Bennington College, Bennington, VT (visited 4/17/14)
Bennington College, with its enrollment of 500 students, is housed on a sprawling campus with eclectic architecture – a bit like their students! Academics are strong and individualized. The open curriculum means that there are no core requirements, and students create their own majors that almost always end up being interdisciplinary. Therefore, the students must be curious, independent, willing to be challenged beyond their comfort zone, and able to connect many interests.
1) Plan. “It’s a little foreign and scary to families,” said the Director of Admission. The process recognizes the students’ curiosity and capacity to learn beyond what they think is possible. This lets them figure out what they need, how they learn best, and more. They can push boundaries and take any class they want.
- The first year is all about the excitement of education. They meet regularly with the advisor, sometimes as a group, or meeting for lunch, or after class. In the first year, the advisor is one of their teachers who will push them to be analytical about why they chose certain classes and verbalize what they’re interested in. They’re pushed to think about whether there is an essential question or theme among all of them.
- In the sophomore year, students meet with a committee of 3 or 4 teachers who will make sure that the student has a liberal arts education. They’ll plan out classes based on the student’s interests. Students declare an area of study (a major) during this year.
- During junior and senior years, students complete the plan and work on a final senior project. Our tour guide’s senior project was writing a graphic novel. Ideally, she would like to work for DC Comics.
2) Fieldwork Term (FWT): This is a yearly, 7-week internship/mentorship/fieldwork/ something educational outside of the classroom. This must be completed every year, and has to be different every year. They can get grants for this; they have to write a budget and a proposal. Scholarships are also available for internships with a global impact ($250-$2000 depending on what they’re doing).
Students get narrative evaluations in classes, but can opt for grades if they want them. This can be done on a class-by-class basis, or they get grades for every class. Sometimes they want reassurance that grad schools will take them seriously. However, Bennington is in the top 40 of schools sending students on to get PhDs. Academics are clearly strong.
I was less impressed with the students than I thought I’d be. It was a beautiful day, but very few students were out; those who were out didn’t greet each other as they crossed campus, but the students I spoke to seemed friendly enough. One of the other counselors had heard that students there were cool and a bit stand-offish, and what we saw seemed to back that up. We asked our tour guide about her impressions and if she would agree with that. She said, “some of the kids are pretentious, but it’s drilled out of you.” There’s definitely an aura of affectation here.
The graduation rate (67%) isn’t great, and they spend a long time talking about that. They’re interested in graduating the students – if this is the right place for them! This is a test-optional school; just over one-third of students submitted test scores. The average GPA is 3.56, ACT 29, SAT 1295. The total cost hovers just over $63,000/year (making them one of the most expensive schools out there), but 90% of students get financial aid. The average loan debt at graduation is $24,000. The Director of Admissions said, “There is some value in taking on some debt. It’s an investment. It’s not a car; it won’t depreciate.”
They have an amazing arts complex with extensive, open labs for ceramics, sculpture, and more. They have 4 black box theaters and an extensive prop shop. Students complete labs in lighting, costumes, props, and more. There’s usually 1 faculty-run production which is directed by a professor; almost all the rest are run by students. One of the facts they like to share is that they’re the first college to have included the arts (visual and performing) into the liberal arts curriculum/ college. They offer animation classes, and one called “Nature and Artifice” which deals with a lot of architectural issues. Not surprisingly, over 40% of their students major in something relating to the visual or performing arts.
Almost all students live on campus (easy to do with the small enrollment). Dorms are called Houses, and many are Themed. The one we saw had a large lounge, a working fireplace, and a drum set and piano. Freshmen and Sophomores usually get doubles; Juniors and Seniors almost always live in singles.
There is no Greek life on campus, nor are there varsity sports, but plenty of club sport opportunities, including fencing and archery.
Although there are very few students majoring in the physical sciences, there are some interesting things going on there, as well. For example, there’s an Octopus Lab because the professor thought that “their brains are cooler” (according to our tour guide).