|By Nceph (Nceph) on Tuesday, August 31, 2004 - 04:08 pm: Edit|
We have read a lot about the honors program at Swarthmore. It sounds intense and may not be for someone who has more than one serious interest. Can one earn other honors, such as graduating (summa, magna) cum laude based on grades? Or is the honors program the only way to earn some sort of distinction?
|By Achat (Achat) on Tuesday, August 31, 2004 - 04:14 pm: Edit|
The name is a misnomer and it means neither. Many very good students choose not to take the Honors path because they would like breadth in many areas instead of depth in a specific subject area. Here are a few links:
I know it is a lot to read..
|By Nceph (Nceph) on Tuesday, August 31, 2004 - 04:30 pm: Edit|
Thanks. I had seen those links, but my question was whether the honors program was the only way to graduate with distinction or honors. At some colleges, it is possible to graduate with honors either by writing a thesis or by having stellar grades. I was just wondering whether a student who doesn't enter the honors program but who gets the highest grades possible while in college would be recognized as graduating with distinction or honors. With Swarthmore's notorious lack of grade inflation, and with grades mainly having relative significance compared to those of other students at the same school, it would be helpful for the outside world to be given a clue that a student had outperformed 99% of his or her peers. I guess the answer to my question is "no." It's hardly an issue that will make or break my daughter's decision of whether to apply to Swarthmore, but we were just wondering.
|By Momofthree (Momofthree) on Tuesday, August 31, 2004 - 06:19 pm: Edit|
Actually, the outside examiners who come in to "examine" the seniors in honors do award "highest honors," "high honors," and "honors." A link to last year's grads is found at
|By Momofthree (Momofthree) on Tuesday, August 31, 2004 - 06:28 pm: Edit|
Sorry, the link failed me. You might try www.swarthmore.edu/news/commencement/2004/index2.html
to see the numbers receiving honors.
|By Nceph (Nceph) on Tuesday, August 31, 2004 - 06:52 pm: Edit|
I think I'm obviously doing a poor job of explaining the information I'm after, but I think your responses (by not addressing my question) have given me my answer. I know it's possible for someone in the honors program to graduate with varying degrees of honors. My question was whether there was any sort of distinction possibly awarded to someone with an outstanding academic record who was not enrolled in the honors program. Thanks for everyone's help.
|By Momofthree (Momofthree) on Tuesday, August 31, 2004 - 08:10 pm: Edit|
When my daughter graduated last year, several awards were given out on commencement day, but no specific
notation was made for Summa, etc. Phi Beta Kappa students were recognized in a ceremony the day before. So, Nceph, you are correct.
|By Interesteddad (Interesteddad) on Tuesday, August 31, 2004 - 10:08 pm: Edit|
I am not aware of any "distinctions" outside of those awarded in the honors program.
From reading the history of the school, such classifications would actually run counter to the Quaker philosophy. Swarthmore was actually founded as a school for non-wealthy students, men and women, to have an equal educational experience and share in their studies. The school was actually founded to provide an alternative to an educational system where a few elite students got special opportunities.
As near as I can tell, competition among students for grades is notably absent from the campus. To the contrary, I see a lot of example of the school being structured to help each other -- from the freshmen being assigned to regular dorms with upperclass students, to the Student Academic Mentor program, to the extensive (and very cool) Writing Associates program. The Writing Associates mentors review and help edit papers before they are due. One of the seniors on the student panel the other day said that she now chats with her Writing Associates mentor before she even starts a paper -- just bouncing ideas around.
When Pres. Adoyette introduced the honors system from Oxford to Swarthmore, the contradiction with Swat's educational philosophy was duly noted, but Adoyette had enough clout with the Board of Managers to push it through anyway. The unique honors system is given a lot of credit for Swarthmore's academic reputation today -- although my own hunch is that the winning Swat teams on the College Bowl TV show in the 1950's may have contributed as well!
I do think the honors program has a lot to do with Swat's success rate in grad school PhD programs.
|By Nceph (Nceph) on Wednesday, September 01, 2004 - 05:08 pm: Edit|
Interesteddad -- Thanks. I guess this is just one more way in which Swarthmore differs from Williams and Amherst. I find the non-elitist and cooperative aspects of Swarthmore very appealing, although I never found Williams (in the 1970s) to be cut-throat or too elitist, even though they have the more traditional honors based on GPA.
It makes sense that the honors program would enhance Swarthmore graduates' success in getting into graduate school. Do you have any idea about the success (in terms of grad. school admission) of those not in the honors program?
|By Interesteddad (Interesteddad) on Wednesday, September 01, 2004 - 05:55 pm: Edit|
I did not find Williams to be cut-throat or grade crazy in the 1970's either -- except in specific tracks, like pre-med. I don't think that has changed at Williams; I think it is still a pretty laid-back comfortable place populated by fairly normal, friendly kids. However, I do think it is significantly different from Swarthmore in the following ways:
a) Swarthmore is more academically rigorous, with less grade inflation and a heavier workload. They push the students harder and the students, as a whole, expect to be pushed harder. The honors program is an example, however, my daughter has a freshman phsyics seminar where each of the 11 students was assigned a topic to present during the FIRST seminar!
b) Both do well in all categories, but Williams leans a little more towards med school, law school, and MBA placement. Swat a little more towards PhD placements. I don't view these placements as a reason to choose one or the other, rather they highlight a subtle difference in the cultures of the two schools. These placements tell us something about the students.
c) I don't believe that Williams approaches the degree of peer-mentoring and shared academic achievement (misery?) that is an institutional mainstay of Swarthmore.
