Blog 🏛️ University 15th June 2023

How do Liberal Arts Colleges Attract International Applicants?

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Zahra Onsori University Content Writer

In the last decade, the popularity of US liberal arts colleges amongst international students has been steadily growing, with some colleges having almost half an international student body.

Distinguished from other institutions due to their interdisciplinary curriculum and low student-to-faculty ratios, liberal arts colleges hold a unique place in the scope of higher education.

However, being a niche institution, it can be difficult to differentiate on the market when there are so many institutions vying for the attention of international students.

Even the term ‘college’ can be a cause of confusion for international students, as the word itself often refers to upper secondary in many international markets.

So how exactly can liberal arts colleges attract more international applicants? Before we dive into that, let’s look at which institutions international students applied to in the 2023 academic cycle.

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Benefits of liberal arts colleges for international students

In our latest US report analysing over 250,000 international applications to the US, our data highlighted that more international students are opting for the top 200 university rankings, with some also applying to the top 1,000 institutions. 

Over the past five years, mid-sized and large private institutions received the largest amount of applications from international school graduates in every year of our dataset.

However, the largest percentage growth in interest and applications was in small liberal arts colleges. 

Let’s dive into some features of liberal arts colleges, and how these can attract international students.

Small college size

International students may initially be drawn to bigger, more reputable universities because of the assumption these institutions will drive their success. Or maybe students are at the beginning of their research journey and are only aware of household university names heard from friends, family and pop culture. 

Students may not know that ‘liberal arts’ is short for ‘liberal arts and sciences,’ giving them the impression they won’t be able to pursue strong STEM subjects at this type of college.

Whilst it can be challenging at times, the size of a liberal arts college is what sets it apart from other institutions.

There are a variety of benefits to having a smaller college which is important to get across in your branding and strategy.

The small size of a liberal arts college means students and staff are more likely to get to know each other better, giving the campus a more intimate, community atmosphere. Many international students may have come from tight-knit communities and can be apprehensive to leave this behind.

From our research at BridgeU, international students have highlighted how important it is to create close relationships with lecturers and teachers. Reassuring prospective students that there is a close-knit community at your liberal arts college can give your institution the edge that larger universities may struggle to qualitatively facilitate.

Liberal arts colleges tend to have smaller classes, which can be great for creating a more attentive and personal learning environment. As well as this, students are likely to get more support from lecturers and staff, giving students a better chance of success.

Diversity in skill

Liberal arts colleges equip students with a variety of skills such as critical thinking, social responsibility and problem-solving. 

The variety of skills taught in a liberal arts degree is valuable in the current career climate. The traditional sense of a career has shifted; according to the US Bureau of Labor, employees under the age of 34 change jobs most frequently.

Because of this, having a range of transferable skills is more important than ever. Employers also agree that a liberal arts education can give you a more varied skill set necessary for success.   

With international students placing a high value on career prospects, it’s important to highlight the skill, versatility and longevity a liberal arts education can provide, no matter what career is chosen. But we’ll discuss this in more detail a little later.

College fees

Liberal arts colleges can sometimes be a more affordable option for international students, with many institutions offering institutional scholarships or financial aid.  

Cost plays a big part in a student’s higher ed decision, which is why financial messaging and support offered should be crystal clear.

The US has a notoriously complicated need-based financial aid application process. Here, you need to leverage your team’s expertise and skills in relationship building. By supporting students through this experience, your college can rise to the top of a student’s higher ed shortlist.

How can liberal arts colleges be more successful in recruiting international students?

Now that we’ve discussed how to leverage the benefits of a liberal arts education to an international audience, the next question comes to mind; in the international space of higher education, how can liberal arts colleges gain more popularity?

Brand Awareness

A variety of research highlights the importance that a university’s online presence has in a student’s digital journey

Social media and online research will often become a student’s first point of contact with your college, especially when it comes to international students. Therefore, ensuring your brand story is easily understood and entices students is crucial.

Put yourself in an international student’s shoes for a second. You’re searching for universities and come across your liberal arts college. What would you want to know?

Before launching into what sets your liberal arts college apart from other universities, it’s important not to skimp past the basics. You shouldn’t assume an international student will even know what a liberal arts education entails.

Where is the college based? How do you pronounce the name of the state? How far is the largest city and airport? Why is a liberal arts college different to other institutions? Are liberal arts colleges only for art students?

Making sure your digital strategy answers all these questions clearly is key. 

From our extensive network of international students, we know that it is easier for students to trust the opinions of peers and family members at the research stage. With this in mind, including alumni and current students as much as possible in marketing channels is important.

