Tag Archives: liberal arts

The Most Popular Major

16 Apr

For the last three decades, a little over 20% of all American college students have opted to major in business, making it the most popular undergraduate field. Two weeks ago, Melissa Korn of the Wall Street Journal wrote an article that questioned the value of an undergraduate business degree. Last year the New York Times published an article by David Glenn that raised concerns about the rigor of business school curriculums. Both articles describe the problems and changes that are afoot in undergraduate business education. More undergraduate business schools are rethinking their curriculum to require students to take liberal arts courses that sharpen critical thinking, problem solving, and writing skills.

This development seems to be a response to recruiters, who are looking for employees who, because of exposure to various academic disciplines, can think creatively and see the big picture. In fact, many companies look for non-business majors to diversify their workforce. It’s not unusual to see economics majors land jobs on Wall Street alongside finance majors.

When you think about it, a graduate business degree (M.B.A) takes two years to complete so it would make sense that liberal arts study can be incorporated into the curriculum. The Glenn article notes that the lack of rigor in an undergraduate business education is not applicable to institutions like the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania or those at the top of the business school pecking order.

This is not at all to say that an undergraduate business degree has little value. For high school students considering business school for undergraduate study, it’s a good idea to evaluate whether the curriculum is flexible enough to allow them to take other courses that interest them, courses that are not related to business. Not only will taking humanities, social science or science courses be a change from business classes, it will also expand one’s intellectual horizons. In the end, that is what a good education should achieve.

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“What Are You Going to Study?”

4 Feb

Hands down that’s the most commonly asked question of my daughter after learning where she is attending college this fall.  It’s a logical follow-up question and it also signals a shift of attention to the next stage in her young life.  That question is just as important as where one goes to college; some would argue it is more important.

Right now when asked, she just shrugs; she doesn’t know.  Recently, the value of a liberal arts education has come under scrutiny (see articles like this), especially in a struggling economy.  But for someone who doesn’t know what she wants to study, a liberal arts education makes sense.  It will give her a well-rounded foundation of knowledge from which she can discover and pursue her interests while developing critical thinking, analytical, and communication skills (if that sounds like it came from a college brochure, I think I have internalized all that marketing spiel; I didn’t plagiarize, honest.)  Seriously though, the choice of major is frequently intertwined with later career choices and these days, what parents of college students, even the most relaxed ones, do not fret just an iota, about whether their children will be able to find meaningful employment?

When it comes to our children, there’s always something over which to wring our hands.  One mother recently related how her college-aged son talked about perhaps becoming a musician: “We’re going to need a talk with him about that.”  From the roll of her eyes and the skeptical tone in her voice, I can tell that there will be many “talks” in that family.  I suspect there may be such “talks” with my daughter in future about career choices and I suppose I could worry about that now.  But I will fight that urge.  I believe a liberal arts education will help her uncover her strengths and passions almost as much as I believe in a God that has created her for purposes the discovery of which will be her life journey.  So I will trust and not worry.

The Postman Cometh

16 Dec

I heard her running down the hall, her slippered feet slapping against the wooden floor.

“Is the postman here?” I inquired.  But I already knew the answer.

She nodded, her face tense, and we both race to get the mail.  Stuck amongst my copy of Poets & Writers, our local newspaper and junk mail was a priority mail envelope with Barnard College’s return address.  This was it.

She tore open the envelope, took out a black folder with the name of the college printed in large, white letters on the front.  With nervous fingers, she opened the folder and her eyes anxiously scanned the letter:

“Congratulations!  On behalf of the Committee on Admissions, I am pleased to inform you that you have been admitted to the Barnard College Class of 2016.”   

Screams.  Hugs.  Jumping up and down.  Phone calls to family.  Phone calls to friends who have walked alongside us through this long process.  Email to guidance counselor.  Texts to friends.  No dinner.  Takeout night.  Facebook.  Accepting everyone’s good wishes.  Savoring the moment.

From the start she was attracted to Barnard.  In the middle of the campus tour in August of 2010, she leaned over to me and whispered, “I like this school.”  From then on, every college we visited was compared against Barnard.  She likes the small liberal arts atmosphere of a women’s college with access to Columbia University’s classes, professors, and resources.  The curriculum allows her flexibility to explore different disciplines without having to take required core courses.  The New York City location allows for plenty of opportunities for internships and volunteering.  Columbia University’s Chinese language courses are known to be rigorous and thorough.  For her, it made complete sense to apply early decision.

