How to Choose a (our) University

I’ve just spent a day meeting with the presidents of the schools in our athletic conference (NESCAC): Amherst, Bates, Bowdoin, Colby, Connecticut, Hamilton, Middlebury, Trinity, Tufts, Williams. Fine schools every one. Although we all believe in the virtues of a well-rounded liberal arts education, we also each think that we offer this education in distinctive ways.  Often students who visit Wes on their campus tours have already seen or are on their way to see some of the other NESCAC schools.  Do the distinctions that are so important to the students, faculty and staff who are already part of the schools come through to visitors?

This question seems especially germane now when graduating high school seniors are trying to decide among the colleges to which they have been accepted. The thick envelopes (or weighty emails) arrived a couple of weeks ago, and the month of April is decision time. Of course, for many (especially this year) the decision will be made on an economic basis. Which school has given me the most generous financial aid package? Wesleyan is one of a small number of schools that admits students irrespective of their ability to pay, and which meets the full need of students, according to a formula developed over several years. There are some schools with larger endowments that can afford to be even more generous than Wes, but there are hundreds (thousands?) of others that are unable even to consider meeting financial need over four years of study.

After answering the question of which schools one can afford, how else does one decide where best to spend one’s college years? Of course, size matters.  Some students are looking for a large university in an urban setting where the city itself plays an important role in one’s education. In recent years, campuses in New York and Boston, for example, have become increasingly popular. But if one seeks out small classes and strong, personal relationships with faculty, then liberal arts schools, which pride themselves on providing cultural and social life on a residential campus, are especially compelling. You can be on a campus with a “human scale” and still have plenty of things to do. Wesleyan is somewhat larger than most of the liberal arts colleges, but much smaller than the urban or land grant universities. We feel that this gives our students the opportunity to have a broad curriculum and a variety of cultural activities on campus, while still being small enough to encourage regular, sustained relationships among faculty and students.

All the selective small liberal arts schools boast of having a faculty of teacher/scholars, of a commitment to research and interdisciplinarity, and of encouraging community and service. So what sets us apart from one another after taking into account size, location, and financial aid packages? What are students trying to see when they visit Amherst and Wesleyan, or Tufts and Middlebury?

Knowing that these schools all provide a high quality, broad and flexible curriculum with strong teaching, and that the students all have displayed great academic capacity, prospective students are trying to discern the personalities of each school. They are trying to imagine themselves on the campus, among the people they see, to get a feel for the chemistry of the place — and they wonder whether they will be happy in that particular context. Hundreds of visitors will be coming to Wesleyan this weekend for WesFest (our annual program for admitted students). They will go to classes and athletic contests, musical performances and parties. And they will ask themselves: Would I be happy at Wesleyan?

I hope our visitors get a sense of the personality of the school that I so admire and enjoy. I hope they feel the exuberance and ambition of our students, the intelligence and care of our faculty, the playful yet demanding qualities of our community. I hope our visitors can sense our commitment to creating diversity in which difference is embraced and not just tolerated, and for which public service can become part of one’s education and approach to life.

We all know that Wesleyan is hard to get into (especially this year!). But even in the group of highly selective schools, Wes is not for everybody. We aspire to be a community committed to boldness as well as to rigor, to idealism as well as to effectiveness. Whether in the sciences, arts, humanities or social sciences, our faculty and students are dedicated to explorations that invite originality as well as collaboration. The celebration of senior theses completions at the library this week said a lot about who we are. We know how to work hard, but we also know how to enjoy the work we choose to do. That’s been magically appealing to me for more than 30 years. I bet the magic will strike many of our visitors, too.

[tags] NESCAC, decisions, WesFest, senior theses [/tags]

6 thoughts on “How to Choose a (our) University”

  1. Dear President Roth,

    In my day, Weselyan was unique from most of the other liberal arts schools in a number of ways.

    The first way it was unique was in the sciences. Wesleyan maintained active research programs in the sciences, and a small graduate program. The graduate program was not large enough to support the scale of the research program, so undergraduates got involved in research in a very serious way. It was quite common for a Physics Sophomore to volunteer in a lab, and do serious research for 2-3 years while at wesleyan. This really is a unique opportunity for undergrads.

    I had the pleasure of visiting Wesleyan last week and saw a poster board session of the results of many senior thesis in the sciences. Judging from the exceptional quality of the work I saw there, active research among the undergrads has survived. I can’t emphasize enough how rare this is.

    I, sadly, did not take any classes in ethnomusically, or in film while at Wesleyan, but I heard similar things from students in those programs. The ability to really do the subject and not just learn about the subject made Wesleyan a special place.

    The other main way I found Wesleyan unique was in the extent of the intellectualism on campus. I spent many an evening while at Wesleyan debating issues such as “Has the belief in God helped or hurt humankind overall” and so on. This conversation and many others did not stem from a particular class. This is just what Wesleyan students talk about. By contrast, I spent one summer at Williams during my Wesleyan years. The students at Williams were equally smart, but the conversations were much more likely to be about popular movies, or who was sleeping with who, than the issues of substance and philosophical depth that you encountered while at Wesleyan.

    In general, the students I knew at Wesleyan learned to question the world. No matter what the subject, Wesleyan students asked why is that true? In fact is it really true? Is their really self interest involved? They engaged others in their quest for knowledge. They learned to deconstruct the world and seek truth.

    Josh Sher ’91

  2. I have just retruned from a campus visit at Wesleyan with my daughter. She has been trying to make a college choice for abou two months. She was accepted to Vanderbilt, Tulane, Michigan, Notre Dame and a host of other great universities. Admittedly Wesleyan was the only Liberal Arts college she applied to and was way down on the list. As soon as we arrived on campus she sensed somethig different about Wesleyan, the students, the faculty as well as the admissions personnell and their desire to help make her feel part of the University. I was impressed that Mike Roth addressed the “pre frosh” and talked about his experiences and watch my daughter become more and more engaged with the students and the faculty. Needless to say this morning we sent her committment in to attend Wesleyan and foregoe countless scholarship and aid programs for this once in a life time opportunity. I look forward to her participation at Wesleyan and her continued growth as a student and young adult.

  3. As a Wes grad and the parent of a 10th grader who’s only beginning to think about the college application/selection process, I just want to say that I found Frank Ligon’s comment incredibly moving. Best wishes to your daughter, Frank, and to all incoming students.

  4. I, too, found Frank Ligon’s comment inspirational. Yes, indeed, there is something unique about Wesleyan. And it’s sometimes hard to put into words, but it does have to do with the combination of intellectual rigor and curiosity, tenacity and diversity of the student body, faculty, alumni and other key stakeholders. It’s by no means a perfect school, but what an amazing place.

  5. A comparison of Wesleyan University to the liberal arts colleges in the NESCAC athletic league is misleading, in my opinion. Wesleyan is a University. It’s mission is not limited to undergraduate education. It is (in principle) equally dedicated to research, scholarship, and higher education. Thus, it is more like Yale, Brown, UPenn, or Cornell. But Wesleyan University is the smallest (and thus most personal and tightly knit) of these high-caliber university. At Wesleyan, an undergraduate student can stay a fifth year (tuition-free!) and earn a Master’s degree. (Science students can even go on to get a PhD and post-doctoral training at Wesleyan University.) To my awareness, you can’t get a Master’s degree at any other NESCAC school. That’s the real difference between Wesleyan University and all those small liberal arts colleges of yesteryear.

  6. Just a point of information: You actually can get graduate degrees at other NESCASC schools — Williams and Tufts immediately come to mind.

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