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Table of Contents

Choosing a College: Where Do I Start?

Navigating the Funnel

Perfect Fit

They Beg to Differ

What to Ask About Study Abroad on Campus

What's it Worth to You?

Surviving the Empty Nest: A Guide for Parents

Alumni Accomplishments

The Kenya Connection

Laurentian Reviews

Table of Contents

They Beg to Differ
It’s easy to find arguments that guidebooks aren’t the best way—or even a very good one--to pick a college.

By Neal Burdick ’72

It’s practically become a publishing genre unto itself. The proliferation in the last few years of college guides (Peterson’s, Princeton Review, Fiske and the much-discussed U.S. News & World Report annual rankings, to name but the tip of the iceberg) has spawned a glut of rebuttals, taking issue with the guides’ methodology, findings, validity, influence and even, in some extreme cases, their right to exist.

One reply to the college guide industry comes from the keyboard of Paul Boyer, an education consultant and writer and the son of the late Ernest Boyer, onetime president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching who once said, “St. Lawrence’s First-Year Program is one of the most well-defined and creative in the country.” In College Rankings Exposed (Thomson Learning, Inc./Peterson’s, 2003), Boyer goes particularly after U.S. News, asserting that “Rankings have fundamentally changed how students, parents—even educators—thing about higher education. … There is less interest in the richness and diversity of American higher education. Instead, all attention is focused on the relative reputation of each institution. (Rankings) encourage students to look for the right number, not the right fit.”

To counter this, Boyer gives us “specific questions prospective students should ask when evaluating colleges so that they can find a college that is not only ‘good,’ but—equally important—the right fit.” He encourages readers to find a college “where students work closely with faculty, where they have opportunities to learn both inside and outside the classroom, …where strong liberal arts courses are at the heart of the curriculum, ….where students not only earn a credential but also master the skills they really need to succeed in their chosen careers, …where they gain confidence and are challenged and tested in unexpected ways.”

Does that remind you of St. Lawrence?

So what are those specific questions? Here’s a sample, with some paraphrasing, and how St. Lawrence would answer them. Boyer organizes them under five key criteria:

A Commitment to General Education

Does the college or university offer freshman-year seminars? Are they required of all freshmen and taught by full-time faculty?

We could start be re-reading Boyer’s father’s observation, above. St. Lawrence’s First-Year Program (FYP to its friends) has frequently been cited as a model of success. All first-year students are required to enroll, and each course is taught by a team of two faculty from two different departments, along with student mentors and a brigade of others.

Does general education extend (through) the senior year? Does the college or university offer a core curriculum or a carefully developed set of distribution requirements?

The following is what St. Lawrence, in fact, calls its Distribution Requirements:

Arts/Expression. A course that provides active learning through creative expression.

Humanities. A course that involves the critical interpretation of traditional and contemporary works of literature, history, political thought, philosophy, religious studies and the arts, both visual and performing.

Social Science. A course that provides an awareness of how economic, political and social institutions can be organized, evidence about them analyzed and social scientific knowledge generated.

Mathematics or Foreign Language. A course that either develops quantitative reasoning and analytical thought or provides knowledge of a foreign language and understanding of a foreign culture.

Natural Science/Science Studies. Two courses that provide a foundation in the natural sciences and the interplay between science and society. At least one of the two courses must include a laboratory.

Courses meeting the above distribution requirements must include courses from six different departments or programs.

Diversity. Two courses from two different departments or programs approved as engaging participants in the critical study of sameness and difference, including diverse social and cultural practices and beliefs, either within or outside the United States.

One of the raps on the liberal arts these days is that instruction in cornerstone skills has been sacrificed on the altar of political correctness. That depends on your point of view. Fifty years ago, it may have been sufficient to tunnel into several different departments and emerge with a set of knowledge. But the world is not that compartmentalized anymore, nor should higher education be. Or, as Grant Cornwell Jr. ’79, vice president and dean of the University, put it at a seminar for ODK members during Reunion Weekend, “The liberal arts foundations have not changed, but as the world changes so our curriculum must change,” to prepare students to handle “complex overlapping world issues.”

A Commitment to Writing, Speaking, and Critical-Thinking Skills

Are communication skills formally developed in a freshman seminar or similar course?

 A core purpose of St. Lawrence’s FYP is, and has from the outset been, to create a forum in which both writing and speaking skills can be honed in a seminar format, and each first-year college teaching team hammers that home in its teaching. Thematic seminars in the second semester raise this emphasis to the next level, applying it to research and critical thinking skills.

Is writing emphasized in every class? Do all teachers value the importance of writing?

Avoiding English classes so you won’t have to write papers doesn’t work anymore. As a product of the University’s “writing across the curriculum” initiative, which has been under way for several years now, courses in numerous academic departments are labeled “Writing Intensive,” which means—this must be obvious--that students can expect to do a lot of writing, and that it will be constructively scrutinized. For those who don’t measure up, a notation of U/W (for “Unsatisfactory Writing”) can be appended to a course grade, directing the recipient to one of St. Lawrence’s several writing centers. Get two of these, and you must complete an individualized competency program developed at the Munn Writing Center, or else no diploma.