In case anyone is wondering, I plan to continue with this blog in the new year and write about the rest of the journey from acceptance to matriculation from the point of view of a parent.  I remain fascinated by college admissions and all things higher education, so I hope that you will continue to walk alongside me on this journey.

Thanks, and have a merry Christmas, a happy holiday, and a joyful new year.

Alma Mater: Not Penn State

14 Nov

Ok, the title of this post is a cheap shot.  I admit it.  When I attended the University of Pennsylvania in the 1980’s, there was a popular T-shirt on campus that read: “Not Penn State.”  Apparently people often got my alma mater confused with Penn State, much to our annoyance.  Back then many Penn students like myself had an inferiority complex, having been shut out of the Ivy League Big Three (Harvard, Princeton, Yale).  So for people to think that we attended Penn State felt like they were pouring salt on wound.

Those days are long gone.  In fact, I probably can’t get admitted today.  As for that “Not Penn State” T-shirt, I didn’t see any on my recent visit to campus.  Judging from the early decision statistics, many students now make Penn their first choice and half the entering class is filled through early decision.  It’s no wonder our high school guidance department advises students to apply early if they want to go to Penn.  In 2011, the overall admission rate was 12% but 26% of early applicants were admitted.  (It will be interesting to see whether Harvard and Princeton’s re-institution of early action will siphon off candidates from Penn’s early decision pool).

Penn also likes to admit children and grandchildren of alumni.  Whether you believe legacy preference is fair or not, Penn wants to attract legacy students.  It created the Alumni Council on Admissions to help alumni families determine whether Penn is the right college, and to advise legacy applicants how best to present themselves.  In early decision, 38% to 42% of legacy applicants are admitted.  But the legacy advantage only seems to matter in early decision and is less of a factor in regular decision.  Penn is a popular choice at our high school and each year over two-dozen seniors apply.  Penn usually accepts about half a dozen students, almost all through early decision.

When we visited the campus, it was on a beautiful early spring day.  The lovely weather brought the students outside in full force and they thronged Locust Walk, the main pedestrian thoroughfare through Penn’s campus.  Tables were set up along the Walk and students were loudly hawking tickets to dances, shows, and other campus happenings.  The atmosphere felt festive.  Maybe it was the bright sunshine but the buildings seemed spiffier than I remembered.  The Wharton undergraduate business school is housed in a new building, Huntsman Hall, named after its benefactor, Jon M. Huntsman, father of the Republican presidential candidate and former ambassador to China, Jon M. Huntsman, Jr.  The building inside is gorgeous, with polished wood interiors and state-of-the-art teaching equipment.  Thanks to its many successful alumni, the Wharton School has always received out-sized alumni donations.

Penn has four undergraduate colleges – liberal arts, business, engineering and nursing – and is the second largest Ivy League university.  Total enrollment numbers around 9,700 undergraduates.  An interdisciplinary approach to academics is highly encouraged, reflecting founder Benjamin Franklin’s belief in an education that is strong in the professions and the liberal arts.  So regardless of which college students are enrolled in, they may take classes in any of the four schools.  There are more opportunities than in my day to pursue dual degrees such as international studies and business, management and technology, nursing and health care management, life sciences and management, computers and cognitive science.  Some unusual majors that I remember from thirty years ago, like history and sociology of science or biological basis of behavior, are still being offered.

As a heavily pre-professional university, many of my classmates went on to pursue graduate degrees in business, law, and medicine.  I suspect that this has not changed.  It is a university that has only gotten better with time.

Fordham University at Lincoln Center

22 Oct

Fordham University labels itself as “The Jesuit University of New York” to highlight its Catholic pedagogical tradition but the satellite campus at Lincoln Center on West 61st Street has a decidedly secular and ecumenical atmosphere.  The campus incorporates some graduate divisions, including the well-respected law school, as well as an undergraduate college.  With 1,700 undergraduates enrolled, Fordham College at Lincoln Center has approximately half as many students than the main Bronx-Rose Hill campus and is heavily focused on the performing arts.  It is a newer facility, built in 1968 on eight acres adjacent to the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts.

All students must fulfill requirements in a broad-based liberal arts curriculum, and so there are course offerings in all the standard departments, albeit somewhat abridged.  Our tour guide, Sophie, had auditioned for the theater performance major, but was only accepted as a liberal arts B.A. candidate.  She is a classical civilizations major, and apparently loves Fordham’s humanities curriculum (classics and humanities are traditionally strong at Jesuit colleges).  The college has extensive opportunities for foreign travel and study for those who would like to branch out beyond Manhattan.

