Alma College (visited 11/19/19)
Alma is the place to go if:
- You want to learn (or already know) how to play the bagpipes! Or perhaps you just want to hear the Highland Band, the kilted marching band, or hear bagpipers before football games. Can you tell they’re proud of their Scottish theme?
- You want to join the “winning-est MUN team” (Alma was in a jeopardy question for this!)
- You’re looking for an incredibly diverse and accepting campus: this has been voted the most LGBTQ+-friendly campus in the state, the college is the most racially diverse it has ever been (“and we’re only getting better”), and inclusive of people of any or no faith.
You’d like to join or watch the National Champion Percussion Ensemble or the nationally ranked (1st or 2nd depending on the year) Cheer & Stunt team (“It’s very acrobatic/gymnastics based”) that competes mostly against DII teams.
- You’d like a campus with “massive Sumo squirrels that are friendly, calm, and well-fed.”
- You’re looking for an intense but highly supportive academic and social environment.
It seems like Alma would be a hard sell for people coming from a distance – but it should NOT scare people away! “We’re sort of the northernmost Liberal Arts college in the state. There’s a stereotype that most students are from the UP, but they’re not. Many come from the suburbs of Detroit. For others, this is a big town.” For those coming from a distance, shuttles run to airports at breaks. Many students fly into Detroit (2 hours away) because it’s a hub and cheaper, but Grand Rapids (1.5 hours) is an option. They’re also good about getting people to other places as needed; for example, they’ll take students to Lansing for the GRE when they don’t have a car.
Students mostly come from Michigan, but they pull from all over: “Most students come here for A Thing – football, MUN, the Highland Band,” said the rep. “They end up falling in love and stick around. We’re like the mafia, but not scary! Once you’re in, you’re in for life!” The Assistant Provost agreed: “I grew up in the Midwest and did everything I could to get out of it. They were looking for a person to come in for a year. I haven’t left.” That was 6 years ago!
Campus is highly residential; 90% live on campus (and must live here all 4 years unless living within 20 miles with family) and the students aren’t bored. When we visited, students were everywhere – studying, socializing, staffing tables for clubs, walking around campus. The small town is also safe and accessible with things to do (movies, stores, cafes, restaurants). They are Rail Trails for those who want to walk, run, or bike. Students said that there was plenty to do off campus when they wanted it, but usually were so busy with classes, athletics, performing arts, and clubs that they forgot they were in a smaller town. There’s even a PickleBall team; the tour guide is playing in the intramural finals for that.
“The community is about encouraging and building people up. We go to events and support each other. We want everyone to have opportunities.” They even host an annual Silent Party; people are giving headphones for music – or can choose not to listen to anything – to acknowledge that some people have auditory sensitivities and need a quiet place but still want to be with other people.
Academically, “it’s intense. No one is going to say it’s easy,” said a student. Alma runs on a 4-4-1 schedule, different from the big public institutions. Students take 4 4-credit courses in the first 2 terms and 1 in Spring Term that runs from the end of April through Memorial Day. Everyone is required to complete 2 spring terms. Graduation is in April so seniors can be in the job market early (although they can stay if they want). Many spring courses involve travel. Also, they grade differently: instead of pluses or minuses, grades are A, AB, B, BC, etc.
Classes, of course, are small. The tour guide’s largest class had 34 students; the largest she’s in this year has 21. There’s quite a bit of innovation in the classrooms. For example, they’ve partnered with Google to link up/partner classes between colleges in real time. “A friend of my mine took one of these and loved it,” said the tour guide. They have a planetarium which is used in and out of classes. All students can borrow film equipment for class projects or just for fun. They have a giant tortoise named Remus who lives in the science courtyard in good weather and the greenhouse over the winter.
Fine and Performing Arts are huge here:
- Staying true to their Highland/Scottish “heritage”/theme, they offer Highland Arts, including Highland Dance and Piping & Drumming. They offer a Scottish Arts Scholarship for students coming in with a high level of skill in these areas.
- There are a lot of music classes offered; students do not have to be in the major to take advantage of these. They’ll bring in teachers for any instrument a student wants to learn. I asked where they’d find a bassoon instructor in small-town Michigan; the tour guide laughed and said, “They contract with music teachers in public schools or anywhere else they can find them.” She’s learning to play the bagpipes (which are a big deal here).
Students give lobby recitals on a regular basis.
- There are multiple choral groups to join. The Select Choir goes to Scotland and Ireland every other year
- Their Kilted Marching Band is competitive to get into and people come to games as much to see them as the athletics.
- They have a Midi Lab to record their own music.
- They offer majors in Music Composition, Dance, Musical Theater, and more.
- Community members join the orchestra.
They’re moving away from the cafeteria-style Gen Ed and towards a more scaffolded, integrated experience. Everyone’s required to take a FYS class and English 101, but they’re piloting a new program that combines these into one full-year course. Students cannot test out of a foreign language – but if they test into a higher level, it’ll also count for a humanities course. They’re creating new interdisciplinary majors including:
- New Media Studies (art, physics, digital arts, game design, etc)
- Environmental Studies (policy, geology, communications)
- Integrative Physiology and Health Science
Other things to note about their academics include:
- They have Applied Physics/pre-engineering but no engineering majors.
- Nursing: students still take a liberal arts core in addition to their major. The school has a great relationship with the local hospital.
- The sciences are incredibly strong, including Public Health, biochem, and biotechnology. This is one of undergrad schools in the state to have a cadaver lab (they get 10 a year from the Michigan grad school).
- The Psych dept focuses on research, including Neuroscience,
- The Entrepreneurs in Action business class runs Highland Java, a popular coffee spot on campus.
Starting after the sophomore winter term, students can apply for a $2500 Venture Grant for use in spring term or summer internships. Students can also partner with NY Arts or different organizations in DC, Chicago, and Philly for a semester (housed with other college students through agreements with other universities) and transfer in 16 credits. There’s also the Posey Fund for about 40 students per year – our tour guide went to India for 7 weeks over the summer.
The minimum admissions scores are 960 SAT/18 ACT. They take a weighted GPA but only take what the school gives them; for admissions, it’s not as big a deal, but the scholarships depend heavily on the GPA, so high school counselors should convert this and email the admissions reps. GPAs of 3.4GPA or higher are eligible for Scholar Summit which means up to $4000 more. There are also several competitive scholarships for art, STEM, faith leadership, etc.
We asked people what they thought Alma did really well:
- We support individual students in helping them along the path they choose. It’s so rare to come to a campus where they’re all focused on student success. It’s a piece of core identity.
- We hold ourselves to high expectations. If people have negative experiences, there’s a team that jumps on that.
- We’re the perfect place for the student who doesn’t want to have to decide. There are very few things that you can’t do both of (like marching band and football team).
Historically, retention has been around 80%. The Provost’s goal is to get students linked in to a group earlier. The 4-year graduation rate is about 60% “which is higher than you’d think given the retention rate,” said the provost. “We hear that often from counselors that this is the school of choice for students coming from diverse backgrounds.” About 35% of students are fully Pell-Eligible and 30% are First-Gen students. They have a strong track record of being successful with retaining and graduating these populations.