According to Professor Mark Roche, there are three compelling reasons to obtain a liberal arts degree:
“For the intrinsic value, or the distinction of learning for its own sake. For the cultivation of those intellectual virtues that are requisite for success beyond the academy. And, lastly, for character formation and the development of a sense of vocation".
The transition from home life to college is one of those rights of passage that invokes equal measures of excitement and dread. The U.S. is home to over 4000 universities. Some have managed to specialize towards gaps in the market. The vast majority of them offer programs designed for those interested in studying for a liberal arts degree. The sheer volume of choice is overwhelming.
Of course, there are always mitigating factors that help whittle possibilities down to a more manageable figure. The cost of a liberal arts degree, for example, varies widely from institute to institute. Students of Williams College in MA can expect to pay just shy of $20,000 after receiving grants for a humanities degree. Those wishing to obtain their certificate from more prestigious establishments such as Harvard won’t get enough change from $55,000 to buy themselves a new phone.
Still, the cost is not the only factor at play here, geography plays a part too. For some, the decision to stay close to home remains connected to the price point. In-state tuition can cost as little as $6,639 per annum. For others, the decision to stay close to home might be more personal. Family commitments, part-time employment, or a simple reluctance to leave hearth and home -- all can play into the decision-making process.
But what if geography wasn’t an issue? What if the cost of a degree was secondary to the importance of the experience? The United States, though rich in choice, represents only a small fraction of the available opportunities for study. Across the world, there are around 26,000 universities most of which would be more than happy to accept an ex-pat interested in studying for a liberal arts degree.
The question then, is how long does it take to complete a liberal arts degree while living abroad? As one might expect, there’s no simple, easy answer. Not all degrees are born equal. Some degrees don't carry any weight outside of the home country of the issuing college or university. Others face barriers that are certain to extend the time taken to complete the course of instruction. Some require students to factor in expenses above and beyond the usual fee-related headaches. The question then becomes "where to study."
The Language Question
Of all the factors liable to increase the time needed to complete a degree, language is perhaps the most problematic. For American students, certain destinations offer no impediment whatsoever. Canada, the U.K., Ireland, Australia, New, Zealand, and South Africa are popular locations for study. The biggest reason is that they are English speaking countries. Not that such popularity is restricted to native speakers alone.
Although both Mandarin and Spanish are larger languages, the number of people using English as their second language is approaching the half-billion mark. As such, liberal arts courses in these countries are in high demand, especially in the UK. That demand increases competition for places and drives up costs. The average price of a degree in the UK is around $15,000 per annum. In metropolitan areas such as London, the high cost of living is also a significant factor to consider.
This does not mean that English speaking countries are the only options available to the prospective overseas student. There are two additional avenues of exploration available.
Liberal Arts Degree In English
Opportunities to study in English in countries that speak other languages outside the walls of the universities do exist. Indeed, in Europe, there has been a fifty-fold increase in the number of bachelor degrees taught in English. In 2017, just under 3000 such courses were available in countries ranging from France, Germany, Romania, Finland, Turkey, Sweden, and Spain. Many English language-taught courses are in the liberal arts. Regarding workload, most institutions operate systems that would feel familiar to the majority of Americans.
The Netherlands, for example, presents students with a variety of options depending upon which school they choose to attend. In some, such as University College Groningen, compulsory courses make up around a third of the degree. Elsewhere, as with the University College Utrecht semi-structured degrees involve set progressions during the first year but from that point on a major and minor can be built from a custom portfolio of modules.
In EU countries these modules are calculated via the European Credit Transfer and Accumulation System. ECTS compares the volume of learning based on the defined learning outcomes and their associated workload. Bachelor's degrees obtained in Europe tend to be worth somewhere between 180 to 240 ECTS. That figure averages out at 60 ECTS per year.
Foreign Language Liberal Arts Degrees
A second option available to students is to study in a second language. For those immersed to the point where they consider themselves to be bilingual, there are few obstacles for study. University language requirement courses are, however, notoriously unforgiving. Those wishing to study in German, for example, need to complete one of several recognized proficiency tests such as the DSH -- also known as the German Language University Entrance Examination for International Applicants. Preparation times vary according to individual talent but around 6-months immersion study in a language school followed by a 12-week intensive exam preparation course is not uncommon.
Elsewhere things can get even more complicated. In China, there's a requirement for completion of the HSK language proficiency test before a university allows a student to enroll. Based on an 11-point structure, achieving a score of four requires around one or two years of study. While sufficient for a science or engineering degree. Liberal arts degrees require a far more nuanced understanding of Mandarin. To study for a liberal arts degree in China requires a score of six or higher. That means approximately 5000 hours of study from start to finish or just over three and a half years of full-time study.
Credits Where Credits Are Due
Once language issues have been either settled or avoided, addressing the question of completion time becomes the next step.
In the U.S. the class credit scheme typically allows students to adopt a piecemeal approach to their Liberal Arts degree. Still, most bachelor’s degree programs take four years to complete on average. Graduation rates, generally measured at 150 percent of that rate, accommodate those who take time out.
According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 59 percent of first-time bachelor's degree candidates at a 4-year institution in 2009 had completed their degree by 2015. That figure includes full-time undergraduate students that finished their degree program at the same university.
Accelerated courses of study are available, but most involve adding a third semester in the summer. This reduces the completion time to three calendar years or less. It is worth noting, however, that schools advise against taking an outside job while enrolled in such an intensive program.
The popularity of these "American style" liberal arts degrees has exploded in recent years, especially in the U.K. Such moves run contrary to centuries of tertiary education norms. Traditionally, students focused on single-subject degrees are known as as "single honors." Such concentration reduces completion time to three years. At least it does in England. In Scotland the four-year term is standard.
Those countries liable to be influenced by the British system via historical ties (such as in Australia and New Zealand), also adopt a three-year approach. While not common, some degree courses might require a fourth or fifth year of study. In the same vein, nations with historical ties to the U.S. likely adhere to their way of doing things. In Japan, liberal arts degrees take a minimum of four years as they do in the Philippines, Canada, and Mexico.
Regional geopolitics complicates studying for a liberal arts degree in the Middle East. Opportunities tend to focus on the postgraduate level. Still, where undergraduate courses are offered, such as in the American University of Beirut, the typical four-year program is the norm. Options for study in Africa are similarly limited although Liberal Arts degrees in South Africa are available and adopt the British three-year model of study.
Gap Year Aside
The short answer then is that a liberal arts degree is liable to take three to four years. Even those students faced with the British-style three-year degree will find taking a gap-year hard to resist. Costs of both courses and living standards vary wildly. Choice of location might factor in the need for part-time work to help subsidize income.
Those wishing to study in Norway, for example, can do so completely free of charge but the cost of living is so high that you’ll need around $17,200 a year to keep a roof over your head. Tuition fees in France are the same for domestic and international students, and for 2018-2019 are set at €170 ($200) per year for bachelor’s (license) programs. Almost all undergraduate courses are available only in French.
Outside of Paris, the cost of living is comparable to that of America. As is most of northern Europe except Switzerland. For those students committed to distraction-free study, a degree in India will cost around $500 a year. Living expenses are low enough that the time invested in taking a part-time job becomes prohibitive.
Buckle up and settle in. While the average liberal arts degree abroad will take four years, there are programs that will get you finished in three. Others, such as the foreign language immersion courses, will take as long as six years. No matter the program you select, your time abroad will almost certainly enrich your life experiences.