One of Fordham College-Lincoln Center’s greatest magnets is the dance conservatory program, offered in conjunction with the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater.  This program not only attracts many dancers, but it contributes to the already highly diverse makeup of the student body.  We noticed many attractive young women at our open house and Monkey Mama chose to withdraw slightly after one spectacularly beautiful student initiated a conversation about various theater programs and Fordham College-Lincoln Center’s advantages among them.  She preferred the smaller class sizes at Fordham-Lincoln Center to those at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts (more about which will be forthcoming).  Monkey Son listened attentively and nodded sagely at that.

The theater department stages a variety of performances annually and we were impressed with the facilities.  Potential majors must audition but they must also be accepted academically.  Fordham’s acceptance rate is approximately 50% but only 14% of accepted students actually enroll.  The admissions representative hinted that highly talented applicants might be forgiven some academic shortcomings but they still need to have achieved certain benchmarks and requirements.  Monkey Mama inferred that the theater department might be able to prevail over other skeptics on the admissions committee but are probably somewhat less influential than the head basketball coach (Fordham’s Division I team plays in the Atlantic 10 Conference).

Fordham-Lincoln Center’s vertical campus is expanding horizontally to include sorely needed student housing.  Like other Manhattan student accommodations, the dormitory facilities are comfortable but without frills.  Room and board can exceed $16K for a single, bringing the total cost of attendance to more than $55K.  Although the campus chapel includes worship spaces for Moslems and Jews (the main building is named for its prime benefactor, Mr. Leon Lowenstein), the dormitories do observe nominal parietal regulations, banning overnight guests of the opposite sex.  Despite that, Monkey Son declared Fordham College at Lincoln Center his favorite among those visited thus far.

Eugene Lang College The New School for Liberal Arts

8 Oct

It’s irresistible; imagine dropping Bard College, Hampshire College or Bennington College on lower Fifth Avenue and you might get something like Eugene Lang College of The New School.  The New School occupies a special place in New York history as the first college founded to teach adults, especially recent immigrants, who were underserved by traditional universities like Columbia (where the New School’s founders had previously taught).  The New School now comprises seven separate faculties, the largest and best known of which is the Parsons School for Design.

Philanthropist Eugene Lang provided the capital to create a liberal arts college for full-time, traditional-age students in 1985 and his namesake college emerged from the former New School for Social Research.  Its curriculum fosters social engagement and debate, with a strong focus on writing.  Students may design their own majors and curricula, with some core requirements.  The staff and student hosts were good-naturedly clear about the fact that Eugene Lang is not the college for anyone profoundly interested in science, technology or sports.

Although the college is small with approximately 1,500 students, it has a fairly encouraging acceptance rate of 69%.  Standardized test scores are optional, and the admissions representatives indicated that intellectual curiosity and writing ability are the most important criteria for consideration.  Eugene Lang was originally called “The Seminar School,” and classes are almost exclusively symposia requiring universal participation.  They believe that their applicants are somewhat self-selecting because the college will not appeal to everyone.

Eugene Lang students may enroll in electives at other New School faculties and some dual-major opportunities exist for the artistically or musically inclined, but most of the courses relate academic fields of study to the “outside world” and encourage students to apply their interests through civic engagement.  They also have access to library resources at other universities including New York University just down the street, as well as the New York Public Library network.

We were not granted a tour of any student residences, which rankled a bit.  The freshmen accommodations sound somewhat bleak, but the neighborhood is unbeatable for charm and convenience.  It is quieter than NYU’s environs several blocks away and has some beautiful side streets nearby.

Eugene Lang, like other private colleges in Manhattan, is not a cheap date.  Tuition for 2011-2012 will cost about $37,000 and double rooms cost more than $14,000.  It is highly unlikely that most students will find apartments near campus for a comparable price and so they (and their parents) must desire the prime location and be willing to trade off many other creature comforts for this luxury.

Monkey Mama and Monkey Son were both intrigued by Eugene Lang and agreed that it provides a very attractive alternative to the intensely competitive audition-based programs he is applying to elsewhere.  We are almost reluctant to publicize the school, since it still seems to be something of a secret, hidden in plain sight on Fifth Avenue.

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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