Tag Archives: financial aid

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.

Some Links to Interesting Articles

16 Dec

Just a short post today – the holiday busyness is ratcheting up.  Recently I read a couple of articles in the New York Times that gave me much food – the no calorie type, perfect for this time of year – for thought, and I trust that readers may also find intriguing.

The first article “Parents Embrace Documentary on Pressures of School” by Trip Gabriel published on December 8 concerns a documentary about school pressures that has been making the rounds through various school districts in private screenings.  The documentary called “Race to Nowhere,” was created by Ms. Abeles, a mother and novice filmmaker, and shows how the demands of homework and sports and high expectations combine to exert enormous pressure on teens, so much so that some of them become physically ill.  The article describes the reaction of parents and school officials to the film and much of what is discussed resonated with me.  It might be a film worth bringing to your local school district.

The second article “The Case for Early Decision” by Dr. Robert Massa of Lafayette College, and published on December 13, seeks to set straight some media misperceptions about early decision.  According to him, no college will hold a student to an early decision commitment if the family determines that a financial aid package is insufficient.  He confirms that the chances of being admitted through early decision are better because colleges want the most qualified students.  He also writes that it’s easier to get financial aid during early decision because colleges have not depleted their financial aid budgets yet.  His article is worth reading if only to get a different perspective on early admission.


Early Admissions

1 Dec

Just when I thought I had gotten a handle on the college search and admissions process, early admissions has reared up to puncture my heretofore Zen-like well-being.

December is the time of year when high school seniors who have applied for early admission to their first choice colleges anxiously wait to hear about their application.  In two weeks, there will either be much rejoicing or gnashing of teeth in these homes.

A quick primer on early admissions: students can apply early, usually by November, and colleges will decide by mid-December whether to admit or deny.  Many early admissions programs are “binding early decision” which requires the student to commit to attending the institution if accepted.  Some schools have “non-binding early action” programs that allow students to apply to other schools.

Just to confuse things further, there are variations, like single choice early action (non-binding but a student may only apply to one school) and rolling admissions (applications are reviewed as they come in until the class fills up).  Most schools have one round of early admissions but some schools like Tufts University, Hamilton College and Connecticut College offer two rounds of early decision.  If your head is not spinning yet, don’t worry, it will by the end of this post.

There are advantages to applying early, especially if a student is convinced that a particular school is the top choice.  If admitted by mid-December, that student is done with the college application process; no more applications to fill out, no more waiting until spring to hear.

Another advantage is that the chances of being admitted are higher.  The National Association for College Admission Counseling confirmed this recently in a report: nearly three out of four early admissions applicants last year were admitted as compared with just over half who applied to the same colleges in the regular decision process.  According to the colleges this is because candidates in the early admissions pool are stronger.

Colleges like early admissions, particularly binding early decision, because it gives them a higher enrollment yield and a lock on the most competitive candidates.  At an information session we attended, the University of Pennsylvania admissions officer said that the University admits half its freshman class through early decision.

Binding early decision programs have come under fire from critics who assert that it favors students from wealthier backgrounds who do not need to compare financial aid offers.  At a financial aid workshop I attended, they advised against applying early for exactly that reason.  But the popularity of these programs continues to grow as the number of students applying early has exploded. Moreover, universities that did away with early admissions are reconsidering their decisions, like Harvard University, or have re-introduced them, like the University of Virginia.

If all this weren’t complicated enough, at our high school, many seniors apply early. Anecdotally, it seems that every senior that my daughter knows is applying early, and every parent of a senior that I know tells me their child is applying early.  So I wonder about this trend towards early admission, whether this creates peer pressure and of course, how this will affect my daughter and her decision-making.  I imagine it would be tough to have to wait until the spring to find out where you’ll be going to college if many of your friends will already know by mid-December.

There’s no way to know until next year and I’m just taking it one day at a time.  But I’m finding that when it comes to college admissions, there’s always something new to think about.

