Episode 87: Assignment #7–Looking at Core Curricula

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Well, this is Assignment #7, which means that your teenager and perhaps you have done a lot of work so far. Take a look back and look at all you have accomplished this summer:

This episode’s assignment takes us back inside the college and right into the middle of the college curriculum, especially as it plays out for freshmen and sophomores.

Episode 87 Looking at College Core Curricula on USACollegeChat podcast

1. Your Assignment #7

Download the Assignment #7 Worksheet

For Assignment #7, your teenager and you are going to look at whether the college has a “core curriculum”–or what might be called “general education” credits or requirements or what we called “distribution requirements” in the old days.

2. What Is a Core Curriculum?

For the purpose of this episode, we will refer to this likely centuries-old curriculum concept as a “core curriculum.” What it means is that all students in a college, or in a specific college or school within a larger university, have to take typically one or two courses in each of a broad range of academic disciplines, such as mathematics, or in each of a broad range of groups of disciplines, such as natural sciences, languages and literature, social sciences, and so on. Each college seems to have its own unique way of defining these groups of disciplines, with some more understandable than others.

Some colleges have quite strict requirements, meaning usually that there are many different requirements that have to be met and that might amount to a double handful of courses before it’s all over. Some colleges have a core curriculum, but have far fewer requirements for the courses or number of courses that have to be taken. And some colleges have no core curriculum at all. Would the presence of core curriculum requirements make a difference to your teenager in choosing a college?

3. What Is the Purpose of a Core Curriculum?

So, what is the purpose of a core curriculum? The concept comes from the liberal arts tradition, where students are supposed to be well rounded in their studies and in their understanding of the intellectual content and issues of many fields. People in favor of this tradition would say that students do not know exactly where their careers and lives will take them and that the ability to solve problems and think critically across a range of content could make the difference in how well they succeed in their careers (likely in their multiple careers) and indeed in their lives. It is no surprise that liberal arts colleges and that the arts and sciences college or school within large universities would support and require a core curriculum for its students.

However, some non-liberal-arts colleges and schools within large universities also have instituted a core curriculum. My favorite example of this (and we have talked and written about it before) is the Fu Foundation School of Engineering and Applied Science at Columbia University, which has this impressive and perhaps surprising statement on its website:

Engineering has been called the newest liberal art. At Columbia Engineering, students not only study science and mathematics and gain technical skills but also study literature, philosophy, art history, music theory, and major civilizations through the Core Curriculum in the humanities.

Students are encouraged to consider the wide range of possibilities open to them, both academically and professionally. To this end, the first and second years of the four-year undergraduate program comprise approximately 66 semester points of credit that expose students to a cross-fertilization of ideas from different disciplines within the University. The sequence of study proceeds from an engagement with engineering and scientific fundamentals, along with humanities and social sciences, toward an increasingly focused training in the third and fourth years designed to give students mastery of certain principles and arts central to engineering and applied science. (quoted from the website)

So, at Fu, students are required to take some liberal arts courses early on in their engineering program in order to provide some humanities balance to the heavy load of mathematics and sciences that all engineering students take. The brilliance of this position comes in the notion that students who find that engineering is not what they had expected–for whatever reason–are well equipped to transfer to another field of study and move many of these core credits with them. For some engineering students, these liberal arts courses could be a drag; for other engineering students, they could turn out to save the day.

One important advantage of a core curriculum is that it causes students to look into whole academic fields that are rarely taught in high schools?like anthropology or sociology or art history or linguistics. Without requirements in a variety of academic fields or groups of fields, many students would never take a look at some of them and would never know what they had missed.

As it turns out, some colleges go one step further and require certain courses of all students?the actual courses, not just the academic fields. So, instead of saying to students that they must take two courses in the languages and literature, for example, the college will specify that all students must take Writing 101 and Public Speaking 101. In those cases, the college has decided to require those specific courses that its professors feel are most fundamental to developing the foundation for more advanced college study and to developing a broad understanding of and ability to engage in the modern world. Because all students have taken these same required core courses, professors can use that shared knowledge to help students make connections across subject fields every year from then on.

