Episode 111: The College Major Dilemma

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We believe that today’s topic is an issue in higher education not only because the ins and outs of it are talked about often by professors and college administrators, but also because it is something that you as parents will undoubtedly be talking about to your kids once they get to college–if you haven’t started already. It is an issue that comes up in college applications?far too often, from my own point of view. It is the issue of what kids should major in when they go to college.

“Why is that even an issue for parents?” asked no parent ever. Here’s why. Let me read a letter written recently by a father to Philip Galanes, the “Social Q’s” columnist who gives “lighthearted advice about awkward social situations” in the words of The New York Times:

 

My wife and I are spending a fortune to send our son to an Ivy League college. Over the holidays, he came home and told us that he loves his agricultural science class and wants to volunteer at a sustainable farm over the summer. Excuse me, but I am not paying $60,000 a year (after taxes) for him to become a farmer. My wife tells me to relax; his interests will probably change. He is only a freshman. But what if they don’t? How should I handle this?

I love Burt Bacharach and Hal David. (What right-thinking child of the ’70s doesn’t?) But I have a bone to pick with some lyrics in “What the World Needs Now Is Love,” namely: “Lord, we don’t need another meadow. There are cornfields and wheat fields enough to grow.” Not true! If your son wants to be part of the revolution in sustainable farming and end world hunger, more power to him. (Or your wife may be right: He could trade in his overalls by Labor Day. He’s just starting out. What better time to explore?)

Still, you have a point. He who pays the piper calls the tune, as the proverb goes. But did you tell your son, before school began, that it was Goldman Sachs or bust? Probably not. (I also suspect that your parameters for acceptable study are broader than that.) You and your wife should discuss the education you are willing to underwrite and share the news with your son. He may accept your decision. . . . But here’s hoping he won’t. There are surely less controlling ways to teach him the consequences of his professional choices. (quoted from the article)

And there you have it. Parents are often concerned about the marketability in the job market and the earning potential of whatever their kids are studying. Of course, kids are concerned about this, too, but perhaps not quite so much. So, let’s talk about it.

1. Some Thoughts from Cornell University

Let me start with some thoughts from my own alma mater, Cornell University, which won’t surprise anyone in our listening audience. I do so because I have an inkling that the young man whose father wrote the letter might very well be studying at Cornell’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. I think that for obvious reasons.

In my Cornell Alumni Magazine (January/February, 2017), the then-interim president and past president of the University, Hunter Rawlings, was quoted as telling undergraduates in an economics lecture to “major in what you love” and that “[t]he major you choose isn’t as important as parents think” (page 12). That’s kind of a double whammy for some parents, President Rawlings. I am wondering how the father who wrote the letter would feel about those remarks. While I was truly pleased by the President’s remarks, I doubt that father shared my point of view.

What was driving President Rawlings? Perhaps it was a story by Susan Kelley that I read back in September, 2016, as reported in the Cornell Chronicle. The story informs our discussion in this episode:

Interim President Hunter Rawlings is prompting the Cornell faculty to review undergraduate curriculum this year with an emphasis on the value of a liberal education.

“Cornell has rarely, if ever, talked about undergraduate education across the campus. We talk about it within the colleges, but we almost never consider the education all Cornell undergraduates receive from a unified perspective,” Rawlings said before discussing the initiative at the Sept. 14 faculty Senate meeting. “I would like to stimulate a conversation this year across the colleges.”

Rawlings defines “liberal education” as one faithful to its original meaning in Latin: “education for free citizens” who are capable of participating in civic affairs and government. Liberal education, he noted, “is distinguished from purely vocational education and emphasizes critical thinking, moral reasoning, close reading, clear speaking and writing, and the capacity to conduct independent and collaborative research.”

“The faculty owns the curriculum. It is their business,” he emphasized. But the time is right for a comprehensive review, he said. . . .

As president of the Association of American Universities for the past five years, he has seen a nationwide loss of faith in liberal education. That loss is tied to a strong emphasis on vocational education–a degree as a ticket to get a job. “Research universities have not done much to define and defend liberal education,” Rawlings said.

