Swarthmore College (visited 11/23/15)
This is a physically impressive campus (stone buildings, a tower, an imposing main building on a hill) located less than 20 minutes outside of Philadelphia. I had wanted to visit for a long time since I’d already seen Haverford and Bryn Mawr, the other schools in the Tri-Co (3 College Consortium). Unfortunately, the students don’t seem to be as engaging as they are at many other schools I’ve visited.
Several students independently mentioned the “Swarthmore Bubble.” There doesn’t seem to be much need or desire to leave campus, and it shows in their attitudes: no one seemed excited to get to know anyone or take advantage of opportunities beyond the campus boarders, even though the town is nice and a SEPTA train stop is literally on campus, making travel about as easy as it gets. “We go into Philly for a specific purpose. It’s not like we say ‘Hey, we’re bored, let’s go to Philly. It’s a supplement not the core of social life.” One student is part of the Tri-Co dance group so she practices on other campuses, and she has gone to hear speakers. None of the students I spoke to took advantage of other campus for class or anything else. Swarthmore is the most distant of the 3 schools – about 25 minutes away – but that’s certainly not prohibitive. I did see a Bryn Mawr van on campus dropping off students.
Swatties are very smart and want an academically intense program. Almost 20% of alumni go on to complete PhDs (3rd highest in the country). Our tour guide said, “It’s intense. You have to do the work and understand it or people will know – but there’s no shortage of help around if you want it.” Tutors often have names that play on their discipline: math tutors are Pirates (they work with Pi) and physics tutors are Jedis (they work with the Force).
During the info session, the rep said: “The question of whether or not you can do this has been answered. You’ve been admitted. Now ask about why you’re doing the work you’re doing.” Our tour guide said that one of the reasons she came here was because academics didn’t just stay in the classroom. People would continue discussions over meals and in the dorms. What they don’t discuss are grades. It’s very much like the other Tri-Co schools in this regard. They also have an honor code “which isn’t spelled out like at other places. We just do it.”
During the first semester, classes are graded P/F “which allows you to figure out how to do laundry for the first time, make friends, etc. I took an engineering class, Modern Chinese Cinematography, an education class.” Students can and do see what grade they’re earning and don’t just do enough to get by. “They come in with the same curiosity and work ethic. The shadow grades help them understand what the expectations are.”
Even after that semester, students have 4 more classes they can take P/F. The student speaking at the info session said, “It’s nice to know that I can calculate the structural integrity of oak vs. steal, but it didn’t have to affect my GPA.” The tour guide said that they can decide fairly late in the semester if they want the class to be P/F.
Distribution requirements are fairly flexible: 3 classes each in Humanities, Social Sciences, and Physical/Natural Sciences, a foreign language, 3 writing intensive classes (taken in any discipline), and 4 credits of PE (completed through classes or outside things like an athletic club such as swing dancing).
This is one of a few Liberal Arts colleges that has its own BSE degree (not a 3+2 program), and students don’t have to declare their major in engineering early. They can come in and test it out. Even within this program, things are somewhat interdisciplinary. For example, there’s a class call Food Engineering that’s cross-registered with biology.
The Honors Program is more like an external exam program and just a different way to study. It’s something that students decide to do while they’re here rather than a program they apply to get into. The GPA requirements differ by major, and if they do an Honors major, they also have to do an Honors minor. About 1/3 of students will take part in it, and it’s so integrated into the rest of the system that people often have no idea who is doing it unless they happen to mention it. Seminars have about 8-10 students focusing on inquiry and discussion, and they bring in someone else to write the exam as well as conduct the oral exam.
In addition to the usual internships (and there are stipends available for unpaid internships), students can complete externship where they’re matched with an alum to shadow (and often live with) for a week or so. One student will be externing at the EPA this winter to learn more about policy. The rep said, “This is a great opportunity to confirm what they think about their career goals – or to let them reassess. College is a great place to push the reset button.”
Almost all students (98%) live on campus all 4 years. All years and majors are mixed throughout the dorms. The 2nd and 3rd floors of the main building (also home to administrative offices and admissions) are dorms. A student said, “I lived in this building my first year, and I actually met with Deans in my PJs. It’s pretty informal here.” Food does NOT get good marks from the kids. When we first asked, the tour guide paused, and then said, “Let’s wait until we get outside.” She is not impressed – and I overheard another tour guide telling his group that he wasn’t thrilled with it, either.
In admissions, “we see the well-rounded and the well-lopsided kids.” They do not take the writing section of either exam and do not require SAT 2 but will consider them if submitted. Students thinking about engineering should do the Math 2 exam. They allow for interviews but don’t require them. The “Why Swarthmore” question is really important given their academic rigor and different approach to academics: “We don’t want to hear about our great faculty, our pretty campus, or that we have your major. You should be able to identify things that made it stand out and how you can see yourself there for 4 years.”