4. Examples of a Core Curriculum

When we did our nationwide virtual tour of colleges back in Episodes 27 through 54, we often talked about the core curriculum requirements of a college. We did that for two reasons. First, we were super-impressed with some of them, even though we could tell that they would be quite demanding of students. Second, we knew that some students would love the idea of a core curriculum, while other students would hate the idea of a core curriculum. There are two groups of students who are likely to hate the idea the most. One group is students who do not feel confident in a range of academic fields (this often comes in the form of “I’d like to go to a college where I don’t have to take advanced science or math”). The other group is students who are anxious to get on with what exactly they already know they want to study and don’t want to waste time with other things (this often comes in the form of “I want to be a computer scientist, and I don’t see a need for these humanities requirements”).

Nonetheless, here are a handful of examples of some of the core curricula we talked about during our nationwide virtual tour of colleges:

Let’s start with a tiny Catholic college with a student enrollment of fewer than 200 undergraduates: Wyoming Catholic College, located in Lander and the only four-year private college in the state of Wyoming. According to its website, this faith-based college offers a classical liberal arts curriculum, which includes a study of the Great Books of Western culture and a serious set of distribution requirements, which includes 24 credits of theology, 13 credits of leadership, 10 credits of philosophy, and 16 credits of Latin. Interestingly, students graduate with a B.A. in Liberal Arts?not in a specific subject field.

Grinnell College in the “rolling farmland” of central Iowa offers a unique Individually Advised Curriculum, described this way on the website:

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.

Let’s turn to St. John’s College, which has two campuses, with students often transferring for a year between the two: St. John’s Annapolis in Maryland and St. John’s Santa Fe in New Mexico. But the real unique idea at St. John’s is its liberal arts curriculum, based on collaborative inquiry in small class discussions, with the professor acting as a tutor and mentor?all based on the original texts of great authors in almost every subject field. The Seminar, as St. John’s calls it, is the foundation for the curriculum, and it is described this way on the website:

Students participate in far-reaching and free but disciplined conversations about major works of literature, philosophy, political theory, theology, history, economics, and psychology from Homer and the Greek historians, playwrights, and philosophers in the freshman year, through the Renaissance in the sophomore year and the Enlightenment in the junior year, to the contemporary world in the senior year. (quoted from the website)

Students at St. John’s are also required to take four years of mathematics, three years of laboratory science, two years of music (including singing in the Freshman Chorus together), and four years of a second language (two years of Ancient Greek and two years of modern French). Clearly, this is one serious set of core curriculum requirements.

Let’s move on to Middlebury College in Vermont, perhaps best known for its excellent language programs for a hundred years. In the classic liberal arts tradition, Middlebury students must fulfill two sets of distribution requirements: (1) one course in seven of eight academic fields (including foreign language); and (2) one course in each of four cultures and civilizations areas:

a. Courses that focus on some aspect of the cultures and civilizations of Africa, Asia, Latin America, the Middle East, and the Caribbean

  1. Courses that focus on the process of comparison between and among cultures and civilizations, or courses that focus on the identity and experience of separable groups within cultures and civilizations

  2. Courses that focus on some aspect of European cultures and civilizations

  3. Courses that focus on some aspect of the cultures and civilizations of northern America (United States and Canada) (quoted from the website)

Georgetown University, the oldest Catholic and Jesuit university in the U.S., offers its undergraduates the opportunity to study in the schools of foreign service, business, or nursing and health studies or in Georgetown College, the liberal arts college that first established the institution. Before pursuing one of more than 40 majors, students in the College must complete core requirements in a wide range of humanities and science fields, including two courses in theology, starting with either The Problem of God or Introduction to Biblical Literature as freshmen.

Colgate University, a small liberal arts university in upstate New York, has undergraduates studying in 54 majors, which come from a strong and broad liberal arts Core Curriculum. Students are required to take four courses in their first two years: Legacies of the Ancient World, Challenges of Modernity, Communities and Identities, and Scientific Perspectives on the World. Students are also required to take one course with a Global Engagements designation and six more courses from three liberal arts and sciences areas.

Undergraduate students at Morehouse College, the all-men HBCU in Atlanta, are required to complete a core curriculum, which includes four courses in the humanities?one in religion, one in philosophy, one in art history, and one in music history. That is about as liberal arts as it gets.