In Rawlings’ view, the College of Arts and Sciences is central to the discussion: it has Cornell’s core departments such that the other colleges rely on it for many of their students’ requirements and electives. (quoted from the article)

What does it take to educate free citizens? Is it arts and humanities or history or the social sciences or mathematics or the natural sciences? Isn’t it all of those things that colleges often refer to as general education or the core curriculum or distribution requirements? Is President Rawlings concerned that some students in the pursuit of a career-related degree in college in mechanical engineering or accounting or agricultural science, for example, will overlook those other fields that make up a liberal education–an education for future citizens? That is precisely what he doesn’t want to happen at Cornell. (And, by the way, father who wrote that letter, a degree in agricultural science will probably get your son into a career a lot quicker than a lot of other degrees I could name, so you might want to calm down.)

Some listeners will recall our long explanation of what a core curriculum is back in Episode 87, where we discussed the value of a core curriculum and whether the presence of a strong core curriculum with many requirements and/or with strict requirements should be a deciding factor in what colleges a kid might want to apply to. In fact, the details of such a core curriculum gets its own question in our College Profile Worksheet, which can be found in our new book How To Explore Your College Options: A Workbook for High School Seniors (out next month).

2. Some Thoughts from Pomona College

But President Rawlings and I are not the only ones who are concerned about “a nationwide loss of faith in liberal education.” I stumbled across an excellent talk given to Pomona College students last June by the U.S. Senator from Hawai’i Brian Schatz, a 1994 graduate of Pomona College. Feel free to go all the way back to our virtual nationwide college tour and listen to Episode 40, where we discuss Pomona College. Pomona is the oldest and founding college in the highly respected California consortium of five colleges, known as The Claremont Colleges. Pomona offers its 1,600 academically bright students a liberal arts curriculum, with 47 majors and a focus on the humanities, natural sciences, and social sciences.

Here are some of the Senator’s remarks, quoted from a YouTube video of his talk (to learn more about Pomona College, you should watch the whole video):

Liberal arts education is the best preparation for whatever you want to do next. And I believe that strongly, personally, because here I am in the U.S. Senate with a degree in philosophy from Pomona College. I didn’t get the law degree, and I didn’t get the economics degree. I got the degree in philosophy. And I remember my academic advisor saying . . . “[S]tudy what you want to study and it will all work out.” A liberal arts education provides that foundation. I think you want well-rounded thinkers in all sectors of society–in the public sector, in the private sector, in the not-for-profit sector. Whatever you want to do, I think it’s important to get that liberal arts education. As I meet students, I just encourage them to find that motivation internally and stick with it. . . . (quoted from the YouTube video)

And, parents, as we often say here at USACollegeChat, it is hard for students to find that motivation unless they have a liberal education or, at least, unless they have the benefit of taking a variety of college courses through core requirements in fields that they did not have access to before they got to college, including the Senator’s choice of the field of philosophy.

3. Some Thoughts from the Future Job Market

Well, I know this is a hard sell, so let me reflect with you on some interesting information I picked up at the Early College conference I attended and spoke at last week. A great conference in sunny Orlando sponsored by KnowledgeWorks, it offered a keynote address by the same professor who keynoted last year, Dr. James Johnson, Jr. (Director, Urban Investments Strategy Center, Frank Hawkins Kenan Institute of Private Enterprise, University of North Carolina). Dr. Johnson, who has been a professor for 37 years, spoke brilliantly last year about changing demographics in the U.S.

