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Northern Exposure: Dartmouth, Middlebury and Hamilton Colleges

5 Oct

This summer we visited three colleges located north of the 38th parallel – Dartmouth College in New Hampshire, Middlebury College in Vermont and Hamilton College in upstate New York.  They share many similarities – all offer a liberal arts education surrounded by mountains (Green, White, or Adirondacks) and have beautiful, traditional campuses with elegant brick or stone buildings.  Being so far north, winters can seem interminable.  When we visited in midsummer, the weather was so pleasant and mild that it was hard to imagine these campuses blanketed under thick snow and ice, assailed by bitter winds and frigid temperatures.  Tuition and board are expensive, costing more than $50,000; to soften the sticker shock, they all offer need-blind admissions and a commitment to meeting a student’s financial need.

Because of their remote locations, students going to any of these schools must love the great outdoors because there is little else around.  Sure, Hanover, New Hampshire is a charming historic town whose sole purpose seems to be supporting the college community with restaurants, stores, and hotels (I highly recommend staying at Six South Street) but it is a small town nevertheless.  The same can be said of Middlebury Vermont, and Clinton, New York.  Students who enjoy winter sports will find lots to do.

Some key differences stand out.  Dartmouth’s academic calendar is divided into 12-week quarters instead of semesters so there is little or no easing into the workload.  Most students take three courses per quarter.  All sophomores are required to spend their second summer on campus at Dartmouth.  Dartmouth also offers an engineering degree in addition to liberal arts.

The presence of sophomores, numbering about 1,100, on campus made the campus seem livelier and less deserted when we were there.  The students we saw were fit looking so it should be no surprise to learn that fifty percent of the student body is involved in varsity sports and another 25% plays intramural or club sports.  A friend who is a Dartmouth alumnus recalls being surrounded by athletes when he attended 30 years ago and that has not changed.  Sixty percent of Dartmouth students are also involved with fraternities or sororities.

An hour and half away on the other side of the Green Mountains, Middlebury College has no fraternities or sororities.  It is a smaller liberal arts college with only 2,450 students and is most known for its foreign languages, English, and environmental studies programs, among others.  It also offers 5-year dual-degree engineering programs with Dartmouth College, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, and Columbia University.

For students contemplating time off before college, each year Middlebury offers deferred admission to 90 to 100 students who enroll in February.  In case anyone wonders whether admission standards are looser for February admits, the admission representative was quick to note that a disproportionate percentage of “Febs” take on leadership roles in campus life.

To our disappointment, none of the tour guides were studying any foreign languages, which is what my daughter was most interested in.  As we walked around campus, we could see that there is on-going construction and renovation of campus facilities.  The tour guide raved about the food, which is supposed to be quite good, with local farmers supplying the college with organic, fresh produce and raw ingredients.

Hamilton College is the smallest college on our visit, with only 1,850 undergraduates.  Its academic program features an open curriculum that allows students to take whatever courses they want without needing to fulfill any distributional requirements.  Depending on your perspective, this could be good or bad; if a student enters college with a well-developed and strong focus, an open curriculum could be liberating (e.g., no more pesky math or science courses, ever).  But, if students are undecided about what to study, requiring them to sample different discipline areas may help them to decide.  The college is not completely without requirements though; students have to take three writing intensive courses.  The college was quick to tout its strong alumni network with over 50% of alumni donating to the college.

Of the three colleges, Dartmouth College is the most selective, being in the Ivy League.  Last year its admission rate was 10%, Middlebury’s was 18% and Hamilton’s was 27%.  For students interested in going to college in rural areas, play sports, and enjoy nature and the outdoors, these three schools offer all that in descending order of selectivity.

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