d) I do not believe that Williams has the institutional tradition of civic responsibility that is a characteristic at Swarthmore -- a tradition that extends to post-college career selection. Williams probably produces more corporate chieftans, but I suspect Swarthmore has produced more alum who start inner-city educational foundations, charter schools, colleges in Ghana, etc. Even if my daughter opts for a career as a corporate chieftan, I will be glad that a little bit of Swat's "civic responsibility" has rubbed off on her.
e) I believe that the freshman housing (extreme segregation at Williams versus immediate placement in upper class dorms at Swat) has a HUGE impact on the undergrad experience -- from alchohol abuse to the previously mentioned peer mentoring. Swatties are surrounded by experienced peer role models from day one whereas Williams freshmen are 100% isolated from upperclass role models. I think this is big reason that Swat's administration is able to govern effectively by expecting students to behave like responsible adults.
f) I believe that Swat's first semester pass/fail policy is the most humane policy a super-selective pressure-cooker college could implement. This one policy tells me that this a college that cares about its incoming students.
g) While both schools cater to the rich and famous, I believe that Swarthmore has significantly more diversity, by any measure, than Williams and that embracing diversity is a much more ingrained part of the Swarthmore culture. For example, Molly Yard (who founded the National Organization of Women) led the student vote to abolish sororities at Swat in the 1930s, because the sororities were not inviting Jewish students to join.
h) I believe that the cultural differences between an historically male school and an historically co-ed school are substantial. For exmaple, the bylaws of Swarthmore when it opened its doors in the 1860's required that the Board of Managers have 16 male members and 16 female members. Even though it has been co-ed for 35 years, Williams' board is still 75% male. The equal role of women in governing the school has influenced policies for 135 years and, as a result, has significantly shaped the culture of the school today.
i) The easy access to downtown Phila from a train station on campus addresses what I believe is the one universal weakness of a small liberal arts college: the inevitable time when those small ivory tower walls start to close in and you desperately need a breath of real-world air.
If I were choosing a college today, I would choose Swarthmore over Williams without reservation and my wife (another Williams alum) feels the same way. The key exceptions to this choice would be if I were a varsity athlete, a heavy frat-style party-boy drinker, an art history major, a theater person, or an avid skier/golfer. Those are areas where Williams has more strength than Swat. Having said that, I think both are among the finest undergrad schools in the country. I am ecstatic at my daughter's choice of Swarthmore and I am very happy for her best friend, who just started at Williams.
|By Nceph (Nceph) on Wednesday, September 01, 2004 - 08:05 pm: Edit|
Interesteddad - Your comments are very helpful. They are consistent with some of my impressions of the schools, and while I won't be saying this at my Williams reunion next June, I think that I would probably have been happier at Swarthmore, too. I also think my daughter would be happier at Swarthmore. She's far more likely to pursue a Ph.D. than an MBA. And she fits more the social activist type than the preppy/athlete type, although she's pretty hard to pigeon hole. I was a little concerned before we visited Swarthmore that she might not be taken seriously, because she has some activities, like cheerleading, that might seem inconsistent (at least stereotypically) with being a serious student or having a strong social conscience. We were pleasantly surprised by the tour guide, who seemed to have an ecclectic assortment of interests, not all super serious. Of course, that was just one student. We were only able to get up to Swarthmore during the summer, so we'll need to return when it's in session. I hope you'll be sharing more of your impressions as your daughter experiences life at Swarthmore. My daughter is two years behind her, so she'll be reading this board with greater interest as the year progresses.
|By Interesteddad (Interesteddad) on Wednesday, September 01, 2004 - 08:52 pm: Edit|
>> I was a little concerned before we visited Swarthmore that she might not be taken seriously, because she has some activities, like cheerleading, that might seem inconsistent (at least stereotypically) with being a serious student or having a strong social conscience. We were pleasantly surprised by the tour guide, who seemed to have an ecclectic assortment of interests, not all super serious.
I don't think your tour guide was atypical at all. Despite the reputation for "rigorous academics", I have seen NO signs that Swarthmore students take themselves very seriously. In fact, one of the things that I really like about the place is that the students seem to be pretty down to earth with a consistent brand of self-deprecating humor.
For example, last year's senior class graduation speaker was a skinny, bespeckled Sri Lanken genius -- double honors major, inc. pre-med. He started his speech by launching into a rhapsody about how his years at Swarthmore had allowed him to find his true calling in life. After a proper build-up, he revealed his true calling -- he wanted to become a professional wrestler!
My impression is that the vast majority of kids at the move-in day, and the kids my daughter has been e-mailing for the last eight months, is that they are pretty much the "normal" smart kids and the ones that are confident enough to go to a liberal arts colleges instead of going for the more-widely recognized prestige that might be available at some other places. In that sense, my impression is that they are very much like the Williams kids.
Other than the fact that there's no football team, I don't think a cheerleader would be out of place at all. My daughter is not "serious" -- just a regular kid -- reported this week that she's now gotten to know everyone on her hall and described them as the nicest people ever.
|By Achat (Achat) on Wednesday, September 01, 2004 - 09:47 pm: Edit|
My son says the same thing about people being friendly. He says he knows a lot of people by now (8 days) in his dorm and in other dorms and even upperclassmen greet the freshmen and try to make them feel welcome.
He joined a lot of politically oriented clubs and an environmental group. His backpack has the Sierra Club sign now. He has gotten a job although he says it is not regular hours. He's signing up for the telethon to alumni members to get money.
