ACADEMICS – Liberal Arts Allstars
Walla Walla, Washington
Whitman College is an endangered species. According to a 2004 Carnegie Foundation report, the school is one of fewer than 100 in the country that have no graduate programs and grant more than 80 percent of their degrees in the liberal arts and sciences (as opposed to professional degrees like electrical engineering). Whitman College president George S. Bridges plans to keep it that way. “Liberal arts colleges offer great breadth over specialization,” he wrote in a June 2008 op-ed for the Baltimore Sun. “Our design and curriculum enrich the minds of our students, enhance their character, and stir their individual spirit.” It’s a lofty assertion, but one that appears to be supported by ample evidence. Last year, five seniors at this 1,452-student college were offered Fulbright scholarships. Nearly 50 percent of the student body studies abroad, and in 2007, the school ranked among the top 20 small colleges in sending students to the Peace Corps (perhaps they were inspired by 1971 Whitman alum Ryan Crocker, US Ambassador to Iraq). More important, undergrads seem to be remarkably happy with their choice of college: The freshman retention rate (the percent of freshmen who continue as sophomores) is a staggering 94 percent; at most other Northwest schools it’s closer to the mid 80s. “If I had to pick one thing that I value most about Whitman, it would be the support that I have here,” says Whitney Heyvaert, a senior biology major from Minnesota. “My professors are amazing. Why? Their enthusiasm for the subject and love for teaching and learning.” Seventy-three percent of classes have fewer than 20 students, and the required two-semester freshman course Modernity and Antiquity, which explores Western philosophy, religion, history, and literature, is capped at 16 students. Of course, Walla Walla’s intimate, rural setting might also have something to do with how close students feel to their professors. Set near the Blue Mountains, the town of 31,000 is more than an hour’s drive from the nearest “big” city, Kennewick (pop. 66,000). Which means you’re just as likely to see your English teacher at the local diner as you are on campus. And there’s a good chance she’ll invite you to join her.
As the oldest university in the Northwest, Willamette has had a long time to perfect the formula for delivering a top-notch liberal arts education (166 years, to be exact). That includes maintaining a student-to-faculty ratio of 10 to 1 and focusing on writing as a major component of the core curriculum (every student must take three writing-intensive courses to graduate). The formula seems to be working: Willamette regularly lands in US News & World Report’s America’s Best Colleges top tier for liberal arts schools, this year snagging the 60th spot.
With its no-grades policy (grades are kept, but generally aren’t shared with a student unless he or she asks) and outlandish events like the annual Renn Fayre—an end-of-year celebration that’s included naked slip-and-slide, bug-eating contests, and human chess—Reed definitely puts the “liberal” in liberal arts education. And that dedication to thinking outside the box also is part of Reed’s academic culture, according to Bob Mahmoudi, founder and president of Seattle-based college counseling firm College Planning Solutions (collegeplanning.com). As a result, the school continues to turn out some of the country’s best minds—from C. Howard Vollum, co-founder of Tektronix; to Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Gary Snyder; to 1991 grad Larry Sanger, co-founder of a little website called Wikipedia—although most of them don’t have the grades to prove it. In the past 24 years, only seven students have graduated with a 4.0 grade point average.