going to be given preference as, say, an African.

Grant, you have worked with probably thousands of students at this point, helping them apply to and then select a US college or university, and many of those students have been international. What piece of advice or perspective could you offer international students who are thinking of coming to the US for four years, for what is a very important chapter of their lives?

Grant: I have mixed feelings about working with some of the international students that I do, who want to come to university in the US, because it's not the case that it's just an “absolute good”, or that if you have any chance to go to an American college or university, that you should. It's a sacrifice in many ways. It means leaving home, spending time away from family and friends. Often, it's a much bigger financial commitment than continuing higher education in your home country.

On the other hand, almost all the international students I've ever worked with have been extremely happy that they made the decision to spend at least the initial four years in an American undergraduate program. Many of them then choose to stay on for graduate school, and quite a few of them then choose to stay on and work in the US after that. I think that for an international student, coming to an American university or college is a great idea if the expectation is that the student is going to work in some kind of internationally related field. That could mean medicine, or some area of science, perhaps, where the community is international, and where the common language might be English.

It's also a great place to make connections with lots of people from around the world, because American colleges and universities are full of international kids and US kids.

It's a four-year undergraduate experience, which will always be valuable, and lots of students who do that can go back to their home countries, and then go into the university system to focus on whatever field they choose. The Asian and European universities have become increasingly receptive to, and recognizing of, US college credentials. Over time, the value of the American college experience actually has been increasing.

Elizabeth: Well Grant, thank you as always, a really interesting conversation and very valuable for students out there who might be considering coming here. If you are one of them, and if we left anything out, or if you have any questions, contact us!

Grant Calder has worked in College Consulting and Admissions Counseling for over 30 years and is Co-director of College Counseling at Friends' Central School in Philadelphia, where he also teaches American History and German. In the past, he has taught at the University of Pennsylvania, Temple University in Philadelphia, and the Middlesex and Choate boarding schools in New England. Additionally, he was a guest teacher at the Evangelisches Gymnasium zum Grauen Kloster in Berlin, Germany. Grant has two children who are currently 12th graders and both "headed off" (whether actually or virtually) to college in the Fall.

Bennett International Education Consultancy works directly with hundreds of families each year across the globe. We support families by guiding them towards making informed decisions and finding the best-fit schools for their children. Our consultants specialize in counseling families and helping them to find and secure placement for their children in preschools, private day schools, boarding schools, colleges & universities, or schools with particular program offerings, such as special needs support.


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