This year, he turned his attention to “Jobs on the Move” and, again, spoke brilliantly. While it would be impossible to repeat his presentation here, let me give you just a few interesting facts he presented to support his view that the world of work is changing dramatically, that we are now living in a state of “certain uncertainty,” and that education is necessary, but insufficient:

  • In the 1980s, blue-collar jobs shifted off shore, resulting in a loss of 7.2 million jobs between 1979 and 2015 (a drop of 37 percent).
  • In the 1990s, white-collar jobs shifted off shore–for example, in the IT sector. By 2000, business processing was moving off shore, like operations, administration, sales, and customer services. By the way, workers in call centers in India are graduates of India’s equivalent of our M.I.T.
  • Now, knowledge processing is being outsourced, like R & D activities. Perhaps 13 percent of white-collar jobs are vulnerable–in business, computer, legal, and medical fields. For example, medical scans are already being read halfway around the world in 15 minutes for $80 compared to our $800 and three weeks before you get the results. In the new world of medical tourism, an operation can be had in India for 10 percent of the cost here. Good talent is simply cheaper off shore.
  • In the new world of robotics outsourcing, problem-solving robots will put more white-collar jobs at risk. Accountants have a 94 percent chance of being replaced, and pilots have a 55 percent chance of being replaced. Self-driving vehicles will cost millions their jobs.
  • As we leave the Information Age, we are entering the Human Age. Many of us will become freelancers in a global online marketplace. Any work you want done, you will post on a site and get a quick reply from someone who can do it. Already $1 billion a year is earned by freelancers (with 9 million freelancers registered).

Dr. Johnson concluded by saying that we educators in the audience should quit trying to train people for a particular job; we are too busy preparing our nation’s kids to work for someone else, who will be outsourcing their jobs sooner or later. We should be giving our nation’s kids the tools to make and navigate their own paths and to let their own creativity thrive.

What are those tools? Dr. Johnson suggested these for a “competitive tool kit” (quoted from his keynote speech):

  • “Analytical reasoning”
  • “Entrepreneurial acumen” (that is, expertise)–We will come back to entrepreneurship in a minute.
  • “Contextual intelligence” (that is, staying on top of information and change in your own field)
  • “Soft skills and cultural elasticity” (that is, moving from situation to situation in different settings with different people, which call for different responses)
  • “Agility and flexibility” (in a lifelong-learning mindset)

Dr. Johnson noted that the University of North Carolina, where he teaches, offers a minor in entrepreneurship in the College of Arts and Sciences. Entrepreneurship is not just for business majors! Here is some information about the minor in entrepreneurship, quoted from the College’s website:

This interdisciplinary minor in UNC’s College of Arts and Sciences encourages students to think and act entrepreneurially. Students will gain knowledge and skills to start successful ventures of all kinds: artistic, commercial, media, social, scientific, sports, [design, computer science,] and public health. (quoted from the website)

Here is an example of one of those tracks, quoted from the College’s website:

. . . The [Artistic] track examines the concepts and tools needed to pursue artistic ventures, including the formation of business plans for student created ventures, and includes the legal aspects and challenges of Intellectual Property, i.e. copyright, trademarks, logos and patents. The instructors cover the music industry with emphasis on music publishing rights, the recording business, and booking and promotion for the live performance industry.  It also includes discussions of the television, motion picture and theatre businesses.  Guests who feature prominently in these industries are brought in to share their careers and interact with students.  Such guests can include musicians, singers, theatrical producers, film and television actors, talent agents, dancers, record industry executives, et al. The course takes students through the process of creating formal business plans for proposed artistic ventures, plans that are built and revised throughout the semester. (quoted from the website)

After the presentation, I chatted with Dr. Johnson. I told him that one of my musician sons had gotten a master’s degree in Creative Entrepreneurship from the University of East Anglia in the U.K. At the time, I thought that was the dumbest thing I had ever heard, though I knew deep down that it was a made-to-order master’s degree for him. I told Dr. Johnson that I was feeling much better about his degree now, thanks to Dr. Johnson’s explanation of the rise of entrepreneurship and the Human Age.

I went on to ask Dr. Johnson what he thought about the role of liberal arts in a college education, given his concern that our schools and colleges should not be preparing students for a specific job. He said that he believed that the liberal arts definitely had a place in a college education. I am imagining that means at least in those early core requirements when students are learning to analyze and to think across a variety of disciplines and to be agile and flexible in their learning. He said that, after all, you can’t always put engineers in front of people. By the way, you can and should find Dr. Johnson on YouTube so you can hear from him yourself.