A Commitment to Active Learning

Do teachers know their students? What is the average undergraduate class size?

We presume that Boyer is implying that smaller is better. At St. Lawrence in 2003-04, the average class size was 16 and the faculty:student ratio was 12:1, putting St. Lawrence in good company. But numbers can be cited to suit our purposes, as Shakespeare much more eloquently suggested. Answer this one for yourself, then: When you were at St. Lawrence, did you feel your teachers knew you? Did they know your name? Did they say hello when they passed you on campus or bumped into you at the snack bar or a hockey game? Did they give you extra time whenever you asked for it?

Do most students participate in faculty research? Are all students expected to complete their own original research – such as a senior thesis – before graduation?

Pedagogy in general is moving in the direction of more research, and at St. Lawrence, faculty/student research partnerships are becoming more and more common, thanks to such programs as University Fellows, which pairs one student and one professor for a summer research project on campus, and McNair Fellows, which achieves the same set-up for students from under-represented populations. When asked last spring to provide a list of research projects in biology, particularly those which incorporated students, chair and professor Tom Budd responded simply, “All our faculty research is done with students.” That is becoming the norm on campus. With continuing implementation of the Senior-Year Experience, which demands one-on-one work with a professor in a project appropriate to the student’s major, we’ll be seeing more and more of it.

Opportunities to Extend Learning Beyond the Classroom

Do students earn academic credit for internships and travel experiences?

Calling St. Lawrence’s 14 international programs, from England and Kenya to India and Costa Rica, “travel experiences” hardly does them justice. They aren’t vacations. But alumni of any of these programs routinely vouch that they were among the most transforming experiences of their lives. Courses in these educational – not merely travel -- programs earn academic credit, as do the internships that are part of many of them. In 2003-04, five students earned credit as interns in the University communications office, partly by writing articles for this magazine – fund your spring issue and turn to the profiles of seniors beginning on page 11, for example. We could go on….

Is service learning part of the curriculum?

St. Lawrence’s recently renamed community-based learning program (the change reflects a shift of attitude) placed nearly 300 students in credit-bearing internships in numerous local agencies, according to the program’s director, associate professor and chair of sociology Ron Flores.

A Diverse, Intellectually Active, and Respectful Community

Is the college or university a respectful community?

Here’s one area where we could use a little work. The level of discourse on campus has at times been what many would have difficulty labeling as respectful. And yet, says the 2003-04 interim director of the Center for Teaching and Learning, Steve Horwitz, who is quoted extensively (although his name is not spelled correctly) in Boyer’s book, the dialog is conducted in an arena of intellectual vigor and even those who disagree vehemently on issues remain generally cordial to one another. It’s all about that friendly atmosphere that has characterized St. Lawrence from even before the first brick was laid, when the founders couldn’t decide where to put the seminary that grew into the University we know today, although as devoted Universalists they were nice about it.

Does the college or university promote diversity?

 Leave aside for now the quicksand question, “What do we mean by diversity?” St. Lawrence certainly promotes a community that consists of a diverse array of people, but the results haven’t always been as desired, for numerous reasons. Progress, while slow, is evident in ethnic diversity, which is the first thing many people think of when that concept comes to mind; self-identifying U.S. minorities (defined as Black, Asian, Native American and Hispanic) numbered 25 in the Class of 2001, but 43 in the Class of 2004, which graduated last May. At his Reunion Weekend Q&A in June, President Sullivan pointed out that St. Lawrence is ever more economically diverse, as measured by the incomes of students’ families. On the other hand, reports of homophobia, racism and sexism still plague the campus. The goal of greater diversity remains before us, no less compelling than ever, and we continue to search for new and energetic ways to reach it.

St.Lawrence editor Neal Burdick’s two children both went to colleges that ranked high in U.S. News & World Report, but were happy anyway.

Want to Know More?

Commentaries on the college search, selected from two substantial lists compiled by Susan Kastner Tree ’74, director of college counseling at WesttownSchool, Westtown, Pa.

Questions and Admissions
Jean H. Fetter, former dean of admissions at Stanford; Stanford University Press, 1995.

The Game of Life: College Sports and Educational Values
Bowen and Schulman; Princeton University Press, 2002

The Gatekeepers: Inside the Admissions Process of a Premier College
Jacques Steinberg; Viking Press, 2002

National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE)
An alternative view of collegiate quality that focuses on teaching and learning.

What Can I Do with This Major?
Helps connect majors with careers.

Choosing the Right College
The Intercollegiate Studies Institute (ISI)

Colleges Worth Considering
Jay Mathews, Washington Post, April 1, 2003
(In this article, Mathews describes St. Lawrence as having “a vibrant liberal arts tradition with excellent faculty and good character values.”)

How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk

Adele Faber, Elaine Mazlish, Kimberly A. Coe; Avon Books, 1999

[caption, STE0071.jpg.]

One mark of a top-quality college, writes Paul Boyer, is that its students have opportunities to do research. At St. Lawrence, those opportunities are growing yearly, as this scene on the Kip Tract illustrates.