Interview with Nancy Siegel

30 Sep

Nancy Siegel, head guidance counselor at Millburn High School, the #1 ranked high school in New Jersey, gave an interview on local TV earlier this month about preparing for, and applying to colleges.  You can watch the entire 30-minute interview here (sorry, don’t know how to embed video in blog yet).  If you don’t have 30 minutes to spare, I have summarized the main points below.  Nancy has over 40 years experience of counseling high school students; while some of her advice may be familiar, it’s worth being reminded.

Factors to consider when choosing colleges:


The school should offer the types of academic programs in which your child is interested.  Since this advice seems self-evident, I think there must be parents and students out there that forget this.


Don’t visit on a Saturday morning and wonder where all the students are – most of them will be asleep.  Be aware that the tour guide may unfairly skew a student’s impression of a school (e.g., if the tour guide is a science major and your child hates science).  To get a better feel, visit the student center, the bookstore, look at the bulletin boards, see what’s happening on campus, watch the students coming and going, and if possible, talk to some students.  Nevertheless, she advises, if your child says “they’re not feeling this place, don’t argue.”

Style of Learning

It is important to find a school that will fit your child’s style of learning.  Is he or she an active learner and enjoys interacting with the professors, or does he or she prefer to sit back and absorb a lecture?  The answer will affect the size of the school selected because larger universities are likelier to have lectures with hundreds of students versus a smaller school.


Does the school provide the types of activities in which your child will want to participate?  Does your child want to go to a school with lots of “rah-rah” school spirit?  A child who loves urban life will have a harder time adjusting to a rural environment and vice versa.

Regarding the application process, she has these words of advice:


Don’t spend the interview talking about grades or extracurricular activities or test scores, all of which information can be found in the application.  Instead, the interview should be used to provide “a third dimension,” a reason for the school to select the student over the twenty other applicants with similar academic profiles.  So, “be interesting, be entertaining, be yourself, talk about what’s important to you, what matters to you.  Talk to them about something you can be passionate about…”

Extracurricular Activities

Colleges can fill their classes five to six times over with academically qualified students.  While there’s no need to be involved in 30 activities, “a student needs to be involved in something” to show that he or she is a “vital, caring, involved human being who cares about something.”  She does acknowledge that if a student is a talented top athlete or a musician that fills a particular college’s need for that sport or instrument, then that student will enjoy an advantage.  But one cannot count on those; therefore it is best to “be yourself and find something you’re passionate about.”  Colleges are looking for students that are going to make a positive impact on their student body.

Financial Aid

  • There are merit aid opportunities available although they are likely to be available to students “at a school that is a little below their academic reach school.”
  • Avoid companies asking for money upfront to help you obtain financial aid.
  • Some schools are not need-blind and will look at whether a student is applying for financial aid when making admission decisions.

Her advice to freshmen parents is, “Let your kid be a kid.  Don’t put pressure on them.  Let them grow in their own time…Let them see where they belong.  Too many parents get more anxious than the kids.”  In the end, “there’s absolutely a college opportunity for all students.”

Trip report: Yale University

23 Sep

Yale University is one of the most selective universities in America, routinely rejecting 93% of candidates.  Last year over 25,000 high school seniors vied for a chance to attend this prestigious institution, whose name is often invoked in the same breath with its two peers as “HarvardPrincetonYale,” an incantation that represents the ultimate in higher education’s brand name exclusivity.

For those fortunate enough to win admission, Yale offers its 5,275 undergraduates a choice of 2,000 courses each year in either the liberal arts or engineering.  In case students have a hard time deciding what to take, a two-week “shopping period” at the beginning of each semester allows them to test-drive several classes before committing to a schedule.  The purpose of this is to encourage students to take risks and explore new intellectual areas.

