Saturday, March 30, 2013

“Darting to the Middle”: College Tour Stops in Vermont and New Hampshire

Middlebury College in Middlebury, Vermont and Dartmouth College in Hanover New Hampshire share many characteristics besides their rural New England locations.  Both schools have a strong emphasis on undergraduate teaching (Middlebury is a liberal arts college so by definition has no graduate programs, and Dartmouth’s graduate school population is quite small like Brown’s).  Both have broad distribution requirements so that even though they do not offer Brown or Amherst’s open curriculum, they still allow students a lot of choice in developing their own programs as well as the flexibility to double major or, in Dartmouth’s case, “modify” a major to combine requirements of two or more programs. 
Middlebury dorm lounge
Middlebury developed the first environmental studies department and is well on its way to being a carbon neutral campus with a new biomass energy plant—it really “walks the talk” of sustainability.  Dartmouth also stresses environmentalism in several of its majors and interdisciplinary programs.  Both schools own their own ski mountains and attract students who love the outdoors (winter sports in particular ).
Middlebury dorm exterior
Most noticeably, and what has attracted Lily the most, is the two college’s strong curricula in international studies, language studies and study abroad programs.  Between 40% and 60% of juniors in each institution study abroad and they benefit from excellent language departments that offer a wide variety of foreign languages including Arabic and Portuguese—the young woman we met at Dartmouth was taking both. 

The most obvious difference between the two is size: Dartmouth is actually a university despite its “college” name and its total undergraduate enrollment is about 4,200.  (It remains the smallest of the seven Ivy League universities.)  Middlebury has about 2,400 students enrolled or 600 per class.  I’ll list below other differences that I think are important to consider if one had to choose between the two schools:
*Middlebury has a distinctive residential system in which freshmen and sophomores live in the same “commons” or housing area staffed by residential faculty who often become mentors to the students they get to know over two years.

Dartmouth campus
*Dartmouth has set up what it calls the “D” plan in which freshmen and seniors spend three terms on campus and sophomores all spend their summer at Dartmouth, giving them a special term all to themselves.

*About 90 students per first year class at Middlebury enter in February rather than August.  They bring a new perspective on campus when they arrive and tend to bond in special ways as “Feb Start” students.

*Dartmouth is on the quarter system, which allows students to take more classes in a four year undergraduate curriculum.

*Middlebury has a 4-1-4 calendar, two semesters bridged by a short term in January.  During this term students have the opportunity to take non-traditional classes like jewelry making or log rolling or go on internships or short study abroad programs.

*Dartmouth students benefit from the professional schools of Medicine, Business and Engineering just off campus.  Students can take classes at the business and engineering school and participate in the medical school’s programs at the local teaching hospital. 

*At Middlebury, there is an open door policy at dining halls.  No card swipe is necessary and one can eat as often or as much as one chooses.  Middlebury is known for great food using ingredients from local Vermont farms.

*Fraternities and sororities are still a big part of the social life at Dartmouth.  Approximately 60-70% of students pledge—but they can’t do so until sophomore year.

Despite these differences or perhaps because of some of them, we came away with very positive impressions of both Middlebury and Dartmouth. They are well worth exploring if you are not limiting yourself to urban or suburban college environments.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

The 5 and the 7: “Prime” New England Liberal Arts Schools

We have spent the past two days in Amherst, Massachusetts, about 90 miles west of Boston—and quite rural.  Lily and Abby stayed with their cousin Joely, who is a sophomore at Amherst College, one of the five schools in a consortium that combines over 30,000 students and a library of 9 million volumes.  What distinguishes Amherst, with an enrollment of 1800 students, from other small liberal arts colleges in New England is its participation in this consortium, which allows students to take classes and use the resources of all the other colleges, and its open curriculum.  Like Brown, Amherst has no general education or distribution requirements for academic study; students choose all their own courses in addition to their major.
Robert Frost Library at Amherst

Amherst Green--before spring leaves
The other schools in this consortium are the University of Massachusetts in Amherst (a public school and by far the largest—about 28,000 undergraduates and graduates combined), Hampshire College (a more “alternative” or ecologically focused liberal arts college of about 1,500 students), Smith and Mt. Holyoke (both liberal arts colleges that admit only women, comparable to Amherst in academic reputation).

I visited Mt. Holyoke while my daughters spent time with their cousin.  It is part of another consortium as well, the “Seven Sisters.”  This is a group of women’s colleges in New England joined together in the early 20th century as a kind of female equivalent to the then all male “Ivy League.” 

*Do you know the names of the five other colleges in the consortium besides Mt. Holyoke and Smith?  I’ll give the answer in a later post.  (See "Back to Boston: Tufts and Harvard.")