He was working late last night on his Film paper with the 13 other students in the library. His Philosophy professor is the head of the department and is 'very brilliant and engaging' he says. So all in all in the matter of 8 days, they've made the freshmen feel part of the campus and busy with schoolwork and other activities.
He's also going to Philly during the long weekend and also on Sept 10th for a concert.
|By Achat (Achat) on Wednesday, September 01, 2004 - 09:51 pm: Edit|
Ah.. and the best part is, he's actually eating salad for lunch and dinner which is a major accomplishment I haven't been able to achieve. I guess it must be his friends there.
The only little negative is Sharples closes promptly at 6:30 PM and he's not hungry then. So he eats at 6:30 a little and is hungry later..
|By Interesteddad (Interesteddad) on Wednesday, September 01, 2004 - 10:26 pm: Edit|
Hah. We haven't heard from daughter this week. Trying to keep out of her hair a little bit.
I imagine that her dinner schedule will take some adjusting, too. Our dinner hour has traditionally been late: 7:00 to 8:00, so eating every night before 6:30 will take a clock reset.
|By Saturdayoracle (Saturdayoracle) on Wednesday, September 01, 2004 - 10:29 pm: Edit|
Nceph; when I interviewed, the Honors system was a main topic of conversation. Of course, so was the non-competitive nature of Swarthmore. As I understand it, grad schools are supposed to know Swarthmore, and the outside world is, too.
On a side note, Interesteddad, Achat; did your children apply ED? I ask as a high school senior looking rather seriously at Swarthmore. My list is small as it is, with Swarthmore, Brown, and Wesleyan as my viable (reach) candidates. I feel I could make a decision come October, but hearing about the experience would certainly help.
And, I must say, Philly is the coolest place ever. After Baltimore and NY, it's certainly a new scene!
|By Interesteddad (Interesteddad) on Wednesday, September 01, 2004 - 10:57 pm: Edit|
Mine did apply Early Decision. She basically knew it was her first choice school when she visited before the 11th grade. But, at the time, we all thought that it would be an extreme long shot, so she visited more than a dozen other schools. She found many that she liked, but nothing came close to unseating Swarthmore in her mind.
She made a final overnight visit in October, sat in on some classes, met some Professors, and hung out with real live (and very friendly) college kids in a dorm. She came home the most excited I've seen her since the day she learned to ride a bicycle.
At the time, we thought the Early Decision advantage would be essential -- she had a strong transcript and class rank, but from a so-so public high school and only midpack SATs for Swat. In retrospect, it probably didn't matter because her main EC made her strong Swat applicant, but we certainly didn't feel confident up front -- figured maybe a 50%/50% shot. You never REALLY know what they are looking for. but in the months since she got accepted, I feel like I have learned a LOT more about what makes Swat tick.
The ED acceptance made for a fantastic senior year for her. Not only did she forget about finishing her other college applications, but it let her start communicating with other new Swatties (from as far away as Katmandu, Nepal) and make a gradual mental transition from "high school" to "college" -- especially flying down to Philly by herself for the April pre-frosh three-day visit. As a result, I really didn't detect any apprehension when it came time to go in September. She was really excited and eager to get on with it.
|By Saturdayoracle (Saturdayoracle) on Wednesday, September 01, 2004 - 11:10 pm: Edit|
No regrets there, I see. I can't let myself fall in love with a school until I get in, so I'm trying to stay impartial... trying. ;)
Anyway, the few things that worried me about Swarthmore is the small rural campus and ~1500 students. I'm coming from a HS with 232 students, 9-12, so I doubt I'll be wanting more the first year, but after that, I know not. And I'm wondering about comments made by people saying that students don't collaborate much on school work. Plus, one of my most enjoyable ECs is graphic design, and I know Swat doesn't have a typography class (having read the course book...) while Wes does. And, of course, the course load, but I see that as a challenge as opposed to a problem. Meh. Who knows.
|By Tkdgal (Tkdgal) on Wednesday, September 01, 2004 - 11:22 pm: Edit|
The campus is not rural by any means! It is near Philly, one of the biggest cities in the nation. By near I mean a short train ride away. The station is on the campus. If I go to a school with such access to a city, it will undoubtedly become a huge part of my experience.
|By Interesteddad (Interesteddad) on Wednesday, September 01, 2004 - 11:53 pm: Edit|
>> I can't let myself fall in love with a school until I get in, so I'm trying to stay impartial...
That is a very sane approach. You really have to have a bunch of schools you could enjoy, especially some that you are pretty sure you'll get into. To let yourself get too invested in one school is a recipe for pain and suffering if the wrong envelop comes in the mail. My daughter's attitude was that, if it is meant to be, it will be. If not, then Swat probably wasn't the right place after all. There were different things that she liked about several other schools. Figure there have to be at least a couple hundred colleges where you could be really, really happy if you set your mind to it.
Swat's campus only seems rural. it's an illusion. A half mile away is a major suburban shopping area with a good size mall (Macys and Strawbridges), a Target and Best Buy down the road, lots of restaurants, etc. etc. The mall is easy walking distance, but the college runs their shuttle vans back and forth on a "shopping loop" all day Saturday. Between that and the easy train to Philly, I can't think of many LACs that have easier access to big time civilization. Wellesley does, although the train station is not as convenient. In it's own way, the 5-college area in Northampton does, but a car would be necessary to get to a city or to and event like a big arena concert. I must confess that I've never been to Wesleyan. Probably should have visited since my father-in-law is an alum., although I don't think he's a big fan of the modern-day Wesleyan. His sister went to Swarthmore back in the 1930's (the reason my wife never looked at Swat when she was a teenager! Funny how that works!)