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Episode 40: Colleges in the Far West Region—Part II

In last week’s episode, we continued our virtual tour of colleges by looking at the six states of the Far West region: Washington, Oregon, California, Nevada, Alaska, and Hawai‘i. 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 Far West states by focusing on private higher education institutions.

Virtual tour of private colleges and universities in the Far West Region on NYCollegeChat. Episode an notes available at http://usacollegechat.org/40 #college #collegeaccess #parentsWe are going to check out several national universities, which really draw students internationally, as well as a handful of universities best known in their own region and a handful of smaller liberal arts colleges. Many of them happen to be located in the very large state of California. We feel that these are the private institutions in the Far West that are most likely to attract out-of-state students.

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

1. Private Universities

Let’s look at three large private universities in California, all of which are excellent and all of which will require great to incredible high school GPAs and college admission test scores to get into. First, there is California Institute of Technology (commonly known as Caltech)—a first-rate university akin to Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Georgia Institute of Technology.

Founded in 1891 in lovely Pasadena, Caltech is “a world-renowned science and engineering research and education institution, where extraordinary faculty and students seek answers to complex questions, discover new knowledge, lead innovation, and transform our future,” according to its website. In most cases, I take website statements with a grain of salt; but, I believe this one is actually accurate.

About 1,000 undergraduate students study in 26 programs across six academic divisions: Biology and Biological Engineering, Chemistry and Chemical Engineering, Engineering and Applied Science, Geological and Planetary Sciences, Humanities and Social Sciences, and Physics, Mathematics and Astronomy. Caltech also enrolls about 1,200 graduate students—so, more graduate than undergraduate students.

Caltech boasts a student-to-faculty ratio of 3:1—so low a ratio that it is literally unbelievable (before this, the lowest we had seen was Rice University’s 6:1, which also seemed shockingly low). This means that students have unprecedented access to faculty in class and in research labs and likely outside of class as well. About 80 percent of Caltech undergraduate degree-holders go on to earn a graduate degree.

Despite enrolling really brainy students, Caltech fields 17 men’s and women’s varsity sports teams. Undergraduates live in eight Houses, each with its own character and each of which they visit during a process called Rotation.

New freshmen in the Class of 2018 are about 60 percent male and 40 percent female—a bit more balanced than the overall institution. Their average SAT scores are about 750 or better on each subtest. So, this is an institution for a very particular kind of student with very particular academic interests.

At about $45,000 in tuition and fees annually, Caltech’s cost is comparable to other top-tier universities and not surprising, given the equipment and lab expenses of operating a higher education institution focused on engineering and science.

Just a short drive away in Los Angeles, we find the University of Southern California (known as USC and, to its amazingly active alumni/alumnae, as SC). Founded in 1880 with 53 students, before Los Angeles had paved streets, USC now serves about 19,000 undergraduates and another 24,000 graduate and professional students—again, more graduate than undergraduate students and a very, very big student body for a private university. Almost one-quarter of its students are drawn internationally.

USC’s incoming freshmen have an average high school GPA of 3.73 and an average of close to 700 on each of the three SAT subtests; that’s a lot of smart kids. USC students are also athletic. USC was home to 418 Olympic athletes (between 1904 and 2010), the most of any U.S. university. And, it offers 20 men’s and women’s varsity sports teams. If you know any USC alums, you know that the Trojans play some serious football and you know that loyal alums into their eighties attend games in state and out of state. USC also offers students over 850 student organizations, including fraternities and sororities, to join.

USC has 21 undergraduate, graduate, and professional schools and colleges—as many as we have ever seen—including, its College of Letters, Arts and Sciences and a wide variety of career-related schools, such as its Schools of Cinematic Arts, Architecture, Dance, Business, Education, Music, Engineering, Art and Design, Accounting, Communication and Journalism, Public Policy, Dramatic Arts, and more. All undergraduates take a core of general education, writing, and diversity-themed courses.

With all of that available at USC, $48,000 in annual tuition and fees is perhaps understandable—though, obviously, still quite high.