Founded in 1837, Mt. Holyoke is the oldest of the Seven Sisters, and it has both a gorgeous campus and impressive programs.  25% of its students are international.  The curriculum does include distribution requirements but they are quite broad and my tour guide explained how taking a physics course in alternative energy really sparked her interest in a new field.  She even became the TA for the course the next term. She would never have taken the course without the distribution requirement.  With charming rituals like milk and cookies study breaks, Mt. Holyoke is certainly not a choice for every female student.  But I found its academic offerings intriguing and extra curricular opportunities as fantastic as Amherst’s.  Rachel Maddow was slated to visit Amherst later this week and the former president of Ireland, Mary Robinson, had just visited Mt. Holyoke.
Mt. Holyoke

Any student interested in small liberal arts colleges should check out the Five College Consortium.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Spring Break College Tour First Stops: Boston and Brown

I’m taking my daughters Lily (high school junior) and Abby (high school freshman) on a trip through New England this week visiting different college and university campuses, especially to give Lily a better idea of characteristics of schools she’s interested in as well as the differences between research universities and liberal arts colleges, urban and rural campuses.
Abby and Lily in the Boston T

Our first stops have been Boston University (BU) and Northeastern University in Boston and Brown University in Providence.

Since our first day to tour Boston was Sunday, we weren’t able to take any official campus tours so our visit to BU in particular was pretty superficial.  It’s one of the largest private universities, its most famous graduate perhaps being Martin Luther King, Jr., and it is located in the heart of the city across from MIT in Cambridge and slightly northwest of Northeastern.  Lily noticed that it doesn’t have much of a campus feel as the buildings seem to be located along pretty major thoroughfares, not separated in any way from the rest of the city.  There are a lot of new buildings; the new Student Services Center is quite nice with a very attractive cafeteria offering all kinds of healthy food and other floors devoted to special tutoring and advising.  Other than reading about academic departments and the many colleges within the university—the College of Arts and Sciences and the College of Communications are the ones most interesting to Lily—we didn’t have a chance to find out anything else about its programs.

Luckily, one of my Berkeley classmate’s daughters is a student at Northeastern so we were given our own custom tour there. Asha, a freshman from Palo Alto High School, seems very happy with her experience at Northeastern, which although almost as large as BU in size, definitely provides more of a traditional campus setting.  Northeastern offers a well-respected co-op program that distinguishes it from other urban and large universities.  Asha explained that every student has a chance to do paid internships for two semesters, and often these work experiences lead to post-graduation job offers as well as career trajectories.  She is going to Jordan this summer on a six week “Dialogue” to learn the language and immerse herself in the culture. She also told us that the majority of her classes have fewer than 50 students, her Arabic class only a handful.  Lily asked her about how she made friends and she recommended joining clubs.  She is a member of the “Good Vibes” club, which helps students deal with stress through meditation and other activities.
Aisha, Lily, Abby

We left Boston last night (well our departure was protracted due to our GPS taking us on a roller coaster ride through tunnels and over bridges before we learned not to trust its directions) feeling that we’d had a good picture of two urban campuses.  Riding the “T” Boston’s subway/overground train was also quite easy making the city’s many attractions, museums and entertainment simple to access.

Monday morning we took an official campus tour and attended an admissions session at Brown University.  Both Lily and Abby were immediately attracted to the red brick architecture on campus, the Oxford-feel of the enclosed commons and the good natured, almost irreverent tour guide.  We soon realized that Brown’s main difference from the other “Ivies” is its open curriculum program in which students can choose virtually all their own classes except for a writing requirement and, of course, the courses for their “concentration” (Brown’s euphemism for “major”).  Many of the other people on the tour seemed interested in the university’s collaboration   With only 1,500 graduate students vs. the 6,000 undergraduates, Brown definitely has a focus on undergraduate teaching and research opportunities.  The admissions session at Brown was particularly good.  The admissions officer took a lot of questions throughout his presentation and then walked students through the importance of each aspect of the application.  He stressed that the single most significant factor is a student’s high school transcript, which shows effort and development over time.  Still, successful applicants to Brown need to attain superior test scores and prepare rigorously for admission.  All three of us were impressed by our visit to Brown—and by how selective admission there must be.
Modern Arts building at Brown
with RISD (the Rhode Island School of Design) where students can take courses and where a very select few can enroll in a dual degree program.
Traditional classroom building at Brown

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Colleges and Careers--how well are students prepared?

In a recent article in the New York Times College Admissions Blog, Catherine Hill, the president of Vassar College explains why evaluating recent college graduates’ salary rates might not be such a good idea:

One important reason why is that professions are changing so rapidly now—we can’t accurately predict what new jobs will appear in the next few years.  So it’s important for students to learn a variety of skills and prepare themselves to be flexible and versatile in their job search.  

In “How Colleges Should Prepare Students for the Current Economy” Susan Brennan observes that many colleges are now “enhancing their career placement services for students . . . in a pragmatic and thoughtful way that ensures that short-term skills and training for the ‘real’ world don’t eclipse or erase higher education’s over-arching mission of creating a generation of curious, analytical and open life-long learners.”

Evaluating a college’s career services as well as what internships and other job experiences it offers should be an important part of any college search. 

Check out the Lynn O’Shaughnessy’s Blog, The College Solution where she provides a list of questions for evaluating a college’s career services office:

When I take Lily on her college tour in a few weeks, we’ll make sure to stop in at the career services office while we’re touring each campus.  I’m a big proponent of a liberal arts education—but I’m also a parent who wants to make sure my daughter can support herself when she graduates.