But it’s not just small private colleges that have a core curriculum. The huge flagship University of Texas at Austin puts all of its freshmen into the School of Undergraduate Studies, where they explore their interests through a liberal-arts-and-sciences core curriculum of 42 credits. In their freshman year, students take UT’s Signature Course, which is actually an array of 150 course offerings for students to choose from, all of which provide college-level experiences in thinking and writing and speaking and research. Students are encouraged to go outside their comfort zone when choosing from the Signature Courses, which are often interdisciplinary, like Astronomy and the Humanities. UT students leave the School of Undergraduate Studies by the end of their second year to pursue their major course of study.

At Penn State, typical undergraduates take almost one-third of their courses in the College of Liberal Arts. All students are required to take 45 credits of General Education courses, including three credits of writing-intensive coursework, a course in U.S. cultures, a course in international cultures, and coursework that covers social and behavioral sciences, humanities, natural sciences, quantitative skills, the arts, and health and physical activity.

It is hard to do this episode without a nod to our own two undergraduate alma maters, so let’s look at them. Here are the “distribution requirements” and the “breadth requirements” in Cornell University‘s College of Arts and Sciences curriculum (and these are in addition to two first-year writing seminars, a serious intermediate-level foreign language requirement–which many high-ranked colleges have, two physical education courses plus a swimming test):

  • 2 courses in physical and biological sciences
  • 1 course in mathematics and quantitative reasoning
  • 1 course that is in either sciences or mathematics
  • Five arts and sciences courses from at least 4 of the following social sciences, humanities, and arts categories:
  • Cultural analysis
  • Historical analysis
  • Knowledge, cognition, and moral reasoning
  • Literature and the arts
  • Social and behavioral analysis
  • Geographic breadth requirement: 1 course that focuses on an area or a people other than those of the United States, Canada, or Europe
  • Historic breadth requirement: 1 course that focuses on an historic period before the 20th century

While I would applaud these requirements for my own children and for the children of all of my friends, I can tell you that the requirements were not quite so demanding in the early 1970s. And, for that, I believe I am grateful.

So, let’s take a look at Barnard College‘s brand new curriculum, called Foundations, which I know you didn’t have, Marie, because it applies for the first time to students entering this fall. Barnard has what it calls “distributional requirements” and “modes of thinking” (in addition to a first-year writing course, first-year seminar, and one physical education course):

  • 2 courses in the languages
  • 2 courses in the arts/humanities
  • 2 courses in the social sciences
  • 2 courses in the sciences (1 with a lab)
  • 1 course in thinking locally–New York City
  • 1 course in thinking through global inquiry
  • 1 course in thinking about social difference
  • 1 course in thinking with historical perspective
  • 1 course in thinking quantitatively and empirically
  • 1 course in thinking technologically and digitally

I would have to say that those requirements are also quite demanding, especially for a student who, right or wrong, is not interested in broadening her horizons.

So, if all this is just too much, take a look at just a few colleges that do not have a standard core curriculum of courses:

Let’s start with The Evergreen State College, a public liberal arts college in Washington’s capital city of Olympia. Students at Evergreen take one interdisciplinary course, called a program, at a time, which might last one, two, or even three quarters. Built around a theme, a program integrates several subjects and is taught by a team of two to four professors from different subject fields. Students participate in a mixture of lectures, seminars, tutorials, field trips, labs, and the like during each program. There are no required programs and no distribution requirements and no major requirements (because there are no majors) for earning a Bachelor of Arts degree. A Bachelor of Science or a Bachelor of Arts and Science does have some math, science, or computer science requirements.

At Hamilton College in upstate New York, students pursue studies in 51 fields, based on a broad liberal arts and sciences curriculum that each student works out with his or her advisor. There are a few requirements?such as at least three writing-intensive courses?but there seems to be quite a bit of freedom in operationalizing the spirit of a liberal arts education.

Pitzer College, one of the five undergraduate colleges in The Claremont Colleges consortium in California, offers its 1,000 students about 40 fields of study in an “interdisciplinary liberal arts education emphasizing social justice, intercultural understanding and environmental sensitivity” (quoted from the website). Students are expected to engage in community service and are given the freedom to create their own academic programs; there are no traditional core course requirements.

