Liberal arts education has a long tradition in the US. Influential figures such as Hillary Rodham Clinton, as well as Soong Ching-ling and Soong Mei-ling, the wives of Sun Yat-sen and Chiang Kai-shek respectively, graduated from Wellesley College in Massachusetts, an institution which is noted for its liberal arts programme. Many other graduates have become top executives or professionals. But liberal arts education, which operates on a small scale and emphasises close interaction between faculty and students, is yet to be understood in China. That is part of the reason for a recent trip to Beijing by the president of Amherst College, a liberal arts institution also in Massachusetts. Carolyn "Biddy" Martin, formerly the provost at Cornell University and chancellor of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, says Chinese students are well aware of Ivy League institutions - all of which have liberal arts education at the core of their curriculum - so such subjects are more familiar to prospective students than they might realise. "Every Ivy League institution requires general education in the context of a liberal arts tradition," she says. In her view, a primary difference between large research universities and the best liberal arts colleges is the latter's singular focus on undergraduate education. "That gives students a great deal more engagement with the research faculty because the scale allows for it. Not having a graduate school means students will be taught by research faculty scholars as opposed to graduate students. So familiarity and lifelong friendships occurs between faculty and students as a result," says Martin. A small residential environment helps cultivate close personal ties. With 1,800 students, Amherst has a student to faculty ratio of eight to one, and an average class size of 16. Martin, a German studies professor, describes the quality of engagement between faculty and students as spectacular. "Faculty who serve as mentors to students closely follow and support their careers. Education at an Ivy League research university is also outstanding, and the outcome is similar. But students get more attention from a liberal arts college; there is more contact, intimacy, and a greater intensity. This can sharpen their thinking." Liberal arts colleges prepare students for both careers and life, rather than a particular job or profession. Eighty per cent of Amherst's students, who come from 54 countries, go on to graduate or professional school within five years of graduation, says Martin. Undergraduate students are exposed to greater depth in a range of disciplines, and specific expertise in one or two particular disciplines, so that they will be able to "make connections between different domains". Founded in 1821, Amherst has 75 alumni in China and Hong Kong. Worldwide, its alumni include four Nobel laureates, many Pulitzer Prize winners and a chief justice of the US Supreme Court. During her trip, Martin met with mainland alumni and promoted her college's need-blind financial aid policy. "We want to ensure that our financial aid policies, which are among the most generous in the US for international students, are made known to Chinese families and students," she says. Her group also explored opportunities for partnership with mainland universities. Amherst collaborates with other faculty in a consortium of nearby institutions known as the "Five Colleges". Students can take classes at any of the colleges, so enjoy a broad range of options. Martin says that a liberal arts education seeks to produce creative, thoughtful, well-informed and original thinkers. "It is valuable for Chinese, US students or students from elsewhere. It creates the kind of leadership ability that will serve the country where they make their career," she says.