Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Tour de North Carolina - A Great Way to Visit Colleges

The first week in July I discovered that touring colleges by bike with a group of college counselors is an ideal way to experience the warmth (both literally and figuratively) and charm of the South. Towels, box lunches, water bottles, granola bars and power gel greeted us at the schools. We dined like kings and queens during our stay and were treated to accommodations worthy of upper classmen students! Though campuses are quieter during the summer months with far fewer students, we took advantage of the trade-off: lots of face time with admission deans and directors, faculty and even a college president. A chance to hear what’s on the minds of the deans can give one an interesting perspective on a university, its mission and goals. It provides a different lens into the heart and soul of a college.

North Carolina is home to wonderful state and private universities. My trip took me to eight of them, ranging in size from under 1,500 students, up to the largest, NC State, which enrolls 25,000 undergraduates. It is difficult to identify anything that all of these colleges share in common, but I managed to find that one thing. Red brick! With no exception, every college we visited sported stately brick-paved walks and old Virginia red brick structures. The ubiquitous red buildings and lush greens added a certain charm and gentility to many of the campuses we visited.

We started our tour at NC State in Raleigh which occupies a 1900 acre campus dotted with historic buildings along side modern state-of-the-art facilities. The recognized university for “techies” in the Tar Heel State, NC State offers 18 engineering majors and boasts strength in textiles and design. The university, well regarded for its basketball, is eager to make known its academic brawn too, and attract more students from outside North Carolina. Students who get their applications in by the November 1 early action date will automatically be considered for merit aid.

Leaving NC State, we headed west to UNC Chapel Hill. One of the newcomers this year to the CommonApp, Chapel Hill is anticipating a 20% increase in applications, making this highly selective school all that more competitive, especially for out-of-state students for whom enrollment is capped at 18%. There is better news for transfers, however, where the cap does not apply. Despite the university’s selectivity, Steve Farmer, Associate Provost and Director of Undergraduate Admissions, emphasized that they do not seek out the highly competitive Type A personality students. “A lot of smart kids and a great heart” is how he would characterize the student body which has an especially high commitment to community service. UNC Chapel Hill is now encouraging students to take a gap year with its newly formed Global Gap Year Fellowship Program, made possible with an anonymous $1.5 million grant, giving 30 admitted students the opportunity to do a year of international service. At this most prestigious UNC, every student gets a liberal arts education, regardless of field of study. For financial assistance, the university describes itself as “need conscious,” meaning that it makes every effort to make UNC affordable to admitted students who would otherwise be unable to attend.

We arrived at Elon after a 40 mile ride and just ahead of sunset which meant we had to wait until the morning to explore this beautifully lush and expansive campus. A midsize university with just over 5,000 students, Elon has a clear mission, founded on five principles: leadership, research, internships, international and service. Like UNC Chapel Hill, Elon is also encouraging accepted students to consider a gap year with its newly formed program that includes a National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) experience and a service learning component in Costa Rica. Also new at Elon is its spring admit program for a select group of students who were not accepted for fall term. Academics are strong in many disciplines, though perhaps the university is best known for its fine business, communications and performing arts programs. A new multi-faith center is on the drawing board. Elon offers academic, community service and performing art scholarships.

Towels and bottles of ice cold water never looked better than those that greeted us at Guilford College in midday. A Quaker school of just over 2,000 students, Guilford is a bit of an anomaly in North Carolina. More hippie than preppie, the students are passionate about their causes and at the top of the list is the environment. Sustainability is the buzz word here and appears to drive every decision and practice. Since many of its building are included in the National Historic Register, Guilford has gone to great effort to preserve the history while upgrading facilities to meet its “green” standards. We toured the expansive organic gardens and viewed the composting process. How many colleges do you know that have their own bike shop? Students can rent bikes for a nominal fee while also reducing their carbon footprint. Not surprisingly, two popular majors are Peace and Conflict Studies and Justice and Policy Studies.