So, have your teenager take the Assignment #7 worksheet and complete one for each college on his or her long summer list of college options, and I hope it is still long. First, note whether there is a core curriculum, or general education course, or distribution requirements, or breadth requirements, or whatever that college might call the list of academic fields or groups of fields or even specific courses all students must take. Remember, if it is a university, make sure that your teenager checks the college or school of interest to him or her; requirements may well not be the same for all of the colleges and schools in the university. Second, write down exactly what the requirements are. When the time comes to decide which colleges stay on the list, the number and rigor and breadth of the requirements might be something you all will want to consider.

Download the Assignment #7 Worksheet

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Episode 53: Colleges in New York State–Part III

Listen to the episode in the player, download it here, or subscribe on iTunes, Stitcher, or TuneIn.

Recently, we have brought our virtual tour back home—here to New York State. We have looked at public four-year colleges and at nationally known private universities.

Virtual tour of private colleges in New York State on NYCollegeChat podcast Episode 53

This week, we are going to continue our examination of private options in New York. Let us say again, that the private institutions we will be discussing in this episode will be only a sample of the more than 100 private colleges and universities in New York. So, you out-of-staters, here is your chance to move outside your geographic comfort zone and to take a look at the many options New York offers. Today, we will check out some relatively small liberal arts institutions and then some higher education institutions with a special academic focus.

As we are now saying for a final time as we bring our virtual tour to a close, no college has asked us or paid us anything to include it. These are our own choices.

1. Liberal Arts Institutions

Let’s shine our spotlight on seven smallish liberal arts institutions, four upstate and three downstate, but north of New York City. Let’s start upstate, with Colgate University in Hamilton, Hamilton College in Clinton, and Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs. These upstate small towns are lovely—especially beautiful in the fall and before the snow comes. In many ways, they are perfect college locations—especially great for students who want that gracious and idyllic ivy-covered campus with handsome buildings in a safe and slightly isolated environment. Saratoga Springs, just north of Albany, is a particularly appealing town. You might know it as home to the famous racetrack and summer home to the New York City Ballet and Philadelphia Orchestra and, way back, to lots of wealthy New Yorkers. Our fourth upstate choice is Union College in Schenectady, which gives students an attractive campus, but in more of an urban setting.

Let’s begin with Colgate University—not a liberal arts “college,” but rather a small liberal arts university, which was founded in 1819 and today enrolls almost 2,900 undergraduates only. Both the students, who are drawn internationally, and the faculty members are about 25 percent multicultural. As befits a small liberal arts institution, Colgate has an enviable 9:1 student-to-faculty ratio.

Colgate’s undergraduates study in 54 majors, which come from a strong and broad liberal arts Core Curriculum. Students are required to take four courses in their first two years: Legacies of the Ancient World, Challenges of Modernity, Communities and Identities, and Scientific Perspectives on the World. Students are also required to take one course with a Global Engagements designation and six more courses from three liberal arts and sciences areas. Colgate offers more than 180 student organizations and 25 varsity sports teams.

Admitted students this fall had an average high school GPA of 3.8 and a combined SAT critical reading and math score of 1405. About 85 percent ranked in the top tenth of their high school graduating class. Interestingly, about 55 percent came from public high schools, while about 45 percent came from private high schools. Tuition and fees at Colgate run about $50,000 per year—quite high, to be sure, but like many other private institutions we have seen.

Hamilton College has a fascinating origin, and you all know that I love college histories. So here it is:

Hamilton College had its beginnings in a plan of education drawn up by Samuel Kirkland, missionary to the Oneida Indians. The heart of the plan was a school for the children of the Oneidas and of the white settlers, who were then streaming into central New York from New England in search of new lands and opportunities in the wake of the American Revolution.

In 1793 the missionary presented his proposal to President George Washington in Philadelphia, who “expressed approbation,” and to Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton, who consented to be a trustee of the new school, to which he also lent his name. The Hamilton-Oneida Academy was chartered soon thereafter. On July 1, 1794, in colorful ceremonies attended by a delegation of Oneida Indians, the cornerstone was laid by Baron von Steuben, inspector general of the Continental Army and “drillmaster” of Washington’s troops during the War for Independence.