Students live in residential colleges, a system modeled after universities Oxford and Cambridge and popularized by Hogwarts.  Freshmen are assigned to one of twelve residential colleges where they will live for the duration of their time at Yale.  Like Hogwarts, students become fiercely loyal to their residential college.  As our tour guides introduced themselves, they yelled out the name of their residential college and each claimed that it was the best.  Not being familiar with the colleges, the information was meaningless but illustrated the concept at work.

The tour led us through Yale’s campus, where its stately collegiate gothic-style buildings, grassy quads and courtyards grace New Haven’s streets.  The interior of one library is cathedral-like, easily inspiring awe and involuntary genuflection.  Normally, college tour groups ask few questions of their guide but the surroundings seemed to loosen everyone’s tongue and our group peppered the guide with questions until the tour ran late.  Our guide, a genial junior studying international relations, patiently answered everyone.  Because of time constraints, we reluctantly broke away from the last part of the tour that covered the old campus.  If our daughter decided to apply here and was lucky enough to get in, we could always come back and ask questions then.

Yale has an early action program where prospective students apply by November 1 and receive a response by mid-December.  Unlike early decision programs where acceptances are binding on the applicant, Yale does not require a decision until May 1 so students are free to apply elsewhere under regular decision.

Tuition, room and board costs $49,800 for the 2010-2011 academic year.  Financial aid is need-based and Yale has a generous financial aid budget of $100 million.  Its goal is to graduate students without loans so even though it is an expensive school, depending on family income, a Yale education may represent a better value than some public universities.  But first you have to get in.

Throughout its storied history, Yale has produced many renowned alumni, including Nobel laureates Sinclair Lewis and Paul Krugman, Pulitzer Prize winners Garry Trudeau and Thornton Wilder, former presidents George H. W. Bush and George W. Bush, senators John Kerry and Joseph Lieberman, actors Jodie Foster, Angela Bassett, Edward Norton and Sam Waterston.  As the admissions numbers attest, even after three hundred years, Yale remains a highly desirable place to attend college.

Trip Report: Trinity College

16 Sep

Trinity College is a small liberal arts college located in Hartford, the state capitol of Connecticut.  With 2,300 undergraduates, the average class size is small with a student to faculty ratio of 9:1 and it is one of the few liberal arts colleges that also offer an accredited engineering program.  By all accounts the students here get a lot of personal attention from professors.

The neighborhood surrounding the college is decidedly lower rent.  But instead of shielding itself from Hartford’s urban ills, Trinity has used its location to teach and engage its students with community-learning courses and volunteer opportunities.  For example, we heard about Trinity students tutoring local students and running the on-campus Boys and Girls Club.  And because Hartford is a medium-sized city with a mix of businesses and organizations, there are over 200 academic internships where students can earn course credit while exploring career interests.

The leafy 100-acre campus with its predominantly gothic-style stone buildings conveys a history that reaches back to 1823.  Some of the older buildings are now getting a facelift as part of a campus-wide revitalization project.  We visited the library, which recently underwent a $35-million renovation and expansion.  According to our student tour guide, the interior of the library now has more natural lighting and places to study, which improvements apparently resulted from student input.

Studying abroad is popular and over 50% of the students take advantage of it, many opting for the Trinity-in-Rome program where the college maintains its own campus.  Other Trinity-directed global sites include Barcelona, Vienna, Paris, Buenos Aires, Cape Town and Port of Spain.

Like its peer liberal arts colleges, this education is not cheap.  Tuition, room and board will cost $51,320 for the current academic year.  Financial aid is need-based and the college promises to meet 100% of a student’s calculated need.  International students can also obtain need-based financial aid.  The only merit-based aid is the Presidential scholarship that is given to ten to fifteen top students each year and provides free tuition for four years, a savings of over $160,000.  Sweet if you can get it.

During the last admission cycle, the college received over 4,600 applications and admitted 43%.  Some of its more famous alumni include Edward Albee the playwright and political commentators Tucker Carlson and George Will.  Because of its close connection with the city, Trinity will likely attract students who are drawn to learning and community service.

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