I honestly have no idea about graphic design, or art in general, at Swarthmore. Offhand, I'm guessing that's probably more up Wesleyan's alley. I bet there is plenty of opportunity to exercise your Illustrator, Pshop, Quark, or InDesign programs as an EC at Swat. It would be easy to get on the newspaper staff, doing layout.
There's an interesting tradeoff at small LACs. The available ECs will be smaller in scale. For example, there is no way that Swat could support a community service organization that runs 7 full time summer camps like Harvard's students operate in Boston. Swat just doesn't have the number of students to take on that scope of project. However, the small size means that you can be very involved in just about anything, just by asking. If you were inclined, it would be easy to become one of the leaders of an organization at Swat without having to run a political campaign and win an election.
|By Achat (Achat) on Thursday, September 02, 2004 - 07:39 am: Edit|
Saturdayoracle, my son applied RD.
Even NYC is actually pretty accessible from Swarthmore. Take train to Philly and the train to Penn.
|By Achat (Achat) on Thursday, September 02, 2004 - 07:43 am: Edit|
Interesteddad, the website for dining at Swat says Sharples remains open until 7:15 PM, not 6:30. My son must be misinformed. Anyway, there's the snack bar (for breakfast) as well.
|By Achat (Achat) on Thursday, September 02, 2004 - 08:14 am: Edit|
"And I'm wondering about comments made by people saying that students don't collaborate much on school work. "
So far, my son hasn't observed that. In fact the entire first year film class got together to do some work in the library day before.
Then, there is a lot of support for students who need help. Student Academic Mentors and Writing Associates is an example. They are pretty accessible.
|By Cangel (Cangel) on Thursday, September 02, 2004 - 08:47 am: Edit|
Interesteddad & Achat, please keep us posted on how the workload and level of cooperation among students goes as the year progresses for your kids. I have seen Swat being described at both extremes - collaborative, cooperative students, and tired students working/studying alone in the library - there is no disagreement on the seriousness of the academics and the size of the workload.
I suspect those differing impressions are both true because they reflect different personalities of diferent Swat students as well as perhaps the bias/perspective of the individual poster. Let us know through the year.
|By Nceph (Nceph) on Thursday, September 02, 2004 - 08:54 am: Edit|
That is one of the issues we're contending with. My daughter is quite confident, but it bothers her that if she goes to a LAC, other than Davidson, that no one here in southeastern NC (or at least at her h.s.) will have heard of it. I'm hoping that as she matures (she's just starting her junior year) and learns more about the academic opportunities at LACs that she'll realize it really doesn't matter if the guy who bags our groceries has heard of her college. She can expect minimal help from the guidance counselors at her school, one of whom cautioned her and a friend about attending school "up north" because students there "tend to have sexual leanings." I think we'll need to educate the guidance department a bit before we ask them to write a recommendation.
|By Nceph (Nceph) on Thursday, September 02, 2004 - 08:56 am: Edit|
addendum to my previous post -- I was referring to Interesteddad's comment that the LACs are for "the ones that are confident enough to go to a liberal arts colleges instead of going for the more-widely recognized prestige that might be available at some other places"
|By Cangel (Cangel) on Thursday, September 02, 2004 - 11:02 am: Edit|
That's a great one Nceph, if no one had any "sexual leanings" there would be a lot fewer of us on the planet! Yes, I'm purposefully misunderstanding.
She will have to decide for herself as she grows whether or not recognition is important, becuase she will get nothing but blank stares, that's for truth! DD just started her senior year, and what she's looking for in a school is still somewhat fluid. I think that's a good thing in some ways - it's probably not a good idea to fall in love with one place when you've only got a 1 in 3 or 1 in 5 chance of getting in.
|By Northeastdad (Northeastdad) on Thursday, September 02, 2004 - 11:05 am: Edit|
Here in "progressive" Connecticut a good number of people we meet have not heard of Swarthmore. (More have heard of Amherst, but I think some are confused between Amherst and UMASS-Amherst.) D is the first one to go to Swat (any of AWS, I think) from her high school and even some teachers didn't know the college. D tells me of advice of one teacher: "You might regret declining two IVYs to save little money." (IVYs weren't any more expensive, but they assume she got a big scholarship from an unknown college.) But people who know Swat get very excited when they hear she is going there.
By the way, D is starting to feel famous intensity of Swat. She called yesterday during "only free 10mins." Taking two science classes and trying to attend various club meetings is keeping her busy. I told her to drop one science class if that is too heavy. She says it is fine, she is enjoying it, and tells me that it will take a week or so to fine tune the schedule.
|By Achat (Achat) on Thursday, September 02, 2004 - 11:54 am: Edit|
In NJ, our HS counsellor had heard of Swat but said it would be too hard for my son to get into.
As far as no-name recognition, I went to a huge soccer party hosted by a friend of mine where when I said 'Swarthmore' people asked me if it is like 'Rowan University' which is a local Masters University and rated first tier in the North East by Princeton Review. I said 'yes' and nothing else. Works for me and doesn't make me get upset.
|By Interesteddad (Interesteddad) on Thursday, September 02, 2004 - 12:03 pm: Edit|
On the workload:
>> I have seen Swat being described at both extremes - collaborative, cooperative students, and tired students working/studying alone in the library <<
I am sure that both descriptions are true. They certainly were true when I was at Williams. There are lots of nights (early mornings?) in college when you've got to finish reading that book and no study group can help!