The academy remained in existence for nearly 20 years. It faltered, almost failed, and never came to serve Samuel Kirkland’s original purpose, which was to help the Oneidas adapt to a life in settled communities. In fact, few Oneidas came to attend the school, and its students were primarily the children of local white settlers. Yet the academy remained the missionary’s one enduring accomplishment when, a few years after his death, it was transformed into Hamilton College.

The new institution of higher learning was chartered [by the State of New York] in 1812. (quoted from the website)

Starting out as a men’s college, Hamilton became fully coeducational in 1978. Today, it enrolls about 1,850 undergraduates only, split close to 50-50 between men and women. Just over 25 percent are U.S. students of color or international students. About 60 percent of students came from public high schools, while about 40 percent came from private high schools. Like Colgate, Hamilton has a desirable 9:1 student-to-faculty ratio. About 30 percent of classes have nine or fewer students—which seems really impressive, if small classes are something that your child would enjoy and thrive in.

Hamilton students pursue studies in 51 fields, based on a broad liberal arts and sciences curriculum that each student works out with his or her advisor. There are a few requirements—such as at least three writing-intensive courses—but there seems to be quite a bit of freedom in operationalizing the spirit of a liberal arts education.

All students live on campus in 27 residence halls, and many are likely kept busy on 29 varsity sports teams (given the size of the enrollment and the number of teams).

Like Colgate, about 85 percent of admitted students at Hamilton this fall ranked in the top tenth of their high school graduating class. They posted a trio of SAT subtest scores in the low 700s. Tuition and fees at Hamilton run about $49,500 per year—unfortunately, right in the private college ballpark.

Turning to Skidmore College, we have an institution that was started by Lucy Skidmore Scribner in 1903 as the Young Women’s Industrial Club, which, according to its constitution (as quoted on Skidmore’s website), “promoted ‘the cultivation of such knowledge and arts as may promote (members’) well-being, physical, mental, spiritual, and ability to become self-supporting.’ To this end, the Club offered courses in typewriting, bookkeeping, sewing and dressmaking, physical education, music and folk dancing.” And the website makes the following really good point:

Today we may snicker at the courses in sewing, shirtwaist making and millinery, but these were among the few fields in which women could manage businesses, and those courses were embedded in a broader context of creative expression and aesthetic appreciation. (quoted from the website)

In 1911, the institution was chartered as Skidmore School of Arts, a secondary school, and became Skidmore College in 1922. It became coeducational in 1971.

Today, Skidmore enrolls about 2,600 students, virtually all undergraduates (Skidmore appears to be closing its one master’s degree program).   Just over 20 percent of students are U.S. students of color, and about 10 percent are international students. Skidmore undergraduates are studying in more than 40 bachelor’s degree liberal arts and sciences majors, plus pre-professional studies in business, education, social work, and health and exercise sciences. Many students graduate with a double major. All of the arts—both for majors and non-majors—are also prominent on Skidmore’s campus.

Skidmore students enjoy the same appealing student-to-faculty ratio as the other colleges we have been talking about. They participate in 100 student organizations and 19 varsity sports teams.

Entering freshmen post average SAT subtest scores in the low to mid-600s, and about 45 percent were in the top tenth of their high school graduating class. Tuition and fees at Skidmore run about $49,000 per year—just like every place else.

Before we leave upstate, let’s turn the clock way back to 1795 when Union College became the first college chartered by the New York State Board of Regents. According to the website, “The name Union reflected the founders’ desire to create a welcoming, unified academic community open to all the diverse religious and national groups in the region.” That spirit did not, evidently, apply to women, who were not admitted until 1970. Union had the first unified campus plan, done by French architect Joseph Ramée in 1813. In the center of the grounds lies the distinctive round Nott Memorial building.

Union is proud of its history of re-conceiving the liberal arts:

When the classics were considered the only acceptable field of study, we introduced a bachelor’s degree with an emphasis on history, modern languages, science and mathematics. We were the first liberal arts college in the nation to offer engineering.(quoted from the website)

Like other colleges of its kind, Union has its Common Curriculum, which is required of students and gives students fundamental understandings and skills in a range of liberal arts disciplines, in fields that cross disciplines, and in thinking and research. Union students can then choose from about 45 majors (including about 20 interdisciplinary studies majors) or can create their own interdepartmental major.

