Cornell College (visited 12/6/19)
When asked to provide one word to describe Cornell, students said: Challenging, unique, opportunity, community, intense, engaging, motivating, caring, amazing, outstanding, home, magical, empowering, awesome.
One of the very few schools in the US on the “One Course At A Time” model, Cornell (not to be confused with the Ivy institution) continues to be named in Loren Pope’s (NYT Education Editor) Colleges That Change Lives. Students take 8 classes per year, not unlike many other colleges, but they take each class by itself over 8 18-day blocks during the year. The block system is resource intensive: labs, field trips, and other practical experiences. A teacher said, “When we can take them to the area where you’re studying the content, it makes it come alive.” Students are in it together. They’re helping each other and are proud of each other’s success. The school purposefully sets them up for success in and out of the classroom: classes must end by 3pm to allow time for athletics, performing arts, or just individual work. Students don’t have to forgo one thing for another.
We asked some of the students why they choose Cornell:
- I come from a huge family. It feels here like others want me to succeed as much or more than I want myself to succeed. They don’t know anything about me, but they want me to do well.
- The Block Plan – I struggled going back and forth between classes in high school. Coming here where I could focus on one thing and dive into it, even if I wasn’t excited about it right away, was great. Teachers are also teaching 1 at a time so they’re invested in the class.
- I was recruited by the basketball coach. The block was a pleasant surprise.
Teachers are totally on board with this type of teaching. “I can provide them support and mentorship here,” said one. Another teacher said, “Most of us are very creative in our pedagogy to match learning styles. There is some auditory, but we’re vigilant about pairing that with active things.” A third said, “The Block plan allows me to have 18 days to have the students with me. We have field trips, lab work, etc. We can stand in the Forum in Rome and talk about things.” I asked them what their favorite classes to teach were and why they liked them so much:
- Intro to Engineering. “Usually this is one of the early classes that they take. They’re all nervous. The first time the make or design things, their faces light up.”
- “Manufacturing because of the hands-on aspect. They learn advanced techniques and produce things that I – and they! – wouldn’t expect.”
- “Psychotherapy I love to teach them how to talk to people. They sit with pseudo-clients and get real experience while getting the jitters out.”
- “Research Methods. They come into class saying, “I’m horrible with numbers” and then they’re doing things by hand later. It’s so cool to see that transition!”
First-year students are assigned to a FYS in their first block. This is capped at 18 students and is meant to provide structure and an intro to the block system. At that point, an advisor helps them pick the remainder of the year. After that, students register for their classes a full year at a time. There is a 3-day drop-add grace period in each block if it’s not what they expected, and there are work-arounds if they get sick and have to take an incomplete.
All classes end at 3pm, so everyone is kind of on the same schedule. Students can take full advantage of the extra-curricular experience. “It’s easier to get involved here because of the way things are set up. I don’t have to sacrifice anything.” About 25% are involved in fine arts. The Chapel is being renovated, but music classes are still held in there. I got to hear one of the chamber groups warming up on the second floor; there’s something wonderful about the fact that they’re practicing in a gorgeous old stone building under a stained glass window!
About 40% of students are varsity athletes. There’s an emphasis on the academics; you can’t miss classes for practice. Students are only allowed to miss 1 class for a game except in extraordinary circumstances such as going to Nationals, and even then, they have to petition. One of the students said that she’d like to improve the mix between athletes and non-athletes. They do try to mix them and get them interacting with some success. She’s on the Student Advisory Committee which creates programs to help this initiative.
This is an almost entirely residential campus (about 95% on campus); there’s one fabulous large old dorm that had served as a hospital at one point. “There are probably ghost stories associated with it.” Campus is large enough to have plenty of green space but compact enough to get anywhere on campus within about 10 minutes or less. Athletics are mostly across the street. Downtown Mount Vernon is a 5-10 minute walk. We had dinner off campus at a great place, checked out the piano bar, and got to see their annual “midnight madness” (not the actual name) with stores open late and people out and about.
We spoke to one of the research librarians who has been with Cornell for more than 30 years. His daughters both attended there. “I could not have asked for a better undergrad experience for my daughters. They’re out in the real world doing cool, fun stuff. They’ve enjoyed making music, they studied piano, one played in Steel Drum, one did costume design – one was biostatistics, one was a math major. That doesn’t happen everywhere. They grew into adulthood here. Because of their Cornell Education, I know that there’s more to their lives than their jobs. They’re involved, they can talk about their experiences. I’m thrilled when I see their lives now.”
About 40 students can do a paid summer internship on campus. One student we spoke to did one looking at peer advocacy for sports psychology on small campuses that can’t afford to have a psychologist. Somewhere between 20-30 classes are offered off-campus each year. There’s no limit to how many students can register for; they will incur the travel costs but are not charged extra tuition. One student went to Nepal for a Medical Anthropology class. “It was Life Changing. It was long enough to get familiar with the area, to meet people, to feel comfortable getting around, but I didn’t have to lose time working towards my major.”
Students report back that they find grad school easy because they’re used to pacing themselves and delving in. “The level of engagement and accountability and the commitment to themselves, the subject, their peers – you aren’t going to find that anywhere else,” said one professor. Procrastinators won’t make it here. “This might not be the place for students if they want more wiggle room, without someone looking over their shoulders. Teachers will contact students here when they aren’t in class. Parents love that!” I got to sit in on a History of Music class; it was phenomenal. Students were engaged and the professor was excited and fun. I wish I could have stayed for the whole class!
The educational opportunities here are spectacular. There 2 Pulitzer Prize winners, premier expert on Steinbeck, several people in space, etc. They offer some unusual minors such as Political Thought, Civic Engagement, and Applied Statistics. Biochemistry and Molecular Bio is one of the most popular majors; others include International Relations & Comparative Government and Psychology/Behavioral Neuroscience. Unusual majors for a school this size include Russian, Medieval & Early Modern Studies, and Creative Writing. Students can create their own majors, as well; a few recent ones have been in Costume Design/Production, Sports Journalism, Digital Storytelling, and International Political Economy.
For admissions, they’re test optional; if students choose not to submit test scores, they must submit a portfolio that highlights their academics (no athletic highlight films!). For scholarships, they can stack art awards “which are portfolio based but not major-binding.” Students could choose to major in Theater/Dance, Music (BA or BM: Performance or Music Education), Musical Theater (BFA), Art, or Art History – but can always participate in the extra-curriculars without being in those majors.