And, without trying to offend any Swatties...there is no requirement that you double-major in Chemisty and Linguistics with an honors thesis in both!
I've had some long talks with my daughter about the pragmatic side of college. You have to be realistic in selecting your courses, balancing the really time consuming courses with a course that is fun.
|By Interesteddad (Interesteddad) on Thursday, September 02, 2004 - 12:36 pm: Edit|
On the name-recgonition issue:
I am intimately familiar with this one. Trust me, when I went to Williams from a small Georgia city in the early 1970's, nobody had heard of the college. I did the whole New England swing - Harvard, Yale, Dartmouth, Brown, Amherst, Williams. In part because of the interest in geographic "diversity" at the time, I would have been an auto-admit at any of these schools. I applied ED to Williams. Part of my thinking was that choosing Harvard because it was "so famous" was a really shallow reason when I much prefered Williams.
Is being tagged as a "Harvard guy" a plus or a minus? Both. Certainly the whole population will have heard of your college. Half will ooh and aah...half will tag you as "an arrogant pointy-headed intellectual jerk" before they even get to know you.
By contrast, schools like Williams and Swat are "litmus tests" for the people you meet in life. My experience is that the people who really matter (career-wise) DO know these schools. The president of every company I've ever worked for has known these schools. With those who don't, you have the luxury of flying under the radar and not getting stereotyped, which can be a good thing. As much as we all swoon over selective colleges, much of the general public views "Haaavaaad" and similar schools as elitist, snobby, and out-of-touch (and not without some kernal of truth, BTW).
On Swat in particular, to this day, I don't think that my daughter's guidance counselor knows where she is going to college. She thinks it's an ex-woman's college in upstate New York. But, my daughter's best high school teacher knows. And, mentioning Swat on campus in Cambridge this summer generated plenty of "oooohs" and "aaaahs".
|By Nceph (Nceph) on Thursday, September 02, 2004 - 01:43 pm: Edit|
Interesteddad - You mentioned the mixing of freshmen and upperclassmen in the dorms as a positive thing, and I think you make a good case for that arrangement. Up until I read your post, I wasn't really sure which would be better, but I think I'm persuaded that the mixing of classes is preferable. At Williams, I was certainly happy living with other freshmen, but the advantages you cite probably outweigh the enhanced class comraderie that the segregated housing might generate. The mixed housing would also have helped with a problem I encountered at Williams with two junior advisors who didn't know the names of more than half of the girls in our entry by mid-second semester. (I'm still very bitter about that!) Looking back on my experience there, I really could have used some good role models for how to balance everything. Of course, I realize one can have bad luck in a housing situation anywhere, but it seems that the system at Swarthmore might minimize the damage two unfriendly, self-absorbed upperclassmen might do to the experience of the freshmen who live with them.
|By Northeastdad (Northeastdad) on Thursday, September 02, 2004 - 02:12 pm: Edit|
I, for one, is not convinced that mixing of freshmen with upperclassmen is universally a good thing. It works very well at Swarthmore. This is becuase Swat puts lot of emphasis in maintaining a specfic culture. They recruit kids that fit into their culture and make freshmen grow by putting them together with seniors. But if a college recruits random kids (say by SAT scores alone), then this system can backfire. In that setting freshmen will probably be more comfortable in their own dorm.
|By Interesteddad (Interesteddad) on Thursday, September 02, 2004 - 02:49 pm: Edit|
I agree with Northeastdad. At Swarthmore, it works because the freshmen housing is part of an overall culture that starts with the selection of incoming students and extends through every aspect of what the college does.
Compared to other arrangements, it places a burden on incoming freshmen to approach college in a more mature fashion from the start. There is no question that mixed-class dorms result in a reduced "party-atmosphere" than a freshman dorm. And, it places a burden on the upperclassmen to accept a role as ad hoc mentors to 18 year old kids. I personally think both sides of that equation are positive things, but it only works when you select students who are comfortable with the responsibility.
From my own experience, I think Williams' approach has some drawbacks. By isolating freshmen to their own dorms and dining hall, along with the fact that most freshmen take mostly freshmen classes, there is little or no interaction with the larger college community for an entire year. The entry system compounds the problem because you don't even mingle with other freshmen from the other entries in your own dorm.
As a practical matter, I think the residential system is a major reason that Williams has an alcohol abuse problem to a far greater extent than Swarthmore. Williams reports that over half of its alcohol poisoning cases come from the freshman class. Swarthmore's "party-dorm" (i.e. alcohol abuse dorm) has historically been the one with the highest concentration of freshmen, something that seems to have changed in the last couple of years with the intentional assignment of self-described "quiet", "substance-free" freshmen to large blocks of this dorm. Unfortunately, they made a mistake when they built this dorm in the 1950's. It's almost all "doubles" so it is unattractive to juniors and seniors who have decent room draw lottery numbers. The four new dorms they have built since then all have a mix of doubles and singles. There are two dorms (Merz and Wharton) that fill up with high lottery numbers and only house freshmen, juniors, and seniors. My daughter's hall in Mertz has 14 freshmen in doubles and 11 juniors/seniors in singles. She probably won't have a lottery number high enough to get back to that dorm until she is a junior.
|By Nceph (Nceph) on Thursday, September 02, 2004 - 08:00 pm: Edit|
I guess I was never that aware of an alcohol abuse problem at Williams, and certainly not aware enough to relate it to the housing system. It was always my impression that the kids who had never tried alcohol before college (even more of a rarity back then when the drinking age was 18 in most states)went crazy first semester freshman year. Perhaps the presence of mature upper classmen would have discouraged that, although I knew plenty of upperclassmen who would have egged such a kid on and encouraged it. Maybe then it comes down to the type of student that the school is admitting, which, as Northeastdad says, is what makes Swarthmore's system work so well. You all have certainly given us lots to think about.
|By Interesteddad (Interesteddad) on Thursday, September 02, 2004 - 09:26 pm: Edit|
>>Maybe then it comes down to the type of student that the school is admitting
After seeing the freshman class on move-in day and looking through the facebook, I just don't see a big difference in the type of students at Swat and Williams. Swat has more diversity and a noticeably larger Asian-American contingent. Williams has more athletes. But, these kids are at the top of their classes at the same high schools.