Currently, Union enrolls about 2,200 undergraduates (no graduate students), with slightly more male than female students. That is about a 10:1 student-to-faculty ratio. It draws from 37 states and 29 countries—so not quite as far ranging as some other colleges we have looked at. Freshmen last year posted an average high school GPA of about a 3.4, and about 70 percent were in the top tenth of their high school graduating class. This year’s freshmen posted average SAT subtest scores in the mid- to high 600s (with scores higher in math than in critical reading and writing). However, submitting college admission test scores is optional for most students at Union (unless applicants have been homeschooled or are applying to some special programs). The website advises that applicants submit their scores if they are at or above the average scores of applicants, which the website provides. About two-thirds of applicants do submit scores.

Union offers students 100-plus student organizations, 20 fraternities and sororities, and 26 or so varsity sports teams. All first-year students and some upperclassmen live in Minerva Houses, which are all-purpose academic and social self-governed residences. Union charges a comprehensive fee (including tuition, room, and board) of about $62,000 per year (for three 10-week trimesters), with about $51,000 of that making up the tuition and fees we have been quoting for other colleges in our episodes.

Let’s turn now to the three colleges downstate: Vassar College in Poughkeepsie and Sarah Lawrence College in Yonkers, both originally women’s colleges, and Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson.

Vassar College, founded in 1861, is located about 75 miles north of New York City in the beautiful Hudson Valley, which we spoke about in an earlier episode as the location of the State University of New York at New Paltz. It chose to become coeducational in 1969, after deciding not to merge with Yale University.

Vassar’s approximately 2,400 undergraduates—about 65 percent of whom come from public high schools—are about 35 percent students of color and about 10 percent international students. They choose from a broad range of about 50 liberal arts and sciences majors. Interestingly, Vassar has a longstanding commitment to teaching from original source materials, including a rare book collection, manuscripts, and the personal papers of noted scholars and writers. It also has a longstanding commitment to art; it was the first college to have a museum, which actually is older than New York City’s world-renowned Metropolitan Museum of Art.

About 98 percent of students live on campus, taking part in over 100 student organizations and 23 varsity sports teams. About 70 percent of faculty also live on or near the campus, with one or two faculty families living in each residence hall. So there are ways for students to develop relationships with faculty members—in addition to the very low 8:1 student-to-faculty ratio.

Vassar requires either the SAT plus two SAT Subject Tests (in different subjects) or the ACT plus the writing exam. This fall’s freshmen had average SAT subtest scores in the low 700s and an A– (unweighted) high school GPA. About 70 percent of them graduated in the top tenth of their high school class. Tuition and fees run about $51,000 a year.

Founded in 1860, Bard College is located on the Hudson River about 90 miles north of New York City—yet another college in our lovely Hudson River Valley. Some people know Bard for its slightly wild-looking Fisher Center for the Performing Arts, designed by famed architect Frank Gehry. Bard also is noted for its strong commitment to Early College high school programs, running high schools in New York and other states, which enroll almost 1,000 students.

Today, Bard serves about 2,000 undergraduates and about 200 graduate students. About 25 percent are international students. The undergraduate student-to-faculty ratio is 10:1, with courses taught by full faculty members. Bard also offers 15 graduate degree programs at U.S. and international locations, including at the main campus.

“The Love of Learning,” a piece by Bard President Leon Botstein that can be found on the website, addresses the question of what college is for and what kinds of learning and teaching are important for colleges to preserve. You really should go read it because I cannot possibly do it justice. One of my favorite paragraphs is this:

No department wants to become a “service department” without its own majors, relegated to teaching skills and materials to students who are primarily interested in other subjects. It does not seem sufficiently dignified for the purpose of an English department, for example, to educate a literate physician. This is unfortunate. Academic departments often function as if they were merchants in a bazaar, hustling undergraduates to become majors. Administrations, in turn, measure success by counting heads in terms of enrollments that derive from majors: the more majors, the more successful the department. This pattern even spills down to the college applicant, who is asked a ridiculous question: What would you like to major in? (quoted from the website)

In the interest of providing a truly liberal arts curriculum, Bard has a common curriculum for first-year students, an elaborate set of distribution requirements (I say this with obvious approval), and the intriguing idea of Moderation—a process whereby three professors judge a student’s two specific thoughtful written papers before deciding whether the student can move up from the Lower College to the Upper College after two years of study. Undergraduates at Bard can earn a bachelor’s degree in one of 35 fields.

