Forman University (take 2)
“If you’re looking for strong academics on a safe campus in a growing city, this is it.” With a 92% retention rate, they’re doing something very right.
It had been almost exactly 7 years since I’d last been to Furman, and I’m glad I got a refresher course! I remembered the beautiful campus, particularly the fountains, the bell tower, and the environmental center, but it’s always good to see what’s new and be reminded of all the other things going on around campus.
One of the things we heard the most about – mostly because it’s pervasive in the culture there – is the Furman Advantage. They promise several things:
- Excellent academic instruction and a high level of academic rigor. “We’re considered kind of hard,” said one of the reps. A Gallup poll revealed that 78% of alums (vs. 42% of national sample) and 68% of current students strongly agree that they were/are challenged academically at Furman. “We use the challenge and support model. We want them to be agents and make decisions so we’re figuring out the sweet spot of challenging them while supporting them without enabling them.”
A variety of engaged-learning experiences appropriate for students’ interests and development. “It seems obvious that freshman are different from seniors,” said a Dean, “and yet, they’re often treated the same. They aren’t here. We train the professors in this.”
- A team of mentors to support students as they navigate their integrated and individualized 4-year pathway. They’ve been deliberate in how this breaks down year-to-year: In the 1st year, “they should be exploring/discovering;” In the 2nd: examine and decide, 3rd: connect and refine; 4th: synthesize and initiate.
- Intentional reflection to help students deepen learning and better understand their own skills, values, and next steps. “They should have the experience, think about the experience, and then have the next experience. Students are so concerned about checking boxes that they don’t stop to think about what they’ve done, where they’re going, and how those interconnect.”
- Meaningful connection to career opportunities and professional development. “This is where we need to step up our game.”
They’re spearheading a Pathways program, currently in its infancy. The “trial run” is going well so far. In Pathways, students complete 4 courses over 2 years for a total of 4 credits. The first year focuses on Exploration and Discovery: class basics, critically evaluating sources, academic integrity, how to read a syllabus, how to email a professor, choices and bystander intervention, and more. Students currently in the program report feeling more connected and having a sense of belonging, a higher satisfaction with advising, and higher levels of accepting themselves even when things fail or go badly. The plan for the fall of 2020 is to have 15 cohorts of 15 each: “A class of 15 is critical of success. They aren’t thinking, ‘I’m not the only one.’” They’re hoping that the faculty will vote to make this a graduation requirement starting in Fall 2021.
“We’re trying to create an eco-system here. We should all be thinking about what’s next, about career exploration and preparation.” They’re working with departments “because that’s where students live in the last couple years” to help them reflect on values and strengths, expose students to potential career paths, have students reflect on experiences and how they connect with future plans, encourage students to articulate plans and narrative to others. They’re working hard to increase the number of students in Engaged Learning, including:
- MayX Study Away programs. They’ve increased need-based scholarships to help students go on these.
- Summer undergrad research: Last year they funded 203 students on campus; they saw a 22% increase in Summer Fellows applications. “Everyone who sent in a good application with a faculty who also sent in a good application were funded,” said the woman in charge of the program.
- They’re building out an Entrepreneurship Office that “gives students great opportunities while staying committed to the liberal arts.”
They have strong pre-health, health sciences, and similar programs. The science building is impressive with some great labs! There’s an Institute for Advancement of Community Health and Office of Pre-Professional Advising to help with shadowing/internships, applications, and more. They set up the students to do what they want to do. “We recommend shadowing before internships because you may end up hating it.”
- They have the only Medical-Legal Partnership in the state; this connects health care providers with legal aid attorneys. They can refer patients with health-harming legal issues to the MLP team where attorneys will represent them for no charge.
- They offer both a BA and BS in Public Health (a capstone experience in public health practice or research is required) and a BA/BS in Health Sciences. Students need to apply to get into Public Health (that and Business are the only majors requiring an application).
- There’s a Biomedical Sciences track within the Bio major.
- Medicine, Health, and Culture
- MS in Community Engaged Medicine uses intensive classroom, community, and clinical study to prepare its students for today’s complex world of health care.