I am inclined to think that any differences are more attributable to differences in the cultures on the two campuses.
|By Interesteddad (Interesteddad) on Thursday, September 02, 2004 - 10:27 pm: Edit|
>> I guess I was never that aware of an alcohol abuse problem at Williams
There was a major two-part series on alcohol at Williams in the student newspaper last year. You can find it by searching the archives in the Williams Record.
Williams had to close their student health center at night, because their attending physicians told them they could no longer accept the liability of alcohol poisonings.
The Board of Directors held a special meeting on alcohol abuse after Homecoming this past fall when things got out of control.
As an alum, I found all this a little hard to believe. The problems are surely limited to a small percentage of the campus. But, it does sound like there is a great deal of concern.
|By Nceph (Nceph) on Thursday, September 02, 2004 - 10:29 pm: Edit|
Oh, I wasn't thinking of "type" in that sense. I more meant perhaps prep/boarding school vs. public school, community service vs. athletics, idealism vs. materialism, and maybe some differences in family background other than ethnicity. It seems that the Swarthmore culture attracts different students than the Williams culture does. But maybe that's what you meant in saying the differences were attributable to the differences in the cultures of the two campuses.
|By Momrath (Momrath) on Friday, September 03, 2004 - 02:31 am: Edit|
Nceph, if your daughter is interested in Williams and you would like another viewpoint on a contemporary experience (my son is a sophmore), please let me know. I feel that Interesteddad's descriptions drinking at Williams are exaggerated and would like to offer some balance. Since the response to this message is sure to give me agina, I will only pursue if you care to hear.
|By Interesteddad (Interesteddad) on Friday, September 03, 2004 - 03:32 am: Edit|
It isn't really my descriptions of drinking at Williams. Here is a partial list of articles from this past year in the Williams student newspaper.
I know that these problems must be occurring among a small fraction of the Williams student body. But, when the Trustees express this level of concern, the Health Center is forced to close, and so and so forth, it seems that somebody thinks there is a serious problem. As an alum, I don't know what to think. Obviously there was drinking on campus when I was there, but I don't recall anything like what is described in these articles.
I have done a search for "alcohol" in the Swarthmore student paper. I can only find about three incidents in the last five years that made it to level of being reported in the student newspaper.
Wondering if maybe I was still missing something, I asked the head of the Swat Health Center last week how many students were transported to the hospital last year for alcohol poisoning. The answer was, "one". The exact numbers were not reported in any of the Williams articles, but the article on the Trustees alcohol meeting reported concern by the Trustees about the significant number of students requiring hospitalization. This implies a number considerably more that "one".
These articles suggest that the Williams health center is closing at night because they were averaging 9 overnight stays PER WEEKEND for extreme intoxication. The number I was given for Swat was an average of about 1 alcohol related visit to the health center per weekend.
|By Momrath (Momrath) on Friday, September 03, 2004 - 03:38 am: Edit|
I've never implied that drinking was a problem at Swarthmore. I've never said anything negative about Swarthmore. I love Swarthmore. I wish I had gone to Swarthmore.
I asked Nceph if she/he would like a contemporary viewpoint on Williams. Offer stands.
|By Nceph (Nceph) on Friday, September 03, 2004 - 09:20 am: Edit|
Well, I seem to have stirred up something. I still wonder whether, to the extent that there may be a greater alcohol problem at Williams compared to Swarthmore, the problem lies more with a certain type of student who is attracted to Williams rather than with significant shortcomings on the part of the Williams administration or the housing system. Those same students who are drinking way to excess at Williams may have found themselves similarly intoxicated had they gone to Swarthmore, but they may not have been interested in attending Swarthmore. I think to a great extent we're all speculating as to the cause of the problem. I am pleased that the administration at Williams recognizes the problem. I find it unfair when an institution that tries to address a serious problem comes off looking worse than one that sweeps a problem under the rug. I by no means think Swarthmore falls in the latter category, but I think there are many other schools like Williams that probably have more serious alcohol or drug related problems than Williams does and aren't airing their concerns so publicly.
Momrath, I would love to hear a contemporary view of life at Williams. Perhaps we should move that discussion to the Williams heading.
|By Interesteddad (Interesteddad) on Friday, September 03, 2004 - 02:04 pm: Edit|
Great minds think alike. When I first read about alcohol at Williams, my first hunch was that the same problem existed at other schools, but was simply not getting the attention. Since my daughter had Swarthmore and Williams high on her college list (she prefered Swat, but double-legacy made Williams acceptance more likely), I started looking to see if there was any evidence that a similar situation existed at Swat.