In addition to its innovative curriculum, Bard offers its students about 100 student organizations and 18 varsity sports teams. Bard’s new freshmen come from 34 states and 20 foreign countries—about half from the New England and Mid-Atlantic states. Their average SAT critical reading and math scores were in the low to mid-600s, and about 50 percent graduated in the top tenth of their high school class. Tuition and fees are about $50,000 per year.

Founded in 1926 (the latest of this group we have looked at), Sarah Lawrence College today enrolls about 1,350 undergraduate students and about 350 graduate students. The undergraduates are about 70 percent female and 25 percent students of color. Sarah Lawrence, which began as Sarah Lawrence College for Women and was named for the wife of its benefactor, first admitted men under the G.I. Bill in 1946 and became fully coeducational in 1968.

Sarah Lawrence offers a unique undergraduate curriculum approach. For example, this is what the website says about its signature seminar-conference courses:

At Sarah Lawrence, 90 percent of classes are small, round-table seminars—all taught directly by faculty.

Every semester, for each of your seminar classes, you will complete conference work: an in-depth, individual project developed in collaboration with faculty during bi-weekly, one-on-one meetings. Each conference project is an opportunity for you to demonstrate your subject mastery by creating original work that builds upon the course in ways that you—and only you—can imagine.

Your conference work may be an academic research paper, a piece of creative writing, a staged reading,
 a scientific inquiry, or fieldwork. Conference work at Sarah Lawrence reflects your passions, interests, and aspirations, so projects take many forms and directions. (quoted from the website)

Students work with their don, or faculty advisor, from the beginning of their four years to create a course of study unique to them. Students major in one or more than one of almost 50 disciplines and take courses in three of four broad liberal arts and sciences areas of study. Student assessment includes an evaluation of critical abilities, detailed narrative evaluations, and traditional letter grades. Sarah Lawrence fields 16 varsity sports teams, known as the Gryphons (that is, part eagle, part lion, for those of you who don’t know).

Sarah Lawrence is also a test-optional college, with about 60 percent of students submitting college admission test scores. The average high school GPA of this fall’s freshmen is about a 3.6. Tuition and fees come in at about $51,000 per year.

2. Institutions with a Special Academic Focus

As we seem to have done fairly often in our virtual tour, let’s look at both arts and technology institutions.

Starting in New York City, let’s take a quick look first at a famous institution devoted to the arts: The Julliard School, located at Lincoln Center in Manhattan. Juilliard started as a music academy in 1905, then added a Dance Division in 1951, and finally added a Drama Division (for training both actors and playwrights) in 1968. We won’t say much about Juilliard, because you have to be impossibly talented to get in; but, if you have an impossibly talented child in music, dance, or drama, then you should certainly take a look. For example, the Actor Training Program accepts only 8 to 10 undergraduates and 8 to 10 graduate students each year; these students then move through a required four-year acting curriculum together as a group.

Interestingly, even though Juilliard awards its bachelor’s degrees in fine arts and in music (offering 14 different music majors), it requires its students to take at least 24 credits in the liberal arts, all taught in small seminar classes:

Juilliard actively promotes a liberal arts education that provides the humanistic, ethical, social, critical, and aesthetic background essential to personal development and professional excellence. Studies in literature, philosophy, history, social sciences, arts, and languages, foster in students a deeper understanding of themselves and the complex world in which they live. . . . Through their work in the Liberal Arts, students refine skills in reading, writing, speaking, and critical thinking, learning to communicate with greater clarity and effectiveness. This program equips them to become active, well-informed citizens; develops their awareness of the social and humanistic dimensions of professional work; and lays the basis for a fulfilling cultural and intellectual life. (quoted from the website)

Juilliard does not require college admission test scores (except for homeschooled students), but does require auditions, of course. Tuition runs about $40,000 per year, and room and board costs at Juilliard are about $15,000 to $18,000 per year. These are certainly high, but actually not so high as other top-tier New York City institutions.