- They offer an Early Admissions program with USC-Greenville; they’ll take up to 5 Furman Juniors so they don’t have to stress about med school applications during senior year. They also offer Direct Entry to up to 5 incoming freshmen. To remain eligible, they must meet curricular criteria and grades as well as participate in clinicals and a sophomore assessment.
Most of their majors are fairly typical with a couple exceptions: Greek, Music Theory, Integrative Biology, and a full range of Bachelors of Music options (including Organ performance and Music Education). What’s more impressive is the interdisciplinary minor selection, including Poverty Studies, Science Education, and African American and Diaspora Cultures.
We asked the students on the panel what their favorite classes were and why:
- Abnormal Psych: “It touches on how all profs are at Furman. She had intro meetings with all students and really wanted to know why we were in the class and how to personalize it.”
- One had two favorites: Afro-Am Drama and Slave Narrative to Slave Novels: “This was the capstone in the minor. It was really tough but great to develop a voice and writing style, to combine critical thinking with critical theory. It was a great inter-disciplinary class.”
- The Business Block: “It was a full semester of 4 classes with the same people. I don’t know any other college that does the same thing. We worked really hard with the people around us and it was a real world example of what I want to get into. I got to observe a company and look at financials and operations.”
History of Economic Thought: “It’s different from most. It was more theoretical and philosophical. We talked through the prevailing ideas in Eastern and Western traditions. The professor went so fast, I’d walk out of there saying, “I can’t believe I just took 5 pages of notes.” I got into the Scottish Tradition which is a totally random niche and it inspired me to study abroad in Scotland.”
- Research Methods in Bio: “We learned how to look at stats and what’s reliable. We did a semester-long research project. I looked at leaching of estrogen from soil into plants to see if fertilizers and other things made a difference and were disrupting our systems.”
- American Foreign Policy in Brussels with a Furman program. “We were taught by the lead envoy for the US to NATO. How many people can say they took a class like that?”
This is a highly residential campus. They’ve built even more upperclassman apartments (these are amazing with nice-sized kitchens and bedrooms with double beds); it’s like living in a real apartment community. They have a nice freshman quad as well as other pockets of dorms. There’s a special Engaged Living LLC which “isn’t well advertised,” said the tour guide who had lived there. “You have to apply to live there, but most people don’t know what it is. I wanted to be in Lakeside so I applied.” There are also some AMAZING sustainable living LLCs in the Greenbelt Community next to the Environmental Education center. This is comprised of 4 cabins housing a total of 22 students and are not open to first-year students. Students are selected after an application process (it’s competitive) and can be in any major as long as they have an interest in a sustainable lifestyle. They take 2 classes while they’re living there as part of this, and there’s a community garden that they work in which helps to supply the dining hall with locally sourced, organic produce. Many of them also participate in the Community Conservation Corps which helps to weatherize homes for local families at or below the poverty level.
“You can wear a lot of hats here.” There’s a big divide in participation in Greek Life – a little less than 30% of males are in fraternities, but more than 55% of females join a sorority. Students insist, though, that Greek life isn’t the end-all. Greek Village is actually a dorm. “Living there was the best and worst decision I’ve ever made!” said the tour guide. “Living on the hall with random music at 3am ….” There are some frat houses for juniors and seniors off campus; there are no sorority houses. “Because of the inclusive nature, it just expands friend groups,” said one student. Another, who is not affiliated, said that there are plenty of structures for those who chose not to join. “I found the same sort of social outlet from club soccer and Outdoor Club.”
It’s highly unusual to find DI sports at a school this size. Sports are incredibly strong, but they’re students first. “Most students aren’t going pro; they need to be prepared for their lives. This is four years of transformative experiences that will prepare them for the next 40 years of their professional lives,” said the athletic director. They do have a full scholarship football program.
Furman is trying to become a more national/international (currently about 60% of students come from NC, SC, and GA) and more selective. They currently have almost 2550 students but are looking to decrease enrollment to 2400-2500 with a target freshmen class of 625-650. “We probably won’t go to 2400 for 3 or 4 years.” They’re doing the best they can to eliminate the financial aid gap; currently they meet about 85% of need (which includes self-help like work-study and loans). They have a $680m endowment which helps them provide a great deal of grant and scholarship aid, but they still some work ahead of them.