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The Choice: Picking the Right School in America is Your First Tough Assignment

The number of colleges and universities in the United States is vast. But you already knew that. What you don’t know is this: some of America’s best schools are ones you’ve never heard of.

Consider a school with a scenic campus in the eastern United States, next to a 128-hectare nature reserve, a top national academic ranking, average class size of 17, and a student-teacher ratio of 13 to 1. About 95 percent of students have jobs or advanced-study plans within six months of graduation.

Welcome to Juniata College in central Pennsylvania, and yes, you’ve probably never heard of it. It's important for international students who are considering a U.S. education to know about Juniata and schools like it, even if such a small liberal arts school is not for them.

Why? Because there are choices in America beyond the well-known Ivy League schools like Princeton, Yale, Dartmouth and brand-name universities like Stanford and Duke. There are dozens, if not hundreds, of other U.S. schools where you can receive an equal standard of education.So let’s expand our search beyond the Ivy League, and take a look at four categories of schools.

Non-Traditional Education
In the United States, as in India and elsewhere, students are under tremendous pressure to pursue studies that will lead to lucrative jobs, professional standing, technology skills—or preferably, all three. But a number of top-ranked American colleges offer radically different approaches to undergraduate education. For students willing to push themselves and step outside the normal higher-education structure, these schools might be worth a second look.

One of the best known is St. John’s, which enrolls about 850 students, including 30 international students, on campuses with identical curricula in Annapolis, Maryland, and Santa Fe, New Mexico. St. John’s is synonymous with the “great books” approach, but as Roberta Gable, associate director of admissions, points out, the popular myth that students spend four years sitting around reading “big piles of novels” is misleading.

The curriculum is indeed built around what are considered the great books of Western civilization, but, in fact, students spend half their time in math and science classes, even if they do begin with Euclid’s mathematical proofs. They also study ancient Greek, French and at least one year of music.

There are no majors, no exams—and no choice of classes. Everyone takes the same course of instruction, which is based on the reading and discussion of primary texts.

Hampshire College, with 1,500 students on a 320-hectare campus near Amherst, Massachusetts, takes a different approach. Faculty members mentor students who then develop individualized courses of study, culminating in a large-scale project in the physical sciences, technology, social sciences, or a body of work in writing, performing or the arts.

Specialty Institutions


Students of the School of Foundation Studies at Savannah College of Art and Design participate in a collaborative design/build project.
Photograph courtesy Savannah College of Art and Design

While most American universities offer a broad range of studies, others feature more focused curricula. Specializing in distinct areas, such as the fine and performing arts, business and technological skills, or military training, these schools of special focus afford students the prospect of concentrating their studies in a particular area. This approach is not ideal for every student, but for some the right specialty school nurtures exceptional talents, hones particular skills, and affords the chance to interact with similarly inclined peers. The institutions profiled here represent only a few of the available opportunities.

Located in New York City, the highly selective Juilliard School offers its students pre-professional training in music, dance and drama. It draws students from 46 U.S. states and 39 other nations, and includes among its many notable alumni the classical artists Itzhak Perlman, Yo-Yo Ma and Pinchas Zukerman; seminal jazz figures like Thelonious Monk and Wynton Marsalis; and vocalists from the classical soprano Leontyne Price to the deep-voiced jazz vocalist Nina Simone.

The Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD), headquartered in Savannah, Georgia, prepares students for careers in the visual and performing arts, design, the building arts, and the history of art and architecture. This focus allows Savannah to offer majors not commonly found at research or liberal arts institutions. Students earn degrees in advertising design, animation, commercial photography and dozens of other specialties. Many undergraduates aiming at a career in one of these fields highly value the opportunity to concentrate their studies. In the words of college president Paula S. Wallace, "SCAD students are weaving creative vision with technical mastery to transform artistic vision into professional expertise and rewarding futures."

Students seeking careers in design and the arts are attracted to schools like Savannah and Juilliard. Many others seek skills to help them advance in the business world or in the growing technological sector. Often these students are older and already employed. A number of for-profit "proprietary institutions" serve their needs. Schools like DeVry University, which holds classes online and at more than 95 campuses, offer practical instruction, often through part-time or adjunct faculty who also hold full-time professional employment outside the university. Proprietary schools typically accommodate the busy schedules of parents and working students by holding many classes on nights and weekends and by encouraging part-time study. Computer science and programming, business and other technology-related fields of study are popular.

Michael Jay Friedman is director of the Office of Written Content in the Bureau of International Programs of the U.S. Department of State.

Like St. John’s, Hampshire College has one of the highest percentages of students who go on to receive doctoral degrees, many in the sciences and engineering.

“We look for students with strong intellectual curiosity, able to write articulately, with a curiosity and openness to learning,” says Gabe Agree, assistant director of admissions and coordinator of international recruitment. He notes that Hampshire is very flexible and individualized in the application process, with a real willingness to work with students. “We get to know their background and devote personal attention to them, to make the process a little more human.”