Let’s also look at Pratt Institute, which is located in Brooklyn and is a bit more realistic option, though this time mainly for artistically talented students. Founded in 1887, today Pratt serves about 3,000 undergraduates (about 70 percent female and about 70 percent from outside New York State) and 1,500 graduate students, drawn internationally.

Undergraduates can pursue degrees in architecture, construction management, fine arts, photography, digital arts, graphic design, industrial design, fashion design, interior design, but also film, writing, the history of art and design, and more. The student-to-faculty ratio is 10:1.

First-year students take two Survey of Art courses, two English courses, and the Foundation Core, which is, according to the website, “a series of studio experiences that deal with the analysis of problems in perception, conception, and imagination. The studio work encompasses both 2- and 3-D forms in their optical, technical, and symbolic natures. In addition, students receive an introduction to 4-D time arts through the use of computers and other media. At one point, students may deal with specifically designed structural problems and at another point may examine these problems from expressive, social, and historical perspectives. Through this process, individual imagination, skill, ambition, and preferences are examined.” That sounds both impressive and difficult.

Pratt fields 10 varsity sports teams—though, as we have said for some other great institutions, I don’t think you go to Pratt for the athletics.

Incoming freshmen bring average SAT subtest scores in the very high 500s and an average high school GPA of about a 3.6. All majors, except construction management, require a visual or writing portfolio as part of the application process. Tuition and fees run about $45,000 per year.

Moving upstate now, let’s take a look at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) in Troy (which is close to Albany).

RPI, founded in 1824, claims to be the oldest technological research university in the U.S. It offers bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees and comprises five schools: Engineering; Science; Architecture; Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences; and the Lally School of Management. RPI also offers bachelor’s and master’s degrees in Information Technology and Web Science. Perhaps the most surprising majors of the 38 undergraduate majors that RPI offers are in psychology and philosophy—both through the Cognitive Science Department (which is devoted to “the scientific study of the mind, brain, and intelligence”). RPI also encourages interdisciplinary study across departments and schools.

RPI’s key research topics are biotechnology and the life sciences; energy and the environment; computational science and engineering; nanotechnology and advanced materials; and media, arts, science, and technology. Its mission, as stated when it was founded, is in “the application of science to the common purposes of life” (quoted from the website).

Today, RPI enrolls about 5,500 undergraduates (about 70 percent male) and almost 1,500 graduate students. Larger than the other institutions we have talked about in this episode, its student-to-faculty ratio is 15:1. RPI also fields 23 varsity sports teams.

I first learned about RPI’s president some years ago when we were doing a project for RPI, and I have to tell you that Shirley Ann Jackson is an impressive person. Here is a bit of her profile from the website:

A theoretical physicist, Dr. Jackson has had a distinguished career that includes senior leadership positions in academia, government, industry, and research. She holds an S.B. in Physics, and a Ph.D. in Theoretical Elementary Particle Physics–both from MIT. She is the first African-American woman to receive a doctorate from MIT—in any field—and has been a trailblazer throughout her career, including as the first African-American woman to lead a top-ranked research university. (quoted from the website)

Last year’s freshman class posted average SAT subtest scores at just about 700, with an average high school GPA of almost a 3.8. About 70 percent finished in the top tenth of their high school graduating class. Tuition and fees run about $49,500.

By the way, you might also want to check out the Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT), if you have a child interested in technical fields of study.

3. Winding Up New York State and Our Virtual Tour

It might be hard for us to leave New York State, but I feel we must. There are plenty of other higher education institutions we have not discussed, any one of which might be right for your child. I could name Clarkson University, St. Lawrence University, Pace University, Manhattan College, Molloy College, Ithaca College, St. John’s University, Yeshiva University, The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art, Hobart and William Smith Colleges, and more. It’s just as the song says, “I love New York.”

It is even harder for us to end our virtual tour. We have learned a lot about a lot of colleges—some we had known quite well, and some we had not known at all. We hope you learned just as much and that what you learned will prove useful to your child’s search for the perfect college for him or her.

Listen to the podcast to find out about…

  • What about our colleagues at The American University in Paris? We are hoping for a safe recovery for all of you.
  • What about Molloy College?
  • What about Manhattan College?

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In New York State

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