Pacific NW College Tour
I visited some of the better colleges in this area on a tour organized by the Independent Educational Consultants Association, just before the NACAC conference in Seattle in fall 2008.Because the Pacific Northwest offers some interesting options for California students, I share my notes in this report.
The gorgeous estate that a department store magnate deeded to the college, rather than to his estranged wife in a bitter divorce, is the nucleus of the Lewis & Clark campus in a residential area on the outskirts of Portland, Oregon. A shuttle bus whisks students into Portland hourly (7:00 a.m.-midnight or 2:00 a.m. on weekends), making urban delights accessible, while “College Outdoors” connects students with the natural beauty of the Pacific Northwest, organizing 75 trips each year, including weekly ski trips in season, to 14 wilderness areas within a three hour drive from Portland.
Roughly 2,000 students choose this “private college with a public conscience, a residential campus with global reach,” with women outnumbering men at 60: 40 percent. Lewis & Clark offers a test-optional path to admissions, inviting students to present a portfolio of writing samples and other work, although most applicants rely on the standard formula of SATs (mid-50% 590-700) and GPAs. Two-thirds of its students receive financial aid, both need-based and merit programs, including some in music and debate.
International affairs, psychology, biology and environmental studies are among the most popular majors and are supported by strong academic initiatives. A 3/2 program in Engineering allows students to complete a master’s at USC, Washington University in St. Louis, or Columbia. Lewis & Clark students can earn a J.D. degree in a 3/3 program with its own law school, which is recognized for leadership in environmental law or a 4/1 Masters in Teaching from its graduate school of Education and Counseling.
Competency in a foreign language is a requirement for a Lewis & Clark degree and more than half of the students satisfy it by studying abroad. “Where in the world do you want to study?” was the topic of its supplement to the Common App. Beyond the freshman seminar, requirements are broadly defined to allow students to choose their own path while graduating with a shared core of knowledge. If the small class size and close interaction with professors is not sufficient to engage students, attendance is required and factored into grades; Lewis & Clark also offers a range of support services that help students improve their academic skills.
Its emphasis on the liberal arts and on developing global awareness attracts free-minded, competent students who create an egalitarian culture on the beautiful campus. There are no fraternities or sororities; the nine residence halls are separated from the academic buildings by a tree-filled ravine laced with bike trails. The arts and a student-run activities fund account for many events on-campus; participation in sports also involves many students. Lewis & Clark graduates staff the Peace Corps and Teach for America at impressive rates, and 20 percent go directly into graduate programs.
Across town, Reed College has an equally beautiful suburban campus and distinctive traditions. The first president to lead Reed College a century ago was a former professor from Bates and Bowdoin in Maine, who espoused a non-sectarian, coeducational school that eschewed varsity sports, along with fraternities and social clubs, which he felt detracted from the Ivy League model. Although the campus culture celebrates academic achievement above all else—American Nerd: The History of My People was written by a Reed grad—Reed does have a p.e. requirement that promises “life-enhancing skills.” The Reed Outing Club and its Backpack Coop (which provides equipment for free), also help students get off campus—perhaps to the college’s cabin on 15 acres at Mt Hood—and schedule trips over semester breaks as well as weekends. Exploring the Pacific Northwest is an adventure for most students, as only 12 percent hail from Oregon and another 12 percent from Washington.
“Reed provides one of the nation’s most intellectually rigorous undergraduate experiences, with a highly structured academic program balancing broad distribution requirements and in-depth study in a chosen academic discipline,” according to the college’s own website. The 350 freshmen are initiated into its “quirky brand of intellectualism” (per Fiske) with a required yearlong humanities course with readings from the Great Books and lectures by various faculty on the culture of classical Greece and imperial Rome. All seniors must complete a written thesis, which Fiske speculates is one reason why less than 75 percent of students earn a Reed degree within six years of enrolling for the first time. A weekly column in a student newspaper is entitled “Postcards from Thesis Hell,” and, although bound copies of each graduate’s thesis are filed in the library, a bonfire of this student work kicks off graduation weekend.