What I have found is that there is definitely a "drinking/party" scene at Swarthmore -- something that I was relieved to hear, actually, given the reputation for all work and no play! They have students who are walked over to the Health Center by peers or by RAs and who sleep it off under observation. However, I have found absolutely nothing to suggest that the numbers are large or that the issue is a severe problem. Certainly not a problem that has risen to the President's level, or a special committe level, or to the Trustees level, or to closing the Health Center level.
I've read the dean's comments, the head of Swat security's comments, the Swarthmore police comments, and student comments. My daughter got first hand exposure to the drinking scene at Swat when spent her pre-frosh visit in April with a group of self-described "party-crowd" kids who tapped a keg and hosted a drinking party outside on the lawn. My daughter (who has never had a drink) chuckled at inebriated college students, but described the event as good, clean fun. People weren't falling down drunk. Campus security, that is located immediately adjacent to this particular dorm, let the party go on until about 1:00 am when they stopped by and said it was time to turn the stereo down and move the festivities inside, which the students did.
I've noticed several differences in "culture" that may be key:
1) The freshman housing situation mentioned above has a huge impact on campus culture, IMO.
2) While Swat's official policy is that students must abide by local laws, the unofficial approach is to not police underage drinking on campus. The college's attitude is pragmatic. College kids drink. You would rather them drink in a safe campus environment than force the drinking off campus and bring drunk driving into the equation.
3) The stated guiding policy at Swat is that the college treats students like responsible adults, expects students to behave like responsible adults, and intervenes only when students do not behave like responsible adults. This is well understood by the students and I sense community peer-pressure to not screw it up. Like all colleges today, Swarthmore does require advance registration of parties where alcohol will be served and assigns two paid, trained student Party Advisors to oversee the party. These PAs are required to check IDs to prevent non-Swarthmore students from attending (part of Swat's deal with the town is that they will NOT allow local high school kids to crash campus parties). However, they don't enforce a drinking age ID system for Swat students. The PAs are also trained to watch for students who need to be "cut off" and generally take some action if things start to get out of hand.
4) Swat holds the organizers of parties responsible, but not usually in an adversarial fashion. For example, a few years back, the rugby team's parties were getting out of hand. After an incident of some property damage, the team leaders were invited to chat with the Deans about ways the team could make a more positive contribution to the community. The outcome of that meeting was that the Rugby team would assume the responsibility of organizing the alcohol abuse training portion of the freshmen orientation, lining up expert speakers, etc. In other cases, organizations have had their privledges to host parties suspended for a period of time.
5) And, when Swat had one particular dorm that was causing problems, the housing dean took the sensible, effective (and quintessentially low-key Quaker) approach of simply assigning self-identified non-party type freshmen to the dorm in sufficient numbers to change the character of the dorm. This one simple action reduced the critical mass in the "party dorm" and displaced "party students" to dorms with a higher upperclass influence.
6) Swat's campus security does not make sweeps through dorms confiscating alcohol as they do at Williams. The fact that alcohol is not treated as "contraband" at Swat may explain, in part, why drinking parties at Swat are typically beer keg affairs, rather than shots of hard liquor affairs. Drinking games are NOT banned at Swarthmore, however they are played with beer. At Williams, drinking games are banned, however, they are sometimes played with whiskey shots -- a MUCH more dangerous situation. Williams' recent study of 190 drinking related health center interventions show that over 90% were hard liquor related.
7) Swat enjoys a relationship of cooperation with the town police that I remember from Williams in the 1970s. The police do patrol campus, but they aren't looking to intervene as "alcohol patrols" unless a student forces them to -- like throwing a beer bottle! Something happened at Williams in recent years to completely sour the relationship -- to such an extreme that the Head of Campus Security at Williams was ARRESTED for allowing alcohol to be served to minors at a campus party. Knowing the level of cooperation with the town when I was at Williams, that truly shocked me. I can't imagine how relations could have gotten that bad.
8) If there is a difference in students that contributes to a different drinking culture, it may be the relative emphasis on athletics at Williams versus Swarthmore. There is a recognized correlation between certain "helmet" sports and drinking culture. So, if you emphasize football players (as an example) in the admissions process, you MAY be admitting a heavier drinking culture.
|By Nceph (Nceph) on Friday, September 03, 2004 - 03:46 pm: Edit|
Interesteddad -- I certainly understand your point, and it sounds like Swarthmore has a reasonable approach to alcohol on campus. My reference to other schools that may have as bad a problem with alcohol as Williams was not meant to include Swarthmore. I was more thinking of the other schools like Amherst or Bowdoin or maybe even Brown, Yale and MIT (bigger schools, I know, but in an academic sense attracting similar students). They are filling up football (and hockey!)teams, just like Williams.
As I've mentioned, we're still in the early phases of college exploration. I fear my daughter may never narrow her list down to one favorite to apply ED. When we went on our whirlwind tour of 10 colleges in the northeast this summer, we didn't ask about drinking issues, because we only went to information sessions and on official tours, and I thought for sure that the party line at any school would not include any acknowledgement of a significant problem. I think the school year visits where we can observe first hand and talk to current students will be more valuable. In the meantime, however, in light of the links you posted above, I think we ought to be reading the college newspapers for insight into the schools' "cultures."
|By Willywonka (Willywonka) on Friday, September 03, 2004 - 04:15 pm: Edit|
"I fear my daughter may never narrow her list down to one favorite to apply ED."