With social media video generating 1,200 per cent more shares than texts and images combined, think about how you can leverage brand awareness strategy with different mediums that social media can offer. 

For example, what is the average day for a student with a humanities major at a liberal arts college? What does campus life look like for another international student?

Don’t forgo traditional communication channels 

Whilst social media will be a crucial part of your brand awareness, there is little data to support how this shapes a student’s higher education decision. As well as this, universities don’t always have visibility on what content students are engaging with.

So, whilst it’s important to keep on top of social media trends, this doesn’t mean that regular channels of communication should be foregone. For example, 57% of 100,000+ students still preferred an offline inquiry to a lecturer in a QS International Student Survey. 

Strategy tip:

Liberal arts colleges should utilise social media for visibility and brand awareness. But more traditional methods of communication should be signposted for students who are considering your institution. A human touch can never go amiss.

Highlighting career outcomes and opportunities

For the majority of international students, it is important that their degrees open doors to their careers. According to the IDP Emerging Futures Student Survey, 54% of international students study abroad to enter the job market, whereas 65% do so for the opportunity of work experience. Students need to see the employability value that studying at your liberal arts college can give them.

For example, it’s not enough to signpost what careers can come out of a liberal arts education; instead, lean on what your institution brings to the table. Current and past students are key here.

What careers did they go on to achieve? What advice can past students give to current students? Is there scope for current students to shadow alumni in their careers? 

Showcasing tangible career results and creating a student community that prospective students can lean on for this information is important. 

Using specific examples of liberal arts graduates that have gone on to create internationally recognised companies is important to include in your brand awareness strategy. For example, Apple, Youtube, American Express and Starbucks all have CEO’s with a liberal arts background.

Strategy tip: It’s important that your institution highlights the diversity of careers that can come from a liberal arts education. As mentioned before, international students may not even consider these institutions due to the assumption that they’re for creative careers only.

A good way to debunk assumptions can be by creating fun, interactive content in your brand awareness strategy.

Get your niche out there

What exactly is a niche? A niche can be anything that is special or unique to your institution.  Liberal arts colleges, in and of themselves, can be considered a niche, as they attract students with a general interest in the arts and humanities. 

But when talking about your institution’s niche, we want you to dig a bit deeper. For example, what does your college have that others may not? 

Maybe your liberal arts college has recently built a new state-of-the-art chemistry building or has facilitated alumni that have become well-known in their area of work.

Develop a refined recruitment strategy

You’ve heard it many times, and will probably hear it many more, but developing a refined recruitment strategy is important when expanding your international student body. 

But what does a liberal arts college recruitment strategy include? 

As a liberal arts college, your superpower lies in the ability to foster a sense of community and mentorship amongst alumni, current and prospective students. Being a smaller-sized institution may not be your Achilles heel, but instead, be a building block to creating an intimate and personalised student experience. 

All this is pivotal in creating your brand story, as this is what sets you apart from other institutions. The best-fit students are out there, but utilising the right marketing channels, mediums and information is crucial for them to have visibility of your college.

Leaning on your student body and using real students in marketing channels is incredibly valuable, as students are more likely to trust other students.

Financial barriers can be one of the biggest blockers for international students, so giving them clear oversight on what resources and support are available to them is key. 

The same goes for research and internship opportunities available for international students. The size of a liberal arts college is an advantage for students wanting these experiences, as there will be less competition from other students. For example, 1,500 students in a liberal arts college are more likely to partake in quality research opportunities, with less competition, compared to a university with 18,000 students. 

Once again, it’s about dissolving the assumption that bigger institutions lead to better jobs, and clearly signposting the pathways from a liberal arts education to a career. 

Building out an international school network is another key factor to diversifying enrolments and understanding the global student appetite for liberal arts colleges. International schools are renowned for their strong English-medium curriculums and robust extracurricular options, which make their students such an excellent fit for selective liberal arts colleges. 

Building relationships with international schools will give you a deeper understanding of what students want from your college, help you build localised student networks faster, and understand how regional students’ needs differ. 

If you’re struggling to understand the international perceptions and global demand of your liberal arts college, partnering with an ed-tech platform like BridgeU might be a solution to understanding real-time market insights from international students around the world.  

At BridgeU, our extensive network of international schools spans 142 countries with over 100,000 international students. We have supplied key regional insights to more than 100 universities around the world to successfully build a more effective global recruitment strategy.

Get in touch

Learn how BridgeU can help you align your enrolment strategy with your international student audience.

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