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From IB to liberal arts

We invited colleges and universities to reflect on how an IB education prepares students for higher education at their institution. St. Michael’s College is the first in the series.

Fall colors surround a country village and church nestled in the hillside of the Green Mountains. A row of mixed hardwood trees fills the foreground leading back to the village of South Royalton and the rolling hills beyond, Vermont

By Kevin Spensley

At Saint Michael’s College, which is a liberal arts college in Vermont, USA, we have become excited to find there are many similarities between the IB Diploma Programme (DP) and the programs at liberal arts colleges like ours. We believe that liberal arts colleges that teach life-long learning, critical thinking, global competency, meaningful participation in communities and how to solve complex problems, are a natural step between the DP and successful, satisfying lives.

Many liberal arts colleges acknowledge an overlap of their curricula with the IB and demonstrate this by granting college credit for DP courses. At Saint Michael’s College, for example, credit is granted for successfully completing standard and higher level courses.

This article seeks to demonstrate that a liberal arts education will be at once familiar to an IB student and that the transition to college for them will be relatively easy to navigate.

“For IB students and their families who buy into the notion that it is important to have a well-rounded education … the liberal arts education is a viable pathway for them and could be worth checking out.”

At the foundation of the liberal arts approach is the very IB notion that “soft” skills like creativity, critical thinking, communication, problem solving, working across multiple fields, group work, etc. are crucial to an education.

As well as infusing the teaching of these skills into the courses that are required by a major, most colleges require a “core” or “liberal arts” curriculum, which is woven into all years of the college career. While these courses serve to broaden students’ education, they are also designed to teach the so-called soft skills, which the word’s employers can hardly do without, they claim.

Liberal arts colleges, like IB schools, are skeptical of education founded on test preparation. Many liberal arts colleges waive the TOEFL or SAT for IB students and promote test-optional admission policies for all of their applicants. At Saint Michael’s College, we do not require any standardized tests for admission and scholarship decisions, which is not uncommon in the liberal arts.

Like their younger IB counterparts, liberal arts students do not get to hide out in the back of an auditorium. The default approach to teaching is student-centric with small classes taught by professors as opposed to graduate students, academic advising by faculty members who must meet with their charges regularly, and plenty of opportunities for students and faculty to mingle and interact outside the classroom. Like IB schools, liberal arts colleges, often to their own detriment, promote that they educate and support the whole student, when some argue they would be better served by talking more about teaching concrete skills that will land high-paying job right after graduation.

“We greatly admire that IB programs are found across a great diversity of schools and districts, from public school systems in less affluent zip codes to the world’s most elite independent boarding schools.”

Liberal arts degrees require experiential learning. As well as providing real-life experience, it reinforces for students the connection between what is being taught in the classroom and the world after college. Internships, research programs, study abroad, and volunteer programs are highly visible components of liberal arts colleges.

Liberal arts colleges, like IB schools, see the world’s problems as theirs to solve: in part by offering a great education to everyone regardless of background, income, or location. We greatly admire that IB programs are found across a great diversity of schools and districts, from public school systems in less affluent zip codes to the world’s most elite independent boarding schools. When admission officers of liberal arts colleges travel around the world to promote the benefits of a broad, mission driven student-centric education, we are finding that the liberal arts approach is becoming better-known and appreciated, and is being emulated in universities of many countries.

For IB students and their families who buy into the notion that it is important to have a well-rounded education, mastery of soft skills like critical thinking and creativity, an ability to become a life-long learner, and be taught to live according to one’s values, the liberal arts education is a viable pathway for them and could be worth checking out.

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Kevin Spensley has worked in higher education since 2008 and international education since 1993. He has held leadership positions in government, non-government, for-profit sectors. In 2005, Kevin founded Education-SI, which promoted U.S. and Canadian independent schools in Russian-speaking countries. He was Director of Business and Program Development at American Councils for International Education, a large NGO, and also worked for the U.S. Department of State.

He currently works as Senior International Officer and Director of International Enrollment at Saint Michael’s College in Vermont, USA. He has lived and worked in Canada, Russia and Ukraine. Specializing in professional training, int’l student recruitment, and program management, he speaks Russian and French. Kevin completed his Master’s Degree at Boston College. He lives in Vermont with his family.

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