Tuesday, February 17, 2015

College Visits and Clarity of Mission

Since the summer of 2014 our family has been intimately connected to the world of searching for that right college for our oldest daughter. I have spent my entire career in or around higher education (precisely since 1989 when I first taught a university course as a teaching assistant at Kenyatta university). But visiting colleges and universities as a parent has been a very different experience for me. I have been keen to look closely at how well the prospective colleges and universities align with our daughter's stated interests-expected area of study, study abroad opportunities, academic rigor and research opportunities, and a supportive community. In general most colleges and universities can claim to offer some model of all these interests but it has been interesting to gauge the different colleges we have visited through the filters of our daughters (yes we brought along the youngest on the visits). So our choices of colleges and universities to visit were not random but they did give us a variety from which to compare. We visited Augustana College, Calvin College, College of Wooster, Denison University, Michigan State, Northwestern, Saint Lawrence University, University of Chicago, University of Michigan, and Wheaton College. By the time of deciding which ones to apply to the list changed, including adding some schools that we did not visit and eliminating some we visited. So the final list was Calvin College, College of Wooster, Denison University, Kalamazoo College, Kenyon College, Saint Lawrence University, University of Michigan, and Yale. By December 2014 she had heard some positive feedback from Calvin, College of Wooster, Kalamazoo College, and University of Michigan. They all also offered her some financial aid and she has been weighing her options with the financial aid package as an important part of it since she feels she can succeed in most of those to which she applied. We have tried to ask her about the "top" choice but she has held her cards very close to her chest and does not want to pick any but we think College of Wooster is up there on that list. Given that hunch let me use College of Wooster as an example of what I think might be the draw for the decision she would make to attend any of the fine institutions she applied to besides affordability. It comes down to one key thing-mission! Of course the college does have the major she is interested in but I believe she is convinced that while her study focus is important (and understands it could change once in college), she primarily is looking at the college's ability to develop her well for the next level (work and/or graduate school). I am sold to the mission of the liberal arts and its ability to provide graduates the requisite skills that are necessary in our complex and ever changing world. I am pretty sure I have not been too quiet about it so it has rubbed off on our daughters who prefer to have their undergraduate studies in a liberal arts college then go to a big school for graduate work.
But let's go back to mission. I focus on mission here because I want to emphasize what I see as the College of Wooster's ability to convey what it is about with clarity not only in all publicity materials sent out to prospective students as well as the signs around campus but also in the various ways it is articulated and embodied by real human beings intimately connected to the institution--faculty, students, and staff (and I am sure alumni). But I think the most convincing part for me, as an anthropologist interested in not just rhetoric but praxis, is how the college's mission gets played out in the life of the college. This is where I think the College of Wooster stands out. In focusing on its mission of "independent minds working together" the operating belief is that the college offers one unique experience for all students no matter their academic ability or major--mentored research. A recent Gallup study on how the college experience shapes one's career and well-being, mentoring stood out as an important predictor of success and well-being for alumni. (See study here http://www.gallup.com/services/176768/2014-gallup-purdue-index-report.aspx.). To do this well the College of Wooster seems to have understood that students often encounter and interact with all aspects and structures of the college as whole individuals and not as separate pieces that seem to be reflected in how we divide up our institutions into student services, academic services, housing, etc. we cannot divide the college experience into multiple disconnected parts and then tell the students "here are your options, put them together so that you can graduate and be successful." Students need guidance, mentoring, aside, and modeling. That is exactly what the Gallup study reveals. To its credit, the college of Wooster has set out to challenge the usual academic silos, creating intentional collaborative working opportunities to, for instance, have student life to be intimately connected to academic life. They want students to be regarded as whole beings served in a wholistic way. That is the gist of a liberal arts education. Indeed, when I visited the college in 2012 (full disclosure here: I happen to know Dr. Grant Cornwell, current president, from my time at Saint Lawrence University and have maintained our friendship), I learned that the president had asked both the office of international students and the office of multicultural programs to work together and have ongoing conversations that could lead to not only learning from each other but also sharing those valuable points of intersections that could lead to more student success. To facilitate this conversation both offices were even provided shared space (in Babcock Hall) where they have close physical proximity. Three years ago (in 2012) the registrar's office, career planning, Off-Campus Studies, Entrepreneurship, Learning Center, Academic Advising, and Experiential Learning all came together in one shared space in the library where personnel involved in leading them hold joint meetings and seek multiple ways of communicating with each other. 
And for students who have just been admitted to join the college, there is the ARCH (academic registration creative horizons), a program that takes place the summer before the student's first fall semester at the college. It is designed in a way that the new student has a team of three people (faculty, administrator, and a student), who work closely with him/her to make an educational plan (based on the students passions and interests), select courses for the fall, and learn about all the support resources available to the student to make him/her successful. This program includes parents as well who get a sense of what the students will be going through and also know the resources available that they can later point to their students should they need them. There is something else that is attractive about this college--when we visited in the summer of 2014on our stop from vising about four other institutions, I was quite impressed with the presentation made by the vp for enrollment. He made it clear that the College of Wooster was not for everyone, which is basically true for all institutions but in a climate where many institutions want to be as "inclusive" as they can be and careful not to "turn away" anyone, this seemed quite bold. He also talked about the institution not being perfect but rather that it does have its highs and lows (most institutions don't tell prospective students about their lows). I left that meeting convinced that the institution was telling it's everyday story and not the sanitized brochure story that I had gotten used to at the other institutions. It is also interesting to see that students on campus do talk about the value of the mentored research. And I am talking about random students, not the ones picked by admissions staff to make formal presentations to visitors to the college. The brevity and clarity of the mission and the attendant practices make it possible for the students, staff, and faculty to share it in their conversations and in their everyday practices. That is what made the college attractive to me. I am sure there are many challenges that I am not aware of from my lack on an "insider" view but compared to all the ten or so I have visited as prospective places our daughter could end up, this one was impressive.