Episode 36: Colleges in the Plains Region—Part II

In last week’s episode, we continued our virtual tour of colleges by looking at the seven states of the Plains region: Kansas, Nebraska, South Dakota, North Dakota, Missouri, Iowa, and Minnesota. We talked about public universities—both the flagship state public universities and other public universities in those states. Today, we will continue our tour of the Plains states by focusing on private higher education institutions.

We are going to check out a couple of national—well, really, international universities—as well as a handful of small liberal arts colleges.

A virtual audio tour of private #colleges in the Plains Regions on @NYCollegeChat #podcast

As we say in every one of these episodes, we want to make it clear that no college has asked us or paid us anything to name it. These are entirely our own choices.

And to repeat: Because enrollment figures are not necessarily comparable as reported by various colleges, you should use the figures we provide here just as an approximation of the actual campus enrollment, but one that is good enough to help you understand whether the student body is the right size for your child—roughly, small, medium, or large.

1. Private Universities

Let’s start with a university that ranks in the very top tier of almost everyone’s list: Washington University in St. Louis (known fondly as WashU). Yes, it is in St. Louis, Missouri—no connection to the state of Washington or to Washington, D.C. With about 6,500 undergraduates, 6,500 graduate and professional students, and another 1,000 nontraditional evening and weekend students, WashU describes itself as a medium-sized university. I mention the nontraditional evening and weekend enrollment because, interestingly enough, WashU was founded in 1853 as an evening program especially designed for the many newcomers who had been flooding the relatively new state and who needed industrial training and basic education courses. Its students are drawn from 50 states and more than 100 foreign countries, with only about 10 percent coming from Missouri; it is indeed an international university. While I believe that an undergraduate student body of 6,500 will still feel rather large to an incoming freshman, WashU claims to have a student-to-faculty ratio of an astoundingly low 8:1. I believe that is the lowest I have seen, including from small liberal arts colleges, and I imagine that is one thing that helps freshmen feel engaged quickly.

Situated on a hilltop, the campus was laid out in 1895 by Frederick Law Olmsted, landscape architect extraordinaire, who also happened to design two little parks we have in New York City—Central Park in Manhattan and Prospect Park in Brooklyn. Despite this beautiful setting, 40 percent of WashU students still study abroad.

WashU offers undergraduates a choice of about 90 fields of study, spread out over colleges/schools of arts and sciences, business, engineering, art, and architecture. It also has graduate schools of law, medicine, arts and sciences, and social work and public heath. Like all medium-sized and large universities we have seen, WashU fields a lot of varsity sports teams—nine men’s and 10 women’s teams, to be exact— and offers 37 club sports. A surprisingly high 75 percent of students participate in single-sex and coeducational intramural sports. And, with about 370 student organizations, WashU students can be kept quite busy.

Let us just note that the tuition at WashU is a staggeringly high $47,000 per year, but that is unfortunately in keeping with the best private universities in the U.S. While the WashU website indicates that the University will work with families to make satisfactory financial arrangements and while children of lower-income families are awarded grants that do not have to be repaid, let’s admit that the tuition sounds like a lot of money.

Without leaving Missouri, let’s look at a Catholic university of about the same size as WashU, and that is Saint Louis University, in St. Louis. It is a Jesuit university founded in 1818—the first university west of the Mississippi River. It is one of 28 Jesuit universities in the U.S. We spoke about Jesuit institutions in an early episode of NYCollegeChat; as we said then, they have excellent academic reputations and include colleges like Georgetown University, Boston College, Fordham University, and the College of the Holy Cross. The Jesuit vision of education is a student who excels academically, serves others, and seeks social justice relentlessly. Saint Louis University prides itself on educating the whole person—“mind, body, heart and spirit” (quoted from the website). As evidence of the Jesuit commitment to serving others, Saint Louis students, faculty, and staff contribute one million volunteer service hours each year, and service learning is integrated into quite a few academic courses.

