Grinnell College (visited 12/7/19)
“Students are authentically themselves here. They’re kind of quirky in the best possible way,” said the rep.
“Yes, we’re proud of being in Iowa which we think is underrated, but we’re also proud that people intentionally come here from all over,” one student said. About 94% of students come from outside the state. “If a bunch of people are here in the middle of Iowa, there must be a good reason. Find out what it is!” Students who are comfortable in their own skin and who are “social floaters in the best possible way, who are interested in reaching out to lots of people in an unpretentious way” (according to the rep) will do wonderfully here. Adjectives used to describe Grinnellians include “purposeful, inquisitive, genuine, creative, accepting, and influential.” Students are interested in learning for its own sake; the open curriculum means that they’re taking classes with other students who want to be there rather than to check off a box.
Grinnell is well known for their strong academics and curious, intellectual students (they rank 7th in the nation for per-capita PhD production, “the quality of the education is recognized”). They have an Open Curriculum (only 11 colleges in the US have truly Open Curriculums including Brown, Smith, and Amherst). Taking classes where everyone has chosen to be there adds to the engagement. There are no core requirements other than the First Year Tutorial taken in first semester to help students get accustomed to Grinnell and college-level writing. “It’s normally a fun class. I took ‘Enlightenment in Musicals;’ we read Candide and Hamilton and got to see Hamilton on Broadway.” There’s an Entertainment budget which allows for things like the musicals. Some of her friends took classes like ‘Are we Too Clean?’ (about microbiomes) and ‘The Magical World of Calvin and Hobbes.’
They draw “thoughtful, engaged students who know how to make their own fun.” There was an Ugly Sweater party the night before I was on campus; organizations can apply to serve alcohol at events on campus: students with 2 forms of ID can get a wristband to drink. This is a campus where students WILL have a life, even in a town of 5,000 students. I spoke to a senior from St. Louis: she wanted a small town for college. “Would I live here for 10 years? Nope. But 4 years is good. I wanted good friendships and people with the same goal of hard academics.” Another student said, “Cities will always be there. I may never have a chance to live in a small town again.” I asked several people about their favorite thing to do off campus:
“The things I like to do are because of the people I’m with, not necessarily what I’m doing.”
- “There’s a park about 15 minutes away which is great when it’s more green and warmer!”
- “The Taproom downtown; it’s got a great chill vibe.”
- Bowling or working at the coffee shop. There’s also a movie theater.
I arrived about 40 minutes early for the info session and tour, so I walked downtown. It took less than 10 minutes for me to meander to a coffee shop recommended by the student working at the Admissions desk. It was an amazing locally run place, and at 9:30am on a Saturday, there were already 4 students there with textbooks and computers. The tour guide later told me that it’ll get more packed with students as it got later in the day.
Students are guaranteed 4 years of housing on campus, but juniors and seniors can apply to move off. Dorm rooms are spacious. There are 3 sets of dorms (about a block apart) as well as several Language and Project houses (like LLCs). Those students can have lower meal plans because they have kitchens. The food is very good; the dining halls have longer dining hall hours and plenty of late night options. I ate lunch with the rep at the dining hall; options were plentiful, and there was almost no wait for food despite being there right in the middle of lunch. (As a side note, a hot topic on campus right now is that students are trying to unionize the dining hall workers).
“We have so much space on campus.” There are a lot of student initiatives like the swing sets. “It’s so squeaky! I know it gets used because I can hear it at all hours.” There’s a huge athletic center – larger than you’d expect at a campus this size. Students can rent kayaks and even learn to kayak on their pool.
They have a $2B endowment for 1,700 students so there’s a sense of inclusive, equitable culture. They’ve ranked in the top 3 most economically diverse liberal arts colleges in the country which they can maintain because they’re able to support students in a multitude of ways. Students will be surrounded by people of a variety of backgrounds. No one is left out. People take advantage of the fabulous academic and financial resources. The tour guide said, “It was on my list of places where I could play AND work really hard. There was a great vibe; there was something about the community here.” All classes finish at 3:50 “but some labs run long depending on what you’re working on.” This allows for intense extra-curricular involvement, as well. Students don’t have to choose.
Academically, there’s more choice than you might expect at a college this size.
They’re just finishing a major renovation of the humanities building (and have a Center for the Humanities); they’ve kept the original façade and built out around it, so the atrium is really amazing! One of the students raved about the building: “The sciences always get the big fancy buildings because of the labs; it’s more rare to see such a great building just for the humanities. We have a central hub.”
- They offer 3+2 engineering, pairing with Iowa, Wash U, and Columbia
- Concentrations are interdisciplinary: they offer things like Science, Medicine, and Society; Studies in Africa, Middle East, and South Asia; and Global Development Studies.
Languages are a big deal here, including less common languages such as Arabic, Russian, Chinese, and Japanese.
- They operate the Center for Prairie Studies; they own 35 acres of Prairie nearby.
- The tour guide established the LGBTQ Oral History Project and did 6 interviews already in Central Iowa. He’s also been doing research by looking at HIV pamphlets in Latin American and the stigma of HIV and how these can influence people’s attitudes.
- All students can get 30 minutes of music lessons per week; music majors get 1 hour.
There’s a long tradition of social responsibility: they graduated many architects of FDR’s new deal “including many women – pretty radical for 1919.” Grinnell was founded by abolitionists. Social justice and caring for others is something they look for in their applicants. This is one of the more internationally diverse colleges with 45 countries represented on campus (about 20% are international).
In applications, they look for evidence that students will be successful and engaged. What will you bring to the community? They recommend trying to take at least 5 of the advanced classes that the school offers. They want to see that you’re curious and up for a challenge. This is a rigorous school so they want to know you can handle it. Interviews are optional. The priority scholarship deadline is 12/1 “but really not a major deal if they apply after that. There’s still money.” They keep their ED acceptances under 40%. Their admissions decisions are Need-blind. Average indebtedness is about $19K, the lowest in Iowa, including the state schools.
Students are “surprisingly global-minded” (and the school can fund study-abroad for students because of their endowment). More than 70% of students have an off-campus study experience with credits transferring back. Financial aid and merit aid are portable. They have several research locations that are mentored advanced projects (MPA): more than 50% of students complete these. 150+ students conduct research each summer for 4 credits with a minimum stipend of $3,400. Course-embedded travel is popular; there’s a $400 fee for a month of international travel, but if that’s an issue, it can be waived.