Moving north, we come to Stanford University, located a bit south of San Francisco on a lovely campus with beautiful California Mission-style buildings of sandstone with red-tiled roofs. Leland Stanford Junior University was founded in 1885 by U.S. Senator Leland Stanford and his wife in memory of their son. They hired famous landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted to design the campus—and it shows. Stanford University was co-educational and nondenominational at a time when most private universities were neither.

It now serves about 7,000 undergraduates and about 9,000 graduate and professional students in seven schools, three of which serve undergraduate students: Earth, Energy and Environmental Sciences; Engineering; and Humanities and Sciences. Undergraduates choose from about 65 majors, with the top five majors all being in the sciences and engineering. Like Caltech, Stanford has an extraordinarily low and appealing student-to-faculty ratio of 4:1.

Surprisingly, given its first-rate national reputation, about 40 percent of undergraduates are Californians. Not surprisingly, given its outstanding academic reputation, about 75 percent of new freshmen have a high school GPA of 4.0 or higher and have a 700 or better on each of the three SAT subtests (including about 25 percent with perfect 800 scores).

About 96 percent of undergraduates live on campus and undoubtedly take part in approximately 650 student organizations. There are about 13,000 bicycles being ridden on campus every day. Stanford also provides a robust varsity sports program of 36 men’s, women’s, and co-educational teams. For a straight 38 years, at least one Stanford team has won a national championship (in 2013–14, it was women’s water polo).

At $45,000 in tuition and fees annually, its costs are high, but in line with other top universities.

2. Private Faith-Based Universities

The Far West has an interesting selection of faith-based universities that are well regarded, if not especially well known outside of the region. First, the Far West is home to four of the 28 Catholic Jesuit universities in the U.S.: Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, with about 6,000 undergraduates and a total of about 9,500 undergraduate, graduate, and professional students; Santa Clara University in Santa Clara, California, with about 5,500 undergraduates and a total of about 9,000 undergraduate, graduate, and professional students; Gonzaga University in Spokane, Washington, with about 5,000 undergraduates and a total of about 7,500 undergraduate, graduate, and professional students; and Seattle University in Seattle, Washington, with about 4,500 undergraduates and a total of about 7,500 undergraduate, graduate, and professional students. These are all substantial institutions. Pricewise, their annual tuition and fees range from about $38,000 to $44,000, with the ones in Washington being a bit cheaper than the ones in California.

As we have said in previous episodes, the Jesuits trace their commitment to education to St. Ignatius of Loyola, who founded the first Jesuit college in Messina, Sicily, in 1548. Jesuit institutions today place a strong emphasis on intellectual rigor and a liberal arts foundation, social justice issues worldwide, and a life of service. Students of all faiths are welcome at Jesuit institutions, and I believe that most students feel quite comfortable there, even if they are not Catholic.

Turning to a different faith-based tradition, Hawai‘i has a branch of Brigham Young University, operated by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, in a perfect locale just north of Honolulu. Its approximately 2,500 undergraduates drawn from 70 countries study in a relatively strict Mormon intellectual, ethical, and social setting, as we described in Episode 34 about the Rocky Mountain region’s Brigham Young University campuses in Utah and Idaho.

Moving on to another faith-based tradition, or perhaps more like a philosophy-based tradition, we have Soka University of America (SUA), located in Aliso Viejo in Orange County, California—a short drive from the beach. “Proudly founded upon the Buddhist principles of peace, human rights and the sanctity of life, SUA offers a non-sectarian curriculum” and welcomes students of all beliefs (quoted from the website).   With tuition of about $29,000, SUA offers full tuition scholarships to eligible students whose annual family income is $60,000 or less.

Soka means “to create value.” The mission of SUA is to “foster a steady stream of global citizens committed to living a contributive life” (quoted from the website). Soka schools—from kindergarten through college in Japan—are based on the work of a Japanese educator, imprisoned by Japanese authorities for opposing World War II and defending religious freedom. The education society that he founded is now one of the world’s largest Buddhist organizations made up of laypersons.

