A Mom’s Eye View of Campus Life ™
First in a Series
© What’s Your Major? SM
Liberal, Conservative or Moderate…..Oh My!
The social tone, or campus culture, is one of the most important factors that can make or break your child’s happiness at a college. It’s also one of the most difficult campus qualities to understand.
College is the first opportunity to get new and challenging inputs that will shape your child’s self-image and passions. But a bad reaction to campus life could show itself in your child’s detachment, boredom or feeling of isolation.
It’s important that your child “own” this aspect of college selection. Your role requires a shift from being a decision-maker to a decision-facilitator.
Colleges strive for diversity, as one of the most important influences that shape learning. Diversity can take many forms: political, religious, social, economic or even geographic. The impact of these diversities on a student’s experience at a college is palpable, once living there. But it is difficult to anticipate from a traditional college tour. And the diversity statistics reported by a specific college often stop with the number of minority or international students enrolled.
The National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE) defines educational enrichment, in part, as a result of the “serious conversations” students have with people who are “very different from you”, in addition to those who are of a different race or ethnicity. However, for your child to receive knowledge effectively at college, he or she must feel comfortable with the living and learning environment. An urban, northern-bred student might be miserable at a southern, rural campus. Success depends on “what” the current climate on campus actually is, how pervasive it is in the classroom and in student housing, and how your child responds. You can make your child aware of the benefits of diversity and encourage openness.
It’s Isn’t Easy Being….Liberal
Academia is all about foraging new ideas, so you might assume that most colleges offer a liberal living and learning environment. There are no published statistics about whether a college is liberal, conservative or moderate. You have to assess this intuitively, and judge whether your child will fit in.
At top liberal schools, The Princeton Review says that "a bohemian ideal is enforced” and the environment is "Utopian-liberal", giving a parent a pretty clear idea of what lifestyle is expected. "Hippies, hipsters, and geek chic" are common sights on the Bard College campus, the most liberal campus, according to U.S. News and World Report. However, students say that the reality is that "most people here are friendly, social, and pretty normal." On the other hand, "If you're uncreative or conservative you probably wouldn't fit in."
The Princeton Review provides rankings of 361 colleges, based on such touchy-feely aspects of campus life as political persuasion, marijuana and drug use, the prevalence of religion, the popularity of student government, and the students’ level of acceptance of the gay community on campus. Of Warren Wilson College, The Review says: "(It’s) mildly famous" for their "extreme liberalism…a haven for hippies and very left-wing people. (Students are) identifiable by their dread locks, Phish t-shirts, [and] political buttons, (and they) "like good organic wholesome food" and "hand-rolled cigarettes" and typically know "some botanical-ornithological basics." Students say that: “Wilson is known as a hippie college, but there is a startling diversity of other kinds of alterna-creatures here.”
So It’s Cool to Be Conservative?
Conservatism reaches the classroom, according to Young American’s Foundation top Ten Conservative College’s list. A stated mission and programs that emphasize can identify a conservative college:
• Principles of smaller government
• Strong national defense
• Free enterprise
• Traditional values
Furthermore, according to YAF, conservative studies center on Western Civilization “instead of straying toward the study of Marxism, feminism, sexuality, postmodernism, and other modern distractions…”.
Hillsdale College, the “most conservative” on The Princeton Review’s list supports: ‘limited government,’ its role as ‘a defender of free markets and conservative values,’ and its emphasis on learning from ‘original texts’, (which) is appreciated by its largely ‘conservative, white, (and) Christian’ students...”. Students agree that “‘typical students are smart and religious’ at Hillsdale; they ‘go to church every Sunday and (their) religious beliefs come out in (how they speak and act)’.”
At other top conservative colleges, the Princeton Review says:
• “Students here ‘do not accept anything other than 100 percent manners, 100 percent class, 100 percent preppy, and 100 percent conservative all the time.’".
• “…(there is) a campus environment "full of Christians that get along great with each other, but have a hard time knowing how to treat anyone that isn't exactly like them."
Two-thirds (63%) of the students surveyed in the 2004-05 Post-Secondary Planning survey from the National Research Center for College & University Relations (NRCCUR) prefer a “moderate social environment” on campus, 12% prefer a conservative environment and 25% prefer a liberal environment. Furthermore, more than 40% of the students prefer a denominational church-related college, and Catholic or Baptist schools are most favored.
That said, the larger the campus, the more likely it is that extreme liberalism or conservatism will not dominate the environment. On the other hand, minority groups can cling together at larger schools, making it harder to experience diversity, unless diversity is “institutionalized” – made a priority -- in the classroom and student housing environments.
Collaborative Versus Intense Learning Environments
Bottom line, a supportive academic and social environment is the single best indicator of student satisfaction, according to the NSSE. In fact, when NSSE results are statistically compared with US News and World Report college rankings, a “supportive campus environment” is best correlated best with colleges that retain second-year students and have the highest graduation rates. You should compare the retention and graduation rates for the colleges on your final list by looking them up on the College Board College Matchmaker, or other, college search engine.
Collaborative learning, by definition, puts the professor and the student on the same side. Learning is a result of the social experience working together to solve a problem, complete a task, or create a product. College advisor Loren Pope, author of “Colleges That Change Lives,” says that collaborative/supportive environments encourage campus living and learning between students, and with faculty, where students “explore their interests, goals, spirituality, and values in myriad ways.”
