Thursday, March 28, 2019

Elite Chicago Universities--similarities and differences

Northwestern University Welcome Center

I just returned from a few days in the Windy City (it was quite chilly and breezy, typical for March in the Midwest), where I enjoyed visiting the Art Institute and seeing “Hamilton,” while also taking in a couple of campus tours: University of Chicago and Northwestern University.

The more campus tours of elite private universities I take, the more I see similarities among schools.  They all offer similar “perks” and emphasize the same educational advantages.  Both information sessions at Chicago and Northwestern featured their tier #1 research opportunities and liberal arts curriculum and both described small class sizes, excellent faculty mentoring, fantastic internships, transformative study abroad experiences, and collaborative learning environments. 

Before I visited the schools, I speculated that one of the main differences between the two would be the urban (Chicago) vs. suburban (Northwestern) campuses, but Chicago’s great public transportation system plus Hyde Park’s less dense urban feel minimized that difference for me.  There is a distinct difference in “vibe” at the two schools—Chicago being more intellectual and quirky compared with Northwestern’s energetic enthusiasm, but in this post I want to delineate the perhaps minor but essential differences in curriculum, career development and social life.

University of Chicago quad
First, the two schools’ curricula are distinct.  Chicago maintains its core curriculum approach to general education (courses outside one’s major).  This is a set series of discussion-based courses covering eight subject areas that all students must take.  Chicago is famous for its “great books” approach to education which has now been adapted to our more multi-cultured society in the form of a series of three courses called “civilizations.” There are a number of choices within each category but overall the university offers a more structured approach to general education.  Northwestern, in contrast, stresses the flexibility and breadth of its curriculum. All students do satisfy general education distribution requirements by taking two courses each in six broad areas such as literature and fine arts, natural sciences and historical studies.  Both Chicago and Northwestern are on the quarter system; however, Northwestern particularly emphasizes the advantages of students taking more courses overall during their four years and encourages students to double and even triple major, as well as add on minors and certificates—which are smaller clusters of courses that demonstrate pre-professional skills. 

University of Chicago Doorway
Northwestern University Arch
Second career development is approached differently at the two universities.  Recently, Chicago decided to “flip” career development on its head by concentrating on freshman instead of seniors.  All freshman are matched with a career as well as an academic advisor and during the first year every freshman takes on some kind of externship or trek to gain direct career experience/observation.  They benefit from special Metcalf Internships arranged reserved for University of Chicago students that offer even more hands-on learning and are all funded. Northwestern, by contrast, is less systematic in career exploration though some schools like Medill (journalism) and the College of Education and Social Policy require internships.  The university makes its large alumni network available to students early in their academic careers and encourages, though doesn’t require, students to explore work opportunities in Chicago and further afield. On campus there is an incubator/maker space called the “Garage” where students and alumni meet to work on entrepreneurial projects.

University of Chicago Library
Finally, social life and the campus vibe at each school is unique.  Both schools have Greek organizations, yet at Northwestern, up to 40% of students participate in Greek life.  That’s a high percentage, which can tend to dominate weekend campus events.  Northwestern is a Big Ten Division #1 school, where sports enthusiasts have free access to all games.  Chicago stresses its campus wide scavenger hunt as a signature event while Northwestern brags about its huge, student-run music festival every spring. 
Northwestern University dorm

Many high achieving and ambitious students would no doubt be happy at either campus, yet it is worth considering how one’s educational and social experience might be distinct.

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