Burlington College (visit 4/18/14) *** CLOSED AS OF MAY 30, 2016
Christine Plunkett, the President of the College, started off our session with a story: Every year during orientation, they take the new students and parents on a lake cruise on Lake Champlain. About 5 years ago, she saw a girl sitting alone so she went over to talk to her. “Are you a new student?” The girl said yes and the flood of tears started. Hailing from across the lake in NY, the girl had grown up in a series of foster homes. “Never in a million years did I think I would go to college.” Her foster mother told her they were going to find her a great place; they found Burlington. She said that didn’t think she could do this – but she did. She got involved in the Legal Studies program to study more about the Foster system. Last year, she applied to 13 law schools – and got into every single one! She just finished her first year of law school, and was in contact with her advisor: “Out of my entire class, I’m the most well-prepared. None of them know how to have a discussion or debate because they come from large text-book based classrooms.”
Burlington started in 1972 as the Vermont School of Community Involvement at which point all the students were adult learners. There was no campus; classes were held in offices, living rooms, anywhere around town. Even today, the college is still housed a single building. Courses involved negotiation between teachers and students and culminated in narrative evaluations. Although it’s become a little more traditional due to accreditation, their progressive tradition still allows the student to help focus the learning. There are still narrative evaluations (with options for grades), and the students and teachers have to agree on the grade/evaluation! They both sign it after going over it together. If they cannot come to an agreement (a rare event), there is arbitration available.
Not surprisingly, the college’s tag-line is “No Boxes.” Students are a little quirky in that they have passions they like to combine. Because they only enroll about 220 students, it’s easy to have a non-traditional idea of a college class. Most only have 5-10 students, “15 if it’s a big class,” said one student. People sit around a table and talk. Students who “are conversationalists and who know themselves will be the quintessential perfect fit. These are the students who will be able to reach past boundaries.” Students here learn how to formulate questions, assess information, and use it. That’s the key to the first two years of seminars. The next two years are project based. They learn really amazing things like how to draft legislation. Teachers will start with a leading question like, How do you change the world a little bit at a time? – and then they work to figure it out. Students are creative, engaged, independent, and self-motivated (they have to want to be here). A student has been a voting member on the Board of Trustees, actively engaged in committees, helps make financial decisions.
The college community is embracing, intimate, and inclusive, and ties to the town are very strong. The college is located in the North End of Burlington where there are lots of immigrants as well as long-term residents. One student interned with a neighborhood planning commission for the local ward; she so impressed them with her ability to think things through and her engagement with the community that the ward made it the first “town-gown NPA.” Part of the reason that relations are so good is that most students live in town.
BC only has about 40 slots for student housing (on a first-come, first-served basis) ranging from right across the parking lot to a couple miles away. However, there’s lots of housing within walking distance, and a lot of students bike or ride the bus. They have a housing coordinator who will check out housing options for kids over the summer. He said, “The major question is, ‘Would I let my own kid live here?’” The school is conscientious of the fact that students share apartments and other living spaces and need quiet spots to study, so there are a few rooms designated as Quiet Study Spaces year-round with more designated as Quiet areas during finals. Students also get free memberships to the YMCA in town; one is located 2 blocks away; the other is a 10-minute drive, but that one has a pool. “We have a gym, but our library is using it right now!”
Most of the classes are scheduled in 3-hour blocks, and many students are able to work somewhere in town. Law and Studies program offers a Paralegal Certificate (the only one in Vermont). They’re about to launch a new Music School based on Music in Society. Their Woodworking program (yes, you can major in that!) is located in Fairfax: “It’s a bit of a schlep,” said a rep. Film and Documentary Studies and the Psychology departments are worth noting. They offer Early College (the only Private school in the state that does this). There isn’t housing available so it’s really only for local students.
Admissions is rolling. “Some of our most successful students are those who are a bit in limbo. They may not even have college on their radar or aren’t sure if they’re ready.” They’re more than willing to spend time talking to students to make sure that Burlington is a good fit: “Any of us will come to you – from a student to an admissions person to the president!” They also work with transfer students, offering a 20% discount to students with an AA degree with at least a 3.0 GPA. They also run a summer semester for students who want to get ahead, try out the college, and/or save a great deal of tuition money.
Their first-year retention is currently at 70%, up from 40% several years ago. This happened shortly after implementing the FYE program, comprised of five weeks of themed seminars help students transition. The first-year advisor is there to make the academic and social transition as easy and successful as possible. She reaches out to students as early as April before they even start, and then meets with them individually on campus after orientation.
They plan to triple in size by 2020 and then stay at that size. They own 16 acres and will put housing on that area. They currently are only using about one-third of their current building and are slowly working on renovating the rest.