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Bennington College

Bennington College, Bennington, VT (visited 4/17/14)

~Bennington Art building Bennington College, with its enrollment of 500 students, is housed on a sprawling campus with eclectic architecture – a bit like their students! Academics are strong and individualized. The open curriculum means that there are no core requirements, and students create their own majors that almost always end up being interdisciplinary. Therefore, the students must be curious, independent, willing to be challenged beyond their comfort zone, and able to connect many interests.

~Bennington student studying 2There are two core components of the Bennington Academic Experience:

1) Plan. “It’s a little foreign and scary to families,” said the Director of Admission. The process recognizes the students’ curiosity and capacity to learn beyond what they think is possible. This lets them figure out what they need, how they learn best, and more. They can push boundaries and take any class they want.

  1. The first year is all about the excitement of education. They meet regularly with the advisor, sometimes as a group, or meeting for lunch, or after class. In the first year, the advisor is one of their teachers who will push them to be analytical about why they chose certain classes and verbalize what they’re interested in. They’re pushed to think about whether there is an essential question or theme among all of them.
  2. In the sophomore year, students meet with a committee of 3 or 4 teachers who will make sure that the student has a liberal arts education. They’ll plan out classes based on the student’s interests. Students declare an area of study (a major) during this year.
  3. During junior and senior years, students complete the plan and work on a final senior project. Our tour guide’s senior project was writing a graphic novel. Ideally, she would like to work for DC Comics.

2) Fieldwork Term (FWT): This is a yearly, 7-week internship/mentorship/fieldwork/ something educational outside of the classroom. This must be completed every year, and has to be different every year. They can get grants for this; they have to write a budget and a proposal. Scholarships are also available for internships with a global impact ($250-$2000 depending on what they’re doing).

~Bennington outdoor class 2Students get narrative evaluations in classes, but can opt for grades if they want them. This can be done on a class-by-class basis, or they get grades for every class. Sometimes they want reassurance that grad schools will take them seriously. However, Bennington is in the top 40 of schools sending students on to get PhDs. Academics are clearly strong.

I was less impressed with the students than I thought I’d be. It was a beautiful day, but very few students were out; those who were out didn’t greet each other as they crossed campus, but the students I spoke to seemed friendly enough. One of the other counselors had heard that students there were cool and a bit stand-offish, and what we saw seemed to back that up. We asked our tour guide about her impressions and if she would agree with that. She said, “some of the kids are pretentious, but it’s drilled out of you.” There’s definitely an aura of affectation here.

~Bennington picnicThe graduation rate (67%) isn’t great, and they spend a long time talking about that. They’re interested in graduating the students – if this is the right place for them! This is a test-optional school; just over one-third of students submitted test scores. The average GPA is 3.56, ACT 29, SAT 1295. The total cost hovers just over $63,000/year (making them one of the most expensive schools out there), but 90% of students get financial aid. The average loan debt at graduation is $24,000. The Director of Admissions said, “There is some value in taking on some debt. It’s an investment. It’s not a car; it won’t depreciate.”

~Bennington welding studio

Welding Studio

Art Studio

Art Studio

They have an amazing arts complex with extensive, open labs for ceramics, sculpture, and more. They have 4 black box theaters and an extensive prop shop. Students complete labs in lighting, costumes, props, and more. There’s usually 1 faculty-run production which is directed by a professor; almost all the rest are run by students. One of the facts they like to share is that they’re the first college to have included the arts (visual and performing) into the liberal arts curriculum/ college. They offer animation classes, and one called “Nature and Artifice” which deals with a lot of architectural issues. Not surprisingly, over 40% of their students major in something relating to the visual or performing arts.

~Bennington dorm

One of the Houses

Almost all students live on campus (easy to do with the small enrollment). Dorms are called Houses, and many are Themed. The one we saw had a large lounge, a working fireplace, and a drum set and piano. Freshmen and Sophomores usually get doubles; Juniors and Seniors almost always live in singles.