Brown University positions itself as the best of all possible colleges experiences, with a “collaborative university-college model”; one “in which faculty are as committed to teaching as they are to research, embracing a curriculum that requires students to be architects of their education.” An example of collaborative learning-in-practice are “interdisciplinary courses”, available on many campuses, which enable students to enter and leave with very different technical skills, but learn to master the skill of collaboration. These courses require the collaboration of teachers from different departments. An indication of a college’s level of commitment to collaborative learning is the number of interdisciplinary courses they offer.
On a recent tour of the College of William & Mary, a tour guide explained that learning there is completely collaborative. According to the guide, a student experiences this right in the classroom, where the “tone” of instruction is encouraging, not competitive.
The Hierarchy of Needs at Competitive Colleges: Food, Clothing, Shelter….and Studying?
If your child wants to be in a highly selective academic environment, but would thrive best in a collaborative learning environment, you should insist on specific examples of the school’s philosophy in practice. Make sure that that philosophy is not just randomly realized. It should truly impact all students.
To contrast with collaborative learning, the “Students Guide to Colleges” uses the term “intellectual fervor” to rate how much students from selected colleges talk about academics: “All the time, sometimes, or hardly ever.” An obsession with learning can be a positive or negative experience for your child. It is not an attribute of campus life that a college is likely to advertise.
A student describes an intense learning environment as “a culture of doing things the hard way…(with) competitions of how many hours you spend studying before you sleep/take a shower.” Likewise, you can get a sampling of opinions about the intensity of academic competition on campus by asking randomly selected students.
A recent graduate of the Cleveland Institute of Art (CIA), recently attended summer course at Columbia’s film program, putting him in the position to compare the two learning environments. He preferred the “much less intense” atmosphere at CIA, because the “intensity” of Columbia’s students limited his day-to-day experiences with fellow students and his ability to learn through others.
Georgetown University could be expected to have an intensely competitive learning environment. In their information sessions, a parent was recently told that, while it’s highly competitive to get in to Georgetown, once in, the students “pull each other through the program” and become like a family. It would be best to confirm statements like this by asking for specific examples of institutionalized collaborative/supportive programs and philosophy from “unofficial” college representatives.
Sizing Up Your College Choices
The best time to dig deep into a college’s culture is after you’ve determined that the college meets your academic and financial and practical needs, and you’ve visited once. When you’re ready to put together your final list of eight to ten colleges that meet all of your basic criteria, you need further evaluate your child’s chances for success at them:
1. Read about the college’s mission statement and strategic plan, and look at the President’s message, on the web site. Ask to see the most recent student satisfaction survey, which should be on file in the President’s office.
2. Don’t assume that a college that is affiliated with a religious institution will express that heritage in daily campus life. The influence of that institution may or may not be dominant on campus.
3. Ask the tour guide and college representatives about the social tone, campus culture (or campus climate) and to provide examples of how they experience it.
4. Visit your final choice colleges a second time, after you’ve been accepted but before you accept the financial aid offer. On this visit:
Pay attention to verbiage used in event posters, student newspapers, and presentations. And ask random students on campus for their opinion about the campus climate.
Take advantage of overnight stay programs that are commonly offered by the Admissions Department.
Have your child visit or call the residence halls, explaining that he/she is a prospective student and ask the same questions that you asked of the tour guides and official representatives.
5. To fully understand how diversity and collaborative learning impacts daily campus life, take the extra effort to interview faculty members (especially those in your child’s field of study). Be sure to ask for specific examples or data, about the following questions:
• How does the institution encourage activities where students from different backgrounds meet and work together? Ask for examples where the activities impacted the majority of students, not just members of club or academic program.
• How often do students work in teams to complete assignments, solve problems, or apply course content?
• How frequently do students engage in service learning or take part in community-based projects, to fulfill class requirements?
• How many students collaborate on research with faculty members?
• How many interdisciplinary courses are offered? Are they open to all students?
• How many students are involved with living and learning communities? How is the faculty involved with these communities?
7. Since retention and graduation rates are correlated with student satisfaction, look them up on the College Board College Matchmaker, or other, college search engine, and compare your final choice colleges.
8. Consult student-written guides and forums about campus life, which are available for selected campuses. The most popular guides are:
“The Insider’s Guide to The Colleges,” The Yale Daily News
“Students’ Guide to Colleges”, the Penguin Group
“The Big Book of Colleges ‘07”, College Prowler
Visit online forums, where you can read comments and pose questions to experienced parents and students:
9. You may want to have a discussion with your child about the importance of campus diversity and culture to his or her happiness as a student. But don’t expect tremendous insight. Your child’s personality is still in a formative stage and he or she has a limited worldview.
10. Resist the urge to judge the campus morals and values, superficially. What you think is best for your child might not, in fact, be best. Listen beyond what your child says about a campus. He or she wants to please you and may be telling you what you want to hear. Look for signs of genuine enthusiasm.
Jill Bernaciak is an independent education consultant in Cleveland, OH and author of the What’s Your Major portfolio/workbook. For more information, visit www.whatsyourmajor.net.
© What’s Your Major? SM