Why the US?

By Andrew Loh

If you have trouble understanding the key terms in the following articles, you might be interested to look at our glossary!

“I never let my schooling interfere with my education.”
– Mark Twain

“So why did you go to America for university, ah?”

That is often the first and most staggering question US-based Malaysian students face back home. So why would anyone in their right minds not study in Malaysia or Singapore (a bargain!), or go to, God forbid, an unknown liberal arts college in the middle of America when they could just as easily get into Oxbridge or other famous Australian universities?

The most important reason, I strongly believe, is because American education fits us (Malaysian students in America), like a key to its lock (or as we learn in Biology, like an enzyme to its polypeptide). Because American tertiary education offers us students something other countries do not. It is flexible, allowing indecisive students the chance to change their majors. It is tolerant of divergent, anomalous, and even ambiguous schools of thought, which maintains a scholarly atmosphere of debate and discussion. It places less weight on academics, compared to other systems, placing instead relatively greater importance on extracurricular activities and personal qualities like leadership, community service, and passion.

Conversely, and an even simpler reason, is that students choose America because other forms of education don’t fit us. Many of us could not flourish intellectually had we chosen to study in Malaysia given a combination of factors, some of which include our mentally stifling academic milieu, the Universities and Universities Colleges Act (which forbids student participation in BN-sanctioned politics,) and the comparatively lower standard of education in our universities.

While the universities in the United Kingdom, Ireland, New Zealand, and Australia do present an attractive destination for many Malaysians, these systems force students to choose their majors prior to enrollment in their applications. In this case, the incentive for many a student choosing to study in the United States is to avoid prematurely choosing one major, spending three or four years of time, effort, and money, and then regretting the choice in the end. The United States suddenly becomes the only option: where students don’t have to choose a major to apply, and where students can switch their majors if they happen to change their mind.

There are many different reasons for choosing an American education, but this belies the fact that many students go there not only because American education fits them best, but also because it misfits them least.


  1. In America, there is no effective difference between the terms “college”, “university”, and “institution,” all refer to degree-granting institutions.
  2. Undergraduate education refers to the education leading to a Bachelor’s degree.
  3. Graduate education refers to education culminating in a Master’s or Doctorate.

Fit #1: Intellectual experience

What has come to define an American education is the liberal arts philosophy. Liberal arts is the short form of “liberal arts and sciences” and is a philosophy of education which believes in developing students who are well-rounded in all aspects of human knowledge:

  • the natural sciences ( e.g. Astronomy, Chemistry;)
  • the social sciences (e.g. Economics, Political Science;)
  • the humanities (e.g. Religion, Languages;)
  • and the arts (e.g. Drama, Literature.)

This ideal is practiced in American colleges that mandate distribution requirements for their students. For example, a Physics major might be forced to take some courses in History or in a foreign language. A Music major might be forced to take Mathematics classes. Specific requirements differ from college to college, but the general liberal arts philosophy is the same. Students generally begin their studies with a broad syllabus, with classes in most academic sectors, and then ultimately specialize in a major (or two.) Even in major intensive courses like Engineering, students typically take anywhere from 30-75 percent of their classes within their major, and the rest in other fields.

Note well that the liberal arts philosophy is a system of holistic and comprehensive education in the natural sciences, the social sciences, the humanities, and the arts. It is not a liberal arts degree (like in some Australian universities,) and it is not only for artsy-fartsy people who draw, sculpt and paint. It is aimed at developing resourceful, exposed and dynamic students who have the skills and knowledge to cope with the rapid change in different fields today.

This system has come to differentiate American education from the rest of the world:  students in other universities in Malaysia, Singapore, the United Kingdom, Ireland, Australia and New Zealand only take classes in their major. The American perspective on that is that these students might be missing out on education outside their specialization; that they are being confined intellectually.

Of utmost importance is that this philosophy is practiced in virtually all American universities: HarvardYalePrinceton, the rest of the Ivy League, StanfordDuke, and MIT all provide a liberal arts education. If you find this hard to believe, you can go to their websites and find out.

Another unique aspect of American education is its liberal arts colleges. While a liberal arts education is the philosophy itself, a liberal arts college is generally a smallprivate college that uses a liberal arts curriculum. What contrasts them from larger universities like Harvard is that most of these liberal arts colleges have none or very few graduate programs.

While professors in larger universities such as Harvard might choose to teach only higher-level and graduate courses and might assign their introductory and lower-level classes to Teaching Assistants (who are usually graduate school students,) professors in liberal arts colleges generally pay more time and attention to undergraduate students. So for many students, the quality of education in liberal arts colleges (being able to ask questions and getting individual attention in class, having a small discussion course as opposed to a huge lecture, chatting with professors after class, and visiting their houses) is much higher than in large research universities.

