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Liberal Arts Education in the United States

Taking classes across disciplines is the hallmark of a liberal arts education whose goals are to promote a wide spectrum of knowledge in addition to majoring in a subject.

If you are someone who is interested in studying in the U.S., you might have heard these phrases: “U.S. education is based on liberal arts philosophy- Liberal arts is the beauty of U.S. higher education...” If you do not know what liberal arts means, you are not alone. For a student in Nepal, where we are required to choose our field of study immediately after grade 10, liberal arts education is an alien concept. For instance, to hear that an engineering student in the U.S. is also taking music class for the fulfillment of his Bachelor’s degree requirements sounds quite strange. However, taking classes across disciplines is the hallmark of a liberal arts education whose goals are to promote a wide spectrum of knowledge in addition to majoring in a subject.

The majority of jobs that high school graduates will be taking on four years from now have not been invented yet! How can college education prepare you for such an uncertain job market? The answer to this question might lie within the liberal arts curriculum of the U.S. Liberal Arts, which actually stands for Liberal Arts and Sciences, and it involves a broad general education curriculum in literature, language, philosophy, social sciences, mathematics, history, psychology, and sciences. According to the U.S. News & World Report (2012 Edition), there are over 250 liberal arts institutions in the U.S. However, even the non liberal arts institutions in the U.S. are somewhat inspired by the liberal arts curriculum.

The history of liberal arts institutions dates back to the inception of democracy in the U.S. Hence, liberal arts colleges are founded on the principle of American ideals. Liberal Arts education focuses on developing your critical thinking, analytical reasoning, leadership, and written and oral communication skills. These skills will prepare you for the changing landscape of today’s job market. As a result of liberal arts education, you will be more likely to accept change, be creative, and adapt to a new environment. These skills are of utmost importance in the world we live in today.

There are many distinctive features of liberal arts institutions that set them apart from other types of institutions. The following six factors will help you to further understand the liberal arts education in the U.S.:

Small Student Population and Focus on Undergraduate Education
Most liberal arts institutions keep their student bodies below 3,000 students. As a result, there is a very strong sense of community feeling among students and faculty members. Unlike some big universities, liberal arts institutions are committed to undergraduate education, and the classes are taught by the professors themselves (rather than by graduate assistants as is the case at many larger universities). The faculties at liberal arts institutions love to teach and student-teacher interaction is encouraged. As a result, international students can greatly benefit from such an environment.

Focus on Skills Development
Liberal arts institutions aim to provide all-rounded education to their students so that these students can be responsible citizens later on. These colleges focus on analytical, communication and leadership skills, which are crucial in today’s world, no matter what profession you choose. Your future employees will value these skills, and you will be better prepared for all your future endeavors.

Flexibility to experiment with different courses is yet another beauty of liberal arts education. If you are not sure about what you want to major in (and it’s perfectly normal to be in this situation!), you will thrive in a liberal arts institution. Liberal arts philosophy encourages experimenting with different subjects so that you can pick a major that truly interests you. You will have up to two years to decide on your major. You will have a wide range of courses to choose from, and you can have a combination of courses that you had never even imagined of. For instance, you may be majoring in chemical engineering, but you can also take some classes on Greek mythology at the same time!

Preparation for Graduate School
In the U.S., undergraduate education is mostly focused on general education and specialization usually happens at the graduate level. The skills set you acquire from the liberal arts studies at undergraduate level will prepare you for the rigor of graduate school. Many students who attend liberal arts institutions are successful in securing admissions at competitive graduate and professional schools. Graduate and professional schools seem to value the liberal arts background in applicants. 

Generous Financial Aid
Because of small undergraduate student population, it is comparatively difficult to get into a liberal arts college. Furthermore, since most of these institutions are private, they are expensive compared to public institutions. However, liberal arts colleges are well known for their financial aid awards. Many Nepalese students who get into liberal arts institutions secure enviable financial aid. Therefore, generous financial aid awards at the liberal arts colleges is another reason for the popularity of liberal arts institutions among international students.

Valued by Prospective Employers
Today’s employers value adaptability, good communication skills, problem solving skills, creativity and the likes. All these skills are nurtured at liberal arts institutions. Although liberal arts education does not usually prepare you for a specific profession, it does equip you with the practical skills that employers value. According to a recent (January 2013) survey of CEOs by the Association of American Colleges and Universities, 74% of the 320 business leaders surveyed emphasized liberal arts education to create a ‘dynamic’ workforce. This survey further highlights the continued relevance of liberal arts education.

If you are bent on pursuing a specific professional degree like nursing, engineering or accounting, a broad liberal arts education might not be right for you. However, if you are someone who is not sure about your major or someone who wants to acquire a broad and diverse education at the bachelor’s level, liberal arts education might be your answer. You do have a major when you graduate from a liberal arts institution; however, a broad general education in humanities, social sciences, philosophy, and sciences is also emphasized. Opponents of liberal arts education often criticize the lack of focus and specialization at liberal arts institutions; however, they often overcome these limitations by collaborating with other institutions or organizations to provide some degree of practical vocational training to their students.

Liberal arts education is as relevant today as it was yesterday. This is evident from the preference of the employers in hiring liberal arts graduates. In addition, graduates of liberal arts institutions also have a history of excelling in their careers or further studies. If you are someone who likes a small residential college environment, who is a can-do type and who thrives in being involved in your community, liberal arts might be the right choice for you. If you find liberal arts education appealing for yourself after reading this article, you should consider it.

USEF-Nepal’s EducationUSA Advising Center offers accurate, reliable, unbiased, and free information and advice and is the only official source in Nepal on studying in the USA. Visit us in Gyaneswor, Kathmandu. ‘Like’ USEF on Facebook at www.facebook.com/usef.nepal and subscribe to our e-group by sending a blank email to usef_nepal-subscribe@yahoogroups.com.