The smallest of the Ivy League schools, Dartmouth is also in the most rural and isolated location, which allows (or requires) it to create its own atmosphere and entertainment. Creating a personal plan for one’s education is the essence of the Dartmouth experience: the range and abundance of academic opportunities is astounding, and the college seeks creative students comfortable with performing to the highest academic standards who are also competent to make good choices about their educational needs and priorities.
At the core of this personal plan is the now-defining trait of the college, the Dartmouth Plan, which came into being in the College’s transition to coeducation in 1972. Originally founded as an all-male school in 1769 to “educate the Indian,” in the 1970s Dartmouth needed to figure out how to admit twice as many students (an equal number of male and female) without placing an enormous strain on the college’s infrastructure. Switching from a semester calendar to a quarter system and instituting year-round operation, with one summer mandatory, not only eased the housing crunch, but became the foundation of the Dartmouth plan, now known as the D-Plan.
Dartmouth students must be in residence on campus freshman and senior years and summer of sophomore year. The senior-year requirement cements class unity and makes possible the culminating project, “a thesis, public report, exhibition, seminar, production, or demonstration—which allows students to pull together work done in their major, with a creative and intellectual twist of their own,” per Fiske. Although year-round operation made better use of the college’s facilities, it did not address a persistent problem for the isolated school: how to prepare its students to be citizens, even leaders, in a global society. From the housing crunch arose an opportunity to create programs around the world, which are reflected today in more than 40 dedicated foreign study and language programs, led by Dartmouth faculty for Dartmouth students only. With 64% of undergraduates participating in foreign study programs, this is one stat where Dartmouth leaves the other Ivies in the dust. The patchwork of on-campus, college-abroad, and off-term opportunities is unique to each student’s Dartmouth experience. Career Center is active and effective at placing students in internships during off-terms both in the US and abroad, in part because the unusual calendar means that in parts of the year, they compete with few other college students.
The student talented and lucky enough to be admitted to Dartmouth enters an academic enclave that fosters creative cooperation and personal excellence in myriad disciplines. Building close bonds to both faculty and classmates begins in the first weeks of freshmen year. Incoming students also select from about 75 seminars on various topics that all promote individual research skills as well as cooperative dialogue and class interaction. About 25% of the students on campus are engaged in earning professional degrees at the schools of medicine, engineering (Thayer), and business (Tuck) or pursuing PhDs, which to many would earn Dartmouth the more comprehensive designation of “university.” However the college remains the dominant and central purpose of Dartmouth, which prefers that designation, although it happily shares its campus with these graduate programs but is not defined by them. The isolation fosters a culture of easy access to faculty, who have chosen (and been chosen by) Dartmouth because they value the teaching experience, so mentors are easy to find and research opportunities abound. Undergraduate education is bracketed by the freshman seminar and the senior project and includes language proficiency and a dozen distribution requirements that may be completed in a seemingly infinite variety of ways, thanks to the broad offerings to support majors in disciplines from Art to Zoology. The guidebooks don’t agree on which majors are “most popular” (Insider’s Guide) or “strongest” (Fiske), but list biology, computer science, engineering, economics, languages, psychology and brain sciences, and sociology in both categories.
Dartmouth students do figure out how to create their own fun, by participating in hundreds of extracurricular activities. They also staff and initiate dozens of community and public-service initiatives, approaching a 100% participation rate, and explore their physical environment through the many inexpensive activities organized by the Dartmouth Outing Club. In the first weeks of the freshmen year a large majority of incoming students sign up for a freshman trip, groups of ten to twenty students who participate in physical activities and team-building challenges that range from Extreme Hiking to Mountain Biking to Reading and Discussion groups at one of the college-owned properties throughout the state.