Students at The Evergreen State College, situated on a spectacular 400-hectare campus of forest and beaches in Olympia, Washington, also shape their own education—by taking what amounts to a single four-year class—called a “program”—by pursuing one major idea or theme. They explore their topic, however, through a wide range of coursework consisting of seminars, lectures, labs, field studies and independent research.

What kind of ideas, or “programs,” are Evergreen students tackling today? Examples taken from the college’s Web site: Fiber Arts, Non-Western Art History, Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics, and Book Torrent: Information Studies in the 21st Century.

Lesser-Known Schools
From Goucher College outside Baltimore, Maryland, to Reed College in Portland, Oregon, the United States is dotted with small liberal arts colleges whose caliber of undergraduate education is unrivaled.

At Juniata, for instance, which has over 150 international students in a total enrollment of 1,600, students work intensively with faculty advisors to design individualized courses of instruction and find outside work-study opportunities.

“We do particularly well in offering undergraduates the opportunity to do graduate-level work, and even to co-author research papers with faculty members,” says Kati Csoman, assistant dean of international programs. “We are a challenging but great place for international students committed to the liberal arts, who are well-rounded, able to learn how to write well, and know how to step outside their comfort zone.”

Student engagement, independent learning and the ability to integrate knowledge and skills in both academics and real-life applications are common themes at many of these schools.

The Liberal Arts in Practice Center at Beloit College in Wisconsin, for example, helps students connect their academic work with career goals through internships, research opportunities and community service.

Beloit, Wisconsin’s oldest college, with an enrollment of 1,300 students, has become much more deliberate in its international outreach through travelling presentations and use of online technology like Skype, according to Nancy Benedict, vice president of enrollment services.

“In many countries, you’re in your program and your destiny is determined,” Benedict says. “We find a real hunger to be broadly educated, and we want to explain what it means to have a broad range of choices through a liberal arts education.”

These liberal arts schools are not the only alternative to brand-name schools. Clark University, a small but distinguished research university in Worcester, Massachusetts, offers a five-year bachelor’s and master’s degree program, with the fifth year free. Clark has an international student enrollment of almost 200 undergraduates and 680 graduate students out of a total enrollment of 2,200.

A much larger institution, the University of Kentucky in Lexington, is more typical of the many state university systems in the United States. With approximately 1,500 international students out of a total enrollment of roughly 27,000, Kentucky offers 200 different majors, while maintaining an average class size of 25.

One of Kentucky’s big advantages, says Karen Slaymaker, assistant director of international student and scholar services, is that all of the university’s colleges are on one campus.

Most universities share a similar mix of undergraduate majors, but they often have different traditional areas of expertise and recognized academic standing.

Elon University, located between Greensboro and Raleigh, North Carolina, is an example of a small private university that has emerged from obscurity in the last decade to become a top-ranked institution. Even many Americans aren’t familiar with it, especially in a state packed with better-known schools like Duke University and the University of North Carolina.

“I think the international students who do best at Elon are those excited about learning inside and outside of the classroom,” says Cheryl Borden, director of international admissions. “Elon is a very active environment where students are encouraged to share their ideas and opinions in the classroom. Out of the classroom, students have an abundance of campus organizations and clubs to join and be a part of.”

Community Colleges
Two-year community colleges, once the neglected option of American higher education, are achieving greater attention and higher visibility. They merit serious consideration by international students interested in technical or professional training in fields like nursing, computers or business, or as a stepping stone to transferring to a four-year institution to gain a bachelor’s degree.

Take Santa Barbara City College in California, rated one of America’s top community colleges by the Aspen Institute.

With about 1,000 international students in a total enrollment of almost 20,000, Santa Barbara offers more than 80 one- or two-year degree and 50 certificate programs in fields ranging from biomedical sciences and construction technology to culinary arts and international business.

About one-third of the school’s international students take business courses, according to Carola Smith, senior director for international programs, followed by economics and engineering. “Many come with the intention of transferring to the University of California system or private university for a four-year degree,” Smith adds.

The school has a strong media arts program, especially in film and television—in part because many of Hollywood’s actors, producers and technicians choose to live in Santa Barbara and commute to work in Los Angeles.

North of Santa Barbara but still on the Pacific Ocean, is Tacoma Community College in the state of Washington, which also draws a substantial international student population. In addition to career training, Tacoma offers 50 courses of study, from accounting to zoology, that can be transferred to four-year institutions.

Far from the ocean, St. Paul College, located in the Midwestern state of Minnesota, has been ranked the number one community college in the United States by Washington Monthly magazine. One reason: its high rating on the 2011 Community College Survey of Student Engagement.

St. Paul has excelled in combining the liberal-arts commitment to critical thinking with an intensely collaborative approach to its vocational training classes, according to Washington Monthly. The school offers 44 associate degree and 71 career, certificate and diploma programs.

Courses in business, computer science, and the health professions are common to most community colleges, but depending on location and local needs, American community colleges can offer a remarkably wide range of professional education.

Howard Cincotta is a U.S. State Department writer and editor.