Saint Louis offers about 100 undergraduate majors across undergraduate schools/colleges of arts and sciences, public health and social justice, business, education and public service, health sciences, nursing, social work, and engineering, aviation, and technology. It also offers undergraduate training leading to the priesthood and graduate schools of law and medicine, among other fields. Like other universities, it offers varsity sports teams— seven men’s and nine women’s teams—and more than 150 student organizations, plus fraternities and sororities. Its price tag is hefty at about $39,000 in tuition per year, but the website claims that 97 percent of first-time freshmen get financial aid.

One super-attractive feature of Saint Louis University is its own campus in Madrid, which serves about 675 undergraduate and graduate students. Just half are from the U.S. Opened in 1967 and recently renovated, undergraduates can study in 11 business and liberal arts degree fields. Courses are taught in English, with some selected courses taught in Spanish. Saint Louis undergraduates can study in Madrid for a semester or for their entire four years, depending on their majors.

2. Private Liberal Arts Colleges

Let’s start with two small liberal arts colleges in Minnesota: Carleton College and Macalester College. Carleton is located in Northfield, about 40 miles south of the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul, home to the University of Minnesota and other colleges. Founded in 1866 by the General Conference of Congregational Churches, it has no religious affiliation today.

Carleton is a classic liberal arts college (that is, undergraduate education only), offering 37 majors in the arts and sciences and 15 mostly interdisciplinary concentrations. It enrolls about 2,000 students, drawn nationally and internationally. While more students come from Minnesota than any other state, with California not far behind, both New York and Illinois send about half the number of those leading states to Carleton. Entering freshmen have very high SAT and ACT scores, and about 75 percent of them graduated in the top 10 percent of their high school classes. About 25 percent identify as “people of color.”

Freshmen are required to live on campus, and about 90 percent stay on campus, contributing to the close-knit community feel and an unusually close engagement with professors, both in and out of classes. The student-to-faculty ratio is an unusually low 9:1, meaning that professors spend a lot of time getting to know students. About 98 percent of Carleton seniors say that they were happy with the quality of instruction in their classes. The four-year graduation rate is an enviably high 90 percent (the national average is about 38 percent). Furthermore, over 80 percent of Carleton graduates go on to graduate or professional school within 10 years.

Carleton operates on a trimester schedule of three 10-week terms, with students taking three courses at a time, rather than the typical four or five. This schedule allows for the in-depth thinking Carleton prides itself on having students do in their courses. More than 70 percent of students study abroad during their four years.

Though much smaller than the private and public universities we have been looking at, Carleton still fields nine men’s and nine women’s varsity sports teams and offers more than 50 student-organized club sports and intramurals. About 90 percent of all Carleton students participate in some sport at some level. Carleton’s Cowling Arboretum, which provides trails for walkers, runners, bicyclists, and cross-country skiers, was named one of the top 10 places to run by Runner’s World magazine. Carleton also has 250 student organizations.

You can imagine that all this comes at a price, and that price is $48,000 in tuition each year. Carleton does say that it is “committed to meeting 100 percent of financial aid for all admitted students, all four years” (quoted from the website). Interestingly, about 80 percent of students have jobs on campus.

Macalester College is similar to Carleton in many ways. Both colleges are on many lists of the top 25 liberal arts colleges in the U.S., with Carleton usually ranking in the top 10. Macalester is located in a residential area of St. Paul, so its students can take advantage of everything the Twin Cities have to offer. Founded in 1874 by Rev. Edward Neill, it is Presbyterian affiliated, but nonsectarian. Neill was a missionary to the Minnesota territory, who later served as the first president of the University of Minnesota. But he was concerned about educating future leaders and believed that the best way to do that was in a small private college. And so Macalester was born, with a donation from a Philadelphia philanthropist.

Like Carleton, Macalester is a classic liberal arts college, offering 38 majors in the arts and sciences. It also enrolls just over 2,000 students, drawn nationally and internationally. Similar to Carleton, about 70 percent of incoming freshmen graduated in the top 10 percent of their high school classes. Like Carleton, about 25 percent of students identify as students of color.

The student-to-faculty ratio is also low at 10:1, meaning that students have a chance to get to know their professors well. Similar to Carleton, the four-year graduation rate is an enviably high 85 percent, and about 65 percent of Macalester graduates go on to graduate or professional school within five years.