Dorm life is an important unifier that crosses boundaries of academic disciplines and remains a defining aspect of the social experience at Dartmouth. Construction of newer and more sophisticated housing has been ongoing since the first days of coeducation. Today there are 70 college-owned facilities including 30 dorms organized into a dozen “clusters” that offer a range of single-sex and coed facilities, with shared and single (52%) rooms, many forming suites with kitchens and communal lounges. One explanation for the popularity of the 25 fraternities and sororities on campus is that these offer an alternative form of housing. But the guidebooks offer competing stats on the involvement of students in the Greek system: the Insider’s Guide claims 76% of students are so affiliated; Fiske maintains it is 37%, quoting a junior who says the frat scene is “big but not exclusive—all parties are open to everyone.” The College periodically cracks down on the Greek houses to control alcohol infractions and instances of social bullying or sexual harassment.
Weather is an important consideration for some students, especially those unfamiliar with the four distinct seasons that characterize this part of northern New England. Nature provides a radiant spectacle in autumn when changing hues of foliage brighten the hills and the Dartmouth green is periodically illuminated by towering bonfires that kick off a football weekend. Winter Carnival, an old college tradition that once featured woodsman activities like splitting a tree into usable firewood and rolling logs in the half-frozen river is now more likely to be centered on hockey games and ski races, along with bonfires, dances, and house parties—all well provided with spirits, alcoholic and human. The Connecticut River, which separates New Hampshire from Vermont, is the scene of the principal summer festival, called Tubestock, when all students on campus congregate on the river in a flotilla of craft, from the eponymous inner tubes to the various paddle boats of the Ledyard Canoe Club. If a prospective student wants to keep track of local conditions, the college cooperates by publishing the daily weather conditions on the first page of its website and mounting a live webcam http://www.dartmouth.edu/~webcams/ .
No matter what the weather, there is always plenty to do. The College provides a full complement of cultural offerings and performances at the Hopkins Center arts complex, the top venue for traveling artists in northern New England. Tickets for Dartmouth students rarely exceed $5; at that rate, even on a student budget one can broaden the cultural horizon. Many indoor activities can also be practiced at open studios in the “Hop,” as the building that also houses the theaters and galleries is popularly known. Campus mailboxes are also buried deep within the Hop, with the intention of luring students into contact with current offerings in the arts while in search of communication with the outside world. In addition to the great outdoors, including a ski-way, indoor sports facilities also provide an opportunity for students to keep in shape year-round or to practice or acquire new skills—like fencing or scuba certification in the indoor pool. Campus culture strongly supports sporting events, and road trips to root for the home team are quite common. The campus is linked to Boston, two hours south, by regular weekend bus service that puts the pleasures of the big city (and a major airport) within reach.
The climate and personal challenge eliminate those less hardy than the Dartmouth students who thrive at “the Chill Ivy,” as one tour guide stated, conflating some of the school’s attributes into a memorable moniker. Students at Dartmouth tend to both work hard and play hard. While many of the top-rated colleges and universities get a reputation for competition, Dartmouth students tend to be more collaborative then one would expect of an institution of this caliber. That collaboration continues after graduation, as students can take advantage of an extensive and supportive alumni network. As one of Dartmouth’s most famous graduates, Daniel Webster opined, “It’s a small school, but there are those who love it.” With its beautiful and quintessential college setting and unique opportunities for learning, it’s no wonder Dartmouth graduates cherish their undergraduate education.
For a well-crafted and always changing student perspective on the college, written for prospective applicants, see http://www.dartmouth.edu/apply/generalinfo/stulife/bloggers/ The college website is also information rich and easy to navigate.
Overlaps: Brown, Harvard, Princeton, Stanford and Yale, per Fiske; this graduate would argue that the experience is also akin to such smaller schools as Williams, Middlebury, or Swarthmore.
Location: rural, small town
Public or private: private
Religious affiliation: none
Calendar: four quarters
Enrollment: Undergraduate: 4,000; total: 5,500
Coeducational: 48/51 male/female
Room and Board: $11,838
Percent receiving financial aid: 49%
Percent in on-campus housing: almost 90%
Minority Students: 39.1% (breakdown on website)
Retention rate: 98%
4-year graduation rate: 86%
6-year graduation rate: 95%