There is no Greek life on campus, nor are there varsity sports, but plenty of club sport opportunities, including fencing and archery.

Although there are very few students majoring in the physical sciences, there are some interesting things going on there, as well. For example, there’s an Octopus Lab because the professor thought that “their brains are cooler” (according to our tour guide).

© 2014

Southern Vermont College

SOUTHERN VERMONT COLLEGE (visited 4/17/14)

~Southern VT pond 2SVC sits on a sprawling, open 370-acre campus surrounded by mountains. Bennington, a small city of about 20,000 people, is about a mile down the hill from campus. The campus is divided into two sections: a modern residential section at the bottom of the hill, and a large stone mansion at the top of the hill which houses academics. The college was founded in 1926 as St. Joseph College but became independent when it was turned over to an independent board. Although it is a private institution, the tuition usually is about on-par with in-state tuition after aid is granted. About 90% of students receive Financial Aid; 35% are Pell eligible. The school only enrolls about 500 students, almost 2/3 of whom are first-gen students. They offer excellent student support on campus including LD support, tutoring, and career services.

~Southern VT 1Admitted students average about a 2.8 GPA and 940 SAT. Admission is rolling, and the do a holistic, portfolio approach to making decisions. On-campus housing is guaranteed for first-year students. Sophomores, juniors, and seniors can have cars on campus for free because many of them commute, and so many of them have internships in town. However, even for students without cars, getting around isn’t an issue. They can walk into town, and there’s a lot going on on campus. The Activities Board plans lots of things on the weekend, including trips off campus to NYC, Boston, and Northampton.

~Southern VT fire pitBefore the tour, I spoke with two of the tour guides: Stephanie, a senior from Massachusetts who is majoring in Health Care Management, and Bridget, a sophomore Nursing major from Connecticut. Stephanie was one of the few guides I’ve met who shook hands – initiated! “We came because it’s small. Instead of being another face in the crowd you can be your own person here.” Bridget said, “I can know everyone if I want to. We’re on first name basis with professors and they give us their cell numbers. They’re here to support us. If I miss class, the professor will call me out on it later!”

~Southern VT dining hallBecause of their limited enrollment, they only offer 16 majors, but they do them all well. Nursing is Direct-Entry (min 2.8 GPA, 500 per section on the SAT, and a C+ or better in Bio and Chem). The Healthcare Education Center is located 1.5 miles away. Clinicals can be done at the VA hospital, the hospital in town, at Pittfield, Mass., the SW Regional Cancer Center, and more. Our tour guide (in Health Care Management) did a 130 hour practicum with a Women’s Advocacy Center.

The Radiological Sciences, creative writing, criminal justice, healthcare management and advocacy, and business (with concentrations in management, sports management, and entrepreneurship) are also worth noting. “Business is strong because of our ability to integrate with the community. Bennington is a wonderful town. My classes always have a community component.” The bank in town provides $5000 for philanthropic funds. They do needs-assessment, write requests for proposals, solicit applications, create scoring rubrics, and do site visit checklists. Basically they go through the entire grant process.

The Castle located up the hill

The Castle located up the hill

Five things are happening this year that they wanted to highlight:

1)      They’re launching a new Women’s Lacrosse team (which will be the 11th varsity team on campus)

2)      They’re starting a new BSN program

3)      A Vet Scholars program is being initiated

4)      They’re opening a new admissions/welcome center

5)      The Everett Mansion turns 100

~Southern VT stairs 4The President was very proud of their “Book Ends of Your Education” program. Students get a book (signed by the faculty) when they enter the community and another when they leave. It seems like a wonderful idea – but I found it interesting that our tour guide, a junior, couldn’t remember what her freshman book was.

This is an excellent college choice for students who might need a little bit of academic or social support as they transition into college. It’s a small, supportive community in a beautiful location with excellent hands-on educational opportunities.

© 2014

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