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
•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
•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
•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
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
A Commitment to Active Learning
Do teachers know their students? What is the average undergraduate
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?
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
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
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
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
The Gatekeepers: Inside the Admissions Process of a Premier College
and Schulman; Princeton University Press, 2002
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
Jay Mathews, Washington Post, April 1,
(In this article, Mathews describes St. Lawrence as having “a
vibrant liberal arts tradition with excellent faculty and good character
How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will
A. Coe; Avon Books, 1999
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.