Founded in 1987, SUA has just about 400 undergraduate students and a handful of graduate students today—about half from the U.S. All undergraduates earn a B.A. in Liberal Arts, with a concentration in Environmental Studies, Humanities, International Studies, or Social and Behavioral Sciences. All students study abroad for one semester of their junior year, after four courses of language study in their choice of Chinese, French, Japanese, or Spanish—a required international perspective.

Finally, let’s look at Pepperdine University in Malibu, California, just north of Los Angeles. If you ever see its gorgeous campus perched high above the Pacific Ocean, you will never forget it. Pepperdine describes itself as “a Christian university committed to the highest standards of academic excellence and Christian values, where students are strengthened for lives of purpose, service and leadership” (quoted from the website). Founded in 1937, George Pepperdine spoke to students with these words that still guide the University:

There are many good colleges and universities which can give you standard academic training, but if our school does not give you more than that, it really has no reason to exist. The great difference between this college and other colleges is that we are endeavoring to place adequate emphasis and greater stress upon religious teaching and Christian character. We want to present to you, in teaching and example, the Christian way of life. We do not compel you to accept it. You are free to make your own choice, but we want you to know what it is. (quoted from the website)

Today, Pepperdine’s approximately 3,200 undergraduates (by the way, there are graduate programs in five schools as well) study in 44 majors in Seaver College of Letters, Arts, and Sciences, after a common core of 19 liberal arts courses, including three required religion courses: one on the Old Testament, one on the New Testament, and one on Christianity’s influences on culture (for example, the arts, education, social issues, and law). There are more than 115 student organizations and 17 men’s and women’s varsity sports teams to keep students busy. More than 60 percent study abroad at one of six Pepperdine facilities—in Buenos Aires, Florence, Heidelberg, Lausanne, London, and Shanghai. There is also a Washington, D.C., facility for “study abroad at home.”

Entering freshmen post an average high school GPA of 3.6 or a bit higher and SAT scores of about 625 to 650 on each of three subtests. About 55 percent of students come from California (maybe because not many kids from across the U.S. have seen Malibu yet). Tuition is hefty at $48,000 per year, but that view of the Pacific might be worth it.

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.

Six of the 44 institutions profiled are located in our Far West region. You should read about them in the book or on the website to learn more about them. They are The Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington, which we spoke about in detail in our last episode on public colleges; the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma, Washington; Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington; St. Mary’s College of California in Moraga, California; Willamette University in Salem, Oregon; and Reed College in Portland, Oregon.

Let’s focus on Reed for a moment and its approximately 1,400 undergraduate students studying in 40 majors (there are also some graduate students). Long known as a nontraditional college for smart students, Reed has been committed to a liberal arts education since its founding in 1908 from the estates of Oregon pioneers Simeon and Amanda Reed. Its freshmen take a year-long interdisciplinary humanities course, its juniors sit for a qualifying exam in their major, and its seniors write an original research or artistic thesis and defend it orally. Feedback from professors to students in their courses is through narrative comments rather than through traditional grades.

Reed is characterized by free thinking, lack of rules and regulations, its Honor Principle that governs both academic and social life, and small classes with open discussion. About 70 percent of its students go on to graduate or professional school, and about 25 percent go on to earn a Ph.D.

Reed offers club sports and outdoor programs, but no varsity sports. It does offer a wide variety of student organizations, funded by a student vote. Its incoming freshmen boast an average high school GPA of 3.9 and a pair of SAT subtest scores around 700—so these are bright kids in an intriguing and free-spirited academic environment. Almost 30 percent of students are from underrepresented minority groups, and about 50 percent come from the Far West states. Undergraduate tuition and fees are admittedly super high at about $50,000 per year.

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 good high school record might have a good chance of being accepted (though that would need to be a really great high school record to be admitted to Reed).

4. Other Private Colleges

Of course, there are still more private colleges in these Far West states, especially in California—indeed, too many to discuss here. But I would like to mention one well-known consortium of colleges, The Claremont Colleges. Founded on the vision of James A. Blaisdell in 1925, The Claremont Colleges are described this way in Blaisdell’s own words:

My own very deep hope is that instead of one great, undifferentiated university, we might have a group of institutions divided into small colleges — somewhat of an Oxford type — around a library and other utilities which they would use in common. In this way I should hope to preserve the inestimable personal values of the small college while securing the facilities of the great university.