Our final destination day 2 was High Point University located in the furniture capital of the world. Every building on this pristine campus of mostly new construction is adorned with beautiful furnishings, and students have exceptional facilities available to them. Calming classical music can be heard outdoors throughout the day as one strolls past benches with seated statues of historic figures in science, literature government and the arts. The focus on the physical surroundings is by design; High Point believes that exposing students to fine service and beautifully appointed facilities will foster a stronger sense of respect and responsibility among its graduates. High Point is in a growth phase, both for its physical plant and in student population. With just 400 freshmen a few years ago, the university will grow to 5,000 undergrads over the next few years, while also expanding programs and majors. “Undecided” is the second most popular major, yet business, communications and education are big draws, and interior design is surely a signature major. High Point offers many academic scholarships and the cost of attendance of approximately $40,000 is substantially less than the most expensive private colleges. However, the college admittedly “gaps” students, so it may be difficult for students to attend who have significant financial need.

A hilly route to Wake Forest gave us a sense of things to come as we headed west…more hills! This test optional private university of just over 4,000 undergrads has a small community feel, while being part of a larger research university with professional schools in law, medicine, business and theology. Wake’s application process in a word: thorough! At a time when many colleges are dispensing with evaluative interviews, Wake has moved in the other direction and now requires them for all applicants, in person or by Skype. Intellectual curiosity, passion and an awareness of the world outside the individual’s own sphere are what they seek to uncover through the comprehensive process. Wake Forest wears proudly its often used moniker: “Work” Forest. Students don’t mind telling you that they study harder than most, but they play hard too. Greek life permeates the social scene and sports, especially basketball, are big at this Division I school. If you happen to visit the campus after a big athletic victory, don’t be surprised to find the Quad blanketed in toilet paper, as students partake in “rolling the Quad” to celebrate the event. While Wake has many strong academic programs, business and political science are the most popular majors. Construction of a new business school will break ground this year.

Catawba College, with just 1300 students, may not be well known outside of North Carolina, but don’t overlook this theatre and music powerhouse. The music department is one of only 12 in the nation that offers popular music as a major, with an emphasis on songwriting and performance in every type of popular genre, as well as the business side of music. The theatre department is all encompassing, with strength in both performance and production. I am not a fan of rankings, but I feel compelled to share that Princeton Review ranks its musical theatre program #1 in the country. Other popular areas of study are business and athletic training. The Center for the Environment has recently spearheaded a program for clean air. Catawba is affiliated with the United Church of Christ and still enjoys a strong relationship with the church, though religion courses are not required, nor is the weekly worship service. Students do take advantage of the Lilly Center for Vocation and Values which encourages self journey to find the right life vocational calling. Despite the religious affiliation, the college has more of a community spirit than religious feel.

On my final full day we cycled to Davidson College located in the heart of the charming and quaint town that bears its name. Davidson straddles two identities. With just 1,800 students, Davidson looks and feels very much like a small New England liberal arts college. However, the Davidson Wildcats compete with far bigger rivals in Division I athletics and are most recognized for the basketball team that reached the final eight at the NCAA tournament in 2008. Davidson’s celebrated honor code governs all aspects of academic and student life and is a declaration embraced by students and faculty alike. Despite the economic downturn, the college remains committed to the Davidson Trust and its philosophy that the college’s education should be available and affordable for all qualified students. Davidson was one of the first colleges to dispense with loans for students demonstrating financial need, and claims that it will not back away from this policy though others have as endowments have suffered. The college also awards merit aid to approximately 10% of students, with grants ranging in size from $1,000 to full cost.

There is no substitute for visiting college campuses, but nothing compares to a taking that journey on a bike, carrying one’s own gear and spending the night in the college’s dorms. It takes a little more effort and preparation, including the physical training, but the perspective that one gets on each school is unique and personal. I can’t think of a more enjoyable or enlightening way to visit colleges!