About 60 percent of Macalester students study abroad during their four years, and about 75 percent have internships. A whopping 95 percent do volunteer work in the Twin Cities at some point, with about half of Macalester students volunteering in any given semester.

Similar to Carleton, Macalester fields nine men’s and 10 women’s varsity sports teams. About half of Macalester students participate in intramural sports. It also has more than 90 student organizations.

Unfortunately, the price is also comparable at about $49,000 in tuition each year. But like Carleton, Macalester says that it will meet 100 percent of demonstrated financial need of admitted students, making Macalester and Carleton two of 70 U.S. colleges that will do that.

A third college that also typically ranks in the top 25 national private liberal arts colleges on all kinds of lists is Grinnell College in Grinnell in the “rolling farmland” of central Iowa. Founded in 1846, Grinnell is another college with Congregational Church roots.

A bit smaller than Carleton and Macalester, Grinnell has an enrollment of about 1,600 students, drawn nationally and internationally, again with about 25 percent students of color.

Grinnell offers 26 arts and sciences majors and 11 interdisciplinary concentrations and also has a very favorable student-to-teacher ratio of 9:1. Here is an explanation of Grinnell’s unique Individually Advised Curriculum:

Every first-year student at Grinnell enrolls in the First-Year Tutorial, a small group of students [limited to 12] working with a faculty member to study a subject of interest to both students and tutor. The tutor also is the academic adviser for each student in the group, so that teaching and learning are closely linked with the planning of programs of study. In teaching, the tutor discovers the aptitudes and interests of the students, who in turn receive academic advice, not from an infrequently consulted stranger, but from a teacher who sees them several times each week. In planning a program of study, the student and the tutor balance the cultivation of existing interests with the discovery of new ones. An entering student should regard the first year as a time for gaining breadth in the arts and sciences, confidence in exploring a variety of disciplines, and a more mature understanding of the place of each of these in liberal education as a whole. (quoted from the website)

Grinnell does expect students to become proficient in written English by taking at least one appropriate course, to develop knowledge of mathematics and/or a foreign language, and to take courses in these three areas: humanities, science, and social studies. So, there are some distribution requirements, but extreme freedom in what exactly to take. When a student finally chooses a major, his or her academic advisor will be assigned from that subject field.

In addition, Grinnell is a strong proponent of independent study for its students—that is, “guided readings, independent projects, mentored summer research, and course-linked projects that add credits to an existing course” (quoted from the website).

Abut 60 percent of Grinnell students spend time studying abroad and, according to the website, “Grinnell is among the leaders in sending graduates to the Peace Corps and supports its own Grinnell Corps — a yearlong postgraduate service opportunity in Asia, Africa, and North America — underscoring the College’s strong commitment to social responsibility and action.”

Grinnell offers more than 200 student organizations and nine men’s and nine women’s varsity sports teams. To help students develop skills of getting along with each other as a community, Grinnell’s residence halls are self-governed by the students.

As with the other small liberal arts college we have looked at, tuition at Grinnell is a high $45,000 per year.

3. Colleges That Change Lives

As we have said in several earlier episodes, Colleges That Change Lives is a nonprofit organization that was founded after the publication of the book Colleges That Change Lives, by Loren Pope, a retired New York Times education editor. There are now 44 colleges and universities profiled in the book and on the organization’s website. Those that are included are not necessarily famous institutions. Most are smaller colleges and universities that have proved to be successful at developing students both personally and academically so that they can succeed in life after their undergraduate college years.

Two of the 44 institutions profiled are located in the Plains states. You should read about them in the book or on the website to learn more about both of them. They are St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota (also the home of Carleton College), with about 3,000 students; and Cornell College in Mount Vernon, Iowa, with just about 1,100 students. Interestingly, Cornell College (not to be confused with Cornell University in Ithaca, New York) uses the same fascinating one-at-a-time course schedule that Colorado College uses, as we discussed in Episode 34.

Because these Colleges That Change Lives institutions are relatively small and thus are not particularly well known outside of their geographic region, it is my feeling that out-of-state students with a decent high school record might have a good chance of being accepted.

Listen to the podcast to find out about…

  • How to make study abroad easy
  • Why student-to-teacher ratio might matter
  • What “100 percent of demonstrated financial need” really means

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