Students in the top liberal arts colleges receive an education similar in breadth and depth to the Ivy Leagues. In fact, a higher percentage of students who graduated from liberal arts colleges attend Ph.D. programs than students from large research universities. Notable liberal arts colleges include but are not limited to WilliamsAmherstSwarthmoreWellesley and Middlebury. Google to find more. While liberal arts colleges aren’t all that popular in Malaysia, they are very famous for both the quality of their education and the competitiveness of their graduates in the United States. Some students have turned down Harvard for liberal arts colleges, and you would do well to check them out. Just because you haven’t heard of a college doesn’t mean that it’s not good.

The most important fit for an American education is the intellectual experience.

  • If you aren’t sure what you want to major in or think that you might change your mind halfway, then America might be for you.
  • If you know what you want to graduate in but want to take other courses as well, a liberal arts education caters for that need, while other systems do not.
  • Perhaps the only students who should not consider an American education are those who absolutely know what they want to major in, and who do not want to dabble with any courses outside their majors.

Fit #2: Student Preferences

America’s college system is as diverse as its people. There are many different types of universities, and here is a quick summary of their differences.

While a liberal arts education is distinctive of American higher education, there are also American trade track schools whose students only take courses in their major.

Size can be a concern. If you like small, personalized, discussion-based classes, small liberal arts colleges like Macalester and Wesleyan might be your best bet. If you like universities with huge student bodies and lots of people to meet (and date), you might want to consider large universities like the University of Pennsylvania or the University of California, Berkeley.

Another factor to think about is the setting and the region of the university. Would you prefer a rural college far in the woods with spectacular scenery, like Cornell and Dartmouth; or a suburban setting, like Brown; or a university smack right in the city, like New York’s Columbia University, or the University of Chicago? Do you want to go to school in the Northeast, where most prestigious universities are, or enjoy the lower cost of living in the Midwest or live up the surf in California and the West Coast?

Most colleges offer great social scenes, with lots of dynamic and interesting students to talk to and live with. This is true, especially of the international population, who bring with them norm-challenging perspectives and diverse experiences. Most colleges also have a plethora of extracurricular activities to choose from, from sports to debate and music to art.

With plenty of options and variables with which to play around and hundreds of colleges to choose from, it would be hard to not find a university that suits your tastes. There is not much difference in this section between American colleges and other Anglophone countries, save for its liberal arts philosophy and the fact that small undergraduate colleges are very rare outside America.

Fit #3: Finances

Education in America is very, very expensive. Tuition and costs of living combined can reach a sum of USD 45,000 per year in many universities. If your parents can afford that, then good for you. If not, there is still a way to overcome this.

The first and most important requirement: You have to be very, very good. Colleges want students who shine in academics, extracurriculars, personal qualities, and who can contribute to the college in one form or another.

If you are very, very good, universities might pay for you to come in the form of scholarships, financial aid, grants, and/or loans. This is where the difference between public universities and private colleges comes in. Public universities often offer education at a subsidized rate for local (American) students, so the University of Iowa or Kentucky State University may not be able to offer you a substantial scholarship, let alone any financial help at any rate. The American government does not fund tertiary education for international students. Private colleges, on the other hand, have their own endowments to draw from and so may offer more generous financial aid to international students, some of which might even cover annual board and lodging.

The downside is, even if you are very, very good, applying for financial aid might count against you in your college application – sometimes there just isn’t enough money to go around. It is harder for a college to accept you if you need aid. The “need-blind” Super Six who do not count your financial need against you when you apply are HarvardYale, PrincetonMIT, Williams and Middlebury; however, the competition for admissions to these universities is extremely intense. You will be competing against the global crème de la crème, a process that is as subjective and uncertain as it is cutthroat.

*As of 2010, and as a result of the 2008-2009 global financial crisis, the only truly need-blind schools are Harvard, Yale, and Princeton (Kevin Sim, Raffles Junior College Counselor, 2010).

Another good strategy is to check out the lesser-known, but still relatively rich liberal arts universities like CarletonPomona, and Bates, which might have less competition for international places.

If you are very, very good, you will, somehow, someway, find a college that will pay for your education.


Going to college in America is a personal choice with personal incentives. Some of the most compelling reasons are because American education is comparatively more flexible and more personal than other countries. Some students like the weather, some like the parties, some like the wonderful spread of extracurricular activities. Others go because they loved the intellectual fit, and fell in love with the liberal arts philosophy. And of course, some come for the scholarships. Ultimately, it is a combination of factors and personal decisions, none of which will be exactly the same for each individual.

So why did I go to university in America? Because my major is Undecided (yes, that’s acceptable in applications.) Because I didn’t want to be confined to any particular field of study. Because Swarthmore paid for me to come. Because Swarthmore has the prettiest and greenest grass amongst all American colleges. (Seriously, we’re a national arboretum.) Because I’m taking courses in Arabic, Economics, Political Science, and History. Because I’m in the Chorus, a Jewish a cappella group, and the Badminton team. Because Swarthmore is small enough (1400 students!), and its debating club rich enough, to send me, as a freshman, to the World Universities Debating Championships 2007 in Vancouver, Canada.

That’s why I chose America. What’s your reason?

Thanks to Andrew Loh for allowing us to reproduce his writing on our website. The original post could be found here.

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