Blaisdell’s vision, which tries to have the best of both worlds, produced today’s consortium of five colleges—Pomona College, founded in 1887 and the founding college of this consortium almost five decades later; Scripps College in 1926; Claremont McKenna College in 1946; Harvey Mudd College in 1955; and Pitzer College in 1963—plus two graduate institutions and a support services entity. The colleges are located in Claremont, about 35 miles inland from Los Angeles—“within an hour of the Pacific Ocean, the Mojave Desert, the San Gabriel Mountains and the city of Los Angeles,” as the website boasts.

With a total enrollment of about 7,700 students, each college has its own campus within the same one square mile and its own students, but students are able to take a significant number of courses from the 2,500 offered across the five colleges or even to major in something at another of the five colleges. Here are the thumbnail descriptions of the five institutions:

  • Pomona College offers its 1,600 students a liberal arts curriculum, with 47 majors and a focus on the humanities, natural sciences, and social sciences. It has an attractive 8:1 student-to-faculty ratio. Despite its small size, it offers 21 varsity sports teams and over 220 student organizations.
  • Scripps College is a liberal arts college for just under 1,000 women; about 30 percent are students of color. Scripps offers 65 majors, a required Core Curriculum of three challenging interdisciplinary humanities courses, and a required senior thesis. It fields 21 varsity sports teams in collaboration with its consortium mates Claremont McKenna College and Harvey Mudd College.
  • Claremont McKenna College—once Claremont Men’s College, but now coeducational—offers its 1,300 students a liberal arts curriculum with 33 majors and a focus on economics, government, and international relations. It also has an attractive 8:1 student-to-faculty ratio.       About 90 percent of its students have an internship during their college years.
  • Harvey Mudd College offers majors in just six fields—biology, chemistry, computer science, engineering, mathematics, and physics, plus a few joint majors—but also requires a humanities course and a writing course of all students. Since 1963, its Clinic Program has engaged juniors and seniors in solving real-world problems for industry clients. Harvey Mudd has a student body of just about 800 undergraduates.
  • Pitzer College 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. About 75 percent of Pitzer students study abroad.

The SAT subtest scores of entering freshmen at The Claremont Colleges are strong—about 680 to 735 across the board. In 2003, however, Pitzer adopted a test-optional admission policy “following a study that proved that there was no direct correlation between academic success at Pitzer and standardized testing. Since Pitzer stopped requiring the SAT or ACT for admission, the campus has seen a 58 percent increase in diversity, an 8 percent increase in GPA, and a 39 percent increase in applicants with a 10 percent increase in retention. The College has also doubled the number of students from low income, first generation backgrounds” (quoted from the website). And that is all quite impressive.

Tested or not, students at The Claremont Colleges are smart. For example, about 40 percent of the incoming freshmen in the Class of 2018 at Harvey Mudd were valedictorians or salutatorians of their high school class. Students at the five colleges pay about $46,000 to $49,000 annually in tuition and fees for the privilege of attending this unique consortium.

If we had more time, I might talk about Occidental College in Los Angeles or Mills College, a women’s college in Oakland, California—two more private liberal arts colleges that are worth a look.

5. Looking Back

I am struck by how difficult it appears for students to get into the private colleges we talked about in this episode. Some have always been very selective, but others have gotten increasingly so in the past two or three decades. I usually think that students from outside a region with decent, but not outstanding, grades might have a better shot at getting into a college than comparable students within the region. But I am not sure that is the case here. What I do know is that there are some great choices on the West Coast that are worth thinking hard about if you have a child who has done really well in high school. Otherwise, some of the faith-based institutions and some of the Colleges That Change Lives might give your good, but not great, student a chance to enjoy the West.

Listen to the podcast to find out about…

  • Why some faith-based colleges could be a surprisingly interesting choice
  • What colleges a kid might actually be able to get into these days
  • How interesting the vision for The Claremont Colleges turned out to be

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