Freshmen are assigned to an advisor based on the academic interests expressed in their applications and meet with that faculty member before registering for classes each semester. By junior year students must take qualifying exams for their intended major and, upon acceptance, will choose an advisor from that department who will supervise the development and execution of their senior thesis. Despite the close-knit collegial learning model, the academic pressure can be overwhelming: one student reported (to The Insiders Guide), “At Reed we say that you can have only three of the following five: good academic performance, a relationship, a good group of friends, extracurricular activities, or sleep.” The first seems always to be privileged by Reed students, which may be why this small college ranks third in the nation by the percentage of its graduates who go on to earn a Ph.D. Its graduates’ success in winning such academic awards as the Fulbright, Guggenheim, Watson scholarships is impressive; the number who are awarded National Science Foundation Fellowships is testament to its strength in the sciences.
Freshmen are guaranteed on-campus housing; a lottery in spring determines which older students will be assigned to the remaining 600 rooms in 26 dorms. All campus residents must purchase a meal plan, which students say provides good quality and choices. Equal numbers occupy the red brick Old Dorm Block and the Cross-Canyon Dorms; the newest residence halls are LEED-certified; two apartment buildings and three houses in the campus-adjacent neighborhood and language-theme houses are other alternatives. Some 2,000 towering trees, representing 125 species, surround buildings in the original Tudor Gothic style and define its green spaces. A graded expository essay or research paper, along with an essay explaining why the student feels “Reed would be an appropriate place, both academically and socially, to continue your education” is required of Reed applicants. Only need-based financial aid is offered, and half of the students receive such funding.
Along with Reed, Evergreen State College shares the distinction of being identified as one of the “Colleges that Change Lives,” in the eponymous book by the late, great educator, Loren Pope. Located on 1,000 forested acres on the southern tip of Puget Sound, Evergreen is midway between Portland and Seattle, in Olympia, the state capital of Washington. I (mistakenly) thought that geography was why this school was included on the IECA tour, but it has a lot more to recommend it than a good rest stop on the route from Portland to Seattle.
Evergreen is unique in its academic structure. Students elect a single interdisciplinary program as their primary academic module each quarter, although many will span the three quarters of the academic year. This subject is team taught, usually by three faculty members, to a self-selected group of about 65 students who become an integrated learning community. Assignments never conflict and schedules can easily be altered to accommodate field studies. Faculty enjoy the collaboration with their peers and reinventing their curriculum, not falling into the same old rut. They write thoughtful evaluations of student learning, rather than deliver a summary letter grade.
The world is the campus for Evergreen, starting with its beautiful location on Puget Sound and a satellite campus in the Grand Canyon. Many classes include segments of study abroad, although language acquisition is not particularly well supported by this format of learning. The campus itself is a distinctive home base: a Native American long house is a cultural center, with movable walls that can configure to two auditoriums or five lecture halls of 300 seats each. The 1,000 acres of forest front a half-mile beach; gardens produce 40 percent of the food consumed on campus, and students can rent a plot for a nominal fee. A farmers’ market is held weekly on “Red Square,” the brick-paved center of the campus buildings. The newest construction is LEED certified, flexible and innovative, in sync with the zeitgeist of the place.
Evergreen admits more than 90 percent of its applicants, a stat that reflects that this is a self-selecting group: Evergreen is the first or second choice for 85 percent of the students who apply. They may not all be ready for the experimental style: the retention rate is 70 percent from freshman to sophomore years. Building on-campus housing has not been a priority as the supply of inexpensive rentals in the area meets the needs of many of Evergreen’s 4,300 students. Although Evergreen does not participate in WUE, it offers a $3,000 tuition waiver to all out-of-state students who maintain a GPA above 3.0, renewable each year. One of our guides hailed from San Jose and had chosen Evergreen over UC Davis. She loves her experience and in comparing notes with friends attending colleges in the UC system, she values even more the small classes and close intellectual bonds that Evergreen promotes.