Could you please elaborate on that? Do you expect her to apply somewhere ED? If I don't have a favorite school by the ED deadline, I don't have one, is how I'm thinking.
|By Nceph (Nceph) on Friday, September 03, 2004 - 04:57 pm: Edit|
Oh, "fear" was a bit strong. It just seems that if she can settle on a clear favorite and apply ED, that it would help her get into that college and would make for a MUCH more enjoyable senior year. On the other hand, I would hate for her to pick one unenthusiastically and apply ED just to increase the chances of getting in. As I've mentioned, my daughter is only a junior, so we have a lot more time ahead of us than most people who are thinking about such things. It just doesn't seem like we'll ever have enough information to make an informed choice. (I say "we," because "we" are collecting information, but my daughter will absolutely be the one making the decision.) The whole issue of narrowing things down to one school may present itself in the spring of senior year even if she applies regular decision, if she happens to get into more than one school. After we visited 10 schools this summer, she said she didn't like Amherst or Wesleyan, and I was thrilled -- (and not just because I went to Williams) but because she was actually shortening her list. Not narrowing down the list too much has advantages, though, in that if she applies to several schools but doesn't have her heart set on one particular school, the choice may be made for her by the adcoms. Sometimes things just have a way of working out like that, and that's not a bad thing.
|By Interesteddad (Interesteddad) on Friday, September 03, 2004 - 05:06 pm: Edit|
College newspapers are a great source of info. We used them to search articles on topics of interest: admissions department interviews, community service programs, etc. and topics of concern (alcohol, etc.)
I think that almost all colleges have some degree of alcohol abuse and it definitely is a more severe problem than it was in the 1970s. Most college administrators believe that increasing the legal age from 18 to 21 had a hugely negative impact. It is an unrealistic law and ties their hands from dealing with the issue in a rationale way.
Nobody believes that saying to a group of college students, "you can't drink", is a rational, effective approach. But, trying to provide a safe environment for responsible college drinking is technically against the law, and becomes a real administration problem when there is an antagonistic relationship with local authorities. It is pretty hard to have a nuanced approach when the local police department is throwing your Director of Campus Security in jail! I applaud the Williams administration for bringing the alcohol issue front and center, but I think their approach is too narrowly focused on tighter regulations. It was only at the Board of Trustees level that someone thought a little more globally in saying, "This is NOT the kind of college we want Williams to be...."
The Fiske Guide to Colleges is useful for pointing out the colleges where a drinking culture rises to the point of being a defining characteristic of a school's social scene. Among the New England schools, Dartmouth has a long-standing reputation as a boozer-school. MIT is also up there. However, MIT experienced the worst nightmare, an alcohol poisoning fatality, a couple of years ago, and has been taking some pretty agressive steps, like shutting down certain fraternities. Williams officials have been quoted within the last year as saying that it is only a matter of time before they have an alcohol fatality at the current rate. They have had several close calls. These hospitalizations often occur at Blood Alcohol levels as high as 0.40, at least four times the legal limit in most states. The survival rate at 0.40 is about 50%/50%.
A related topic that isn't discussed much is "date rape". This one typically results from excessive alcohol consumption and becomes a "he said/she said" situation that is nearly impossible to decipher. The problem is that current laws make it impossible for Deans to use discretion in these situations and these incidents often escalate to formal criminal charges. This is obviously of concern to parents of both male and female students, because there are no winners when that happens. Williams has one of these cases moving through the courts that is just a mess for everyone involved. The two students were incredibly drunk and can't provide reliable accounts of what happened because they were too drunk to remember. Most colleges now combine freshman orientation training sessions on both alcohol abuse and "date rape" issues.
None of this would give me any hesitation had my daughter ended up at Williams. I think the vast majority of the student body is as mellow and behaved as it was when I was an undergrad. I do think some of these issues provide a data point in trying to assess both the culture of school and the policy-making of the school officials. Emphasizing athletics and maintaining the system of segregated freshman housing are conscious policy decisions by the Williams administrators. I do believe that the sum total of those policy decisions, over a long period of time, shapes the culture at any school. The reason that I am so thrilled with Swarthmore is the sum total of a lot of little policy decisions over a long period of time that just plain make sense.
|By Nceph (Nceph) on Friday, September 03, 2004 - 05:25 pm: Edit|
Regarding the adjustment to having the drinking age raised to 21, if I recall correctly from a high school friend who went to Haverford, the drinking age in Pennsylvania was 21 back in the 70's. Perhaps Swarthmore and the other Pennsylvania schools didn't have to make as many adjustments as the Massachusetts schools did.
One related topic is the use of other drugs besides alcohol. In the 70's, campus security looked the other way about pot, and I think students were smart enough to conceal the more dangerous substances from security. Back then, I know my friend at Haverford used heroin, but I don't know of anyone at Williams who did (and from the group of kids I hung around with, I would have known). Right now I understand heroin is really big on lots of college campuses. We've read and heard about it here in NC, but I can't imagine we're the only state with the problem. Another topic to research . . . . An even scarier one.
|By Willywonka (Willywonka) on Saturday, September 04, 2004 - 02:26 am: Edit|
Nceph, my apologies, it slipped my mind that your D is a rising junior. By all means, continue looking for the ED choice! I once considered using it for Dartmouth because that's where I need the admissions boost the most, but I of course realized the problems with committing myself to a school, mainly that I have several clear "favorites." Three, actually. Not that I don't need the boost for Swarthmore either, but I refuse to let myself worry about it in an unconstructive way.
The second reason that I don't think I'll be going ED at any school is that, although I completely trust the financial (and merit for one of them) aid departments of all three schools, it's wholly irresponsible for someone who might not be able to pay the amount required if I didn't get the aid package I was looking for.
Good luck to you and your daughter.
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