A Visit to Carleton College by jgn on Saturday, June 23, 2018 in Colleges, College Visits, Liberal Arts, and Small Liberal Arts Colleges

My daughter is going to be a high school junior in the fall, so it is time to start visiting colleges and universities. She's smart. Her favorite class is math. She's fluent in French. She plays piano and violin, sings, acts and loves everything about the theater. She has also done some volunteer work. She's interested in everything, and doesn't have an overriding passion. The family culture is oriented towards small liberal arts colleges: My dad worked at Macalester, I went to Grinnell, my wife went to Oberlin and now teaches at Macalester. So we'll being checking out a lot of the top-tier small colleges, but also some of the usual suspects among the bigger schools (like Brown), and maybe some of the Colleges that Changes Lives. Just yesterday morning they took a tour of Mac; and in the afternoon we all drove down to Carleton College, in Northfield, Minnesota, to check it out. I have a number of good friends and former graduate school classmates who went to Carleton; their positive feelings constituted all the validation I needed to ask my daughter to put it on her "possibles" list.

The short version of our experience is that I have little doubt that Caroline could get a great education from Carleton and be happy there; it didn't really pass her gut check (though that could change if she has another visit when school is in session).

Here are a few notes from the visit: Carleton has a beautiful admissions office, which is the newly-renovated Scoville Library. The waiting area was formerly the reading room; it was very comfortable. There was a big screen up with a list of the names of the day's visitors -- it reminded me a bit of seeing my name on an electronic board for picking up a rental car from Hertz. There was an abundance of literature about the college: the View Book, one-pagers about departments and concentrations. There was lemonade, water, coffee, and hot chocolate, and some candy in the Carleton maize color. I snagged a free pen (love free pens!). While we were waiting, I spied the notebook of another student visiting Carleton, and she had listed her top schools: It was places like Vassar, Brown, Lafayette; not so dissimilar from my daughter's interests; this hints that the structure of Carleton's admissions funnel is somewhat self-selecting. The other parents looked like middle-aged tenured professors: Comfortable well-tended upper middle class people who were paying attention. All white, by the way. After a brief wait we entered a conference room and heard an admissions officer speak off the cuff for about an hour. Of course every admissions officer can do this, but we were particularly impressed that there were no slides; this was old-fashioned traditional person-to-person communication. The pitch really stressed the liberal arts and noted that if you want to pursue engineering as a discipline in an undergraduate program, Carleton is not the place (not all small liberal arts colleges are that blunt). I didn't catch much that was especially unique about Carleton, but it was clear that by almost any metric, this is one of the best small liberal arts colleges in the country. There were the usual quasi-apologies about location and the cold, both handled pretty deftly.

Then we had a brief (15 minute) and pretty slick video; it dates from 2012 and could use a refresh (mentions Seamus Heaney, for instance, who died recently; can't help wondering if the video's tone would be different post the election of Trump). These college videos are all about emphasis: All of the really good colleges offer pretty much the same smorgasbord of academics and activities: But the video has to make choices. You learn a lot from whether the video preaches pedagogical ideology vs college values vs raw student experience. Carleton goes for a shaped version of student experience. I have seen Carleton's marketing materials before: They have an extraordinary and effective emphasis on faces (you can also see that here - page down). There were some subtle (maybe not-so-subtle) things that my wife and daughter caught: A number of the featured undergraduate women were wearing fairly low-cut tops (maybe we're just Puritans), and seemed pretty groomed for the camera. Not sure what that means. I guess that's a little at odds with the way we have seen Macalester and Grinnell students dress (even in promotional materials): A bit more t-shirts and sweatshirts. I didn't see much blue hair or nose rings which sometimes seem de rigueur at Mac; indeed, the dress was fairly conservative. A male professor is shown with a tie and a sweater vest. The classroom scenes were a bit more "speaker at the front, students in the audience" than I was expecting (see 2:38, 4:41, 15:30) -- maybe that's the only way to get a good shot of a prof doing his or her thing. Another thing that raised an eyebrow was the treatment of sports: There was some rah-rah video of basketball and football fans (at 1:20), which was a little more intense than I would have expected. Two student athletes said almost the same thing about their sports: That when the academics are getting intense, they can swim or play baseball and release some of that tension or put academics out of mind briefly (8:42, 12:11). It seems a little off to me to emphasize the idea that there is enough tension and anxiety that it requires personal rebalancing through physical exercise -- "a perfect escape" as one student noted. Do these things have to be in conflict?

Then we got an excellent one-hour campus tour. At some colleges, the tours are split into a tour-for-parents and a tour-for-students -- Carleton kept everyone together. I like that because I enjoy observing my daughter's reactions and I'm always curious to see if she'll make a joke that her audience doesn't get. A few notes from the tour: Carleton has a lived-in feel (not run down, just not as obsessively updated as, say, Grinnell). Buildings (e.g., computer science) had narrow hallways and felt cramped. I asked about department lounges and/or libraries (I have heard Sam Rebelsky at Grinnell say that the common area is key for his department), and was told that that is not really a Carleton thing, though some departments do have lounges. We were shown a dorm room in what we were told was one of the least favorite dorms: The room was small with concrete walls; not so different from my memories of Grinnell. The absolute stand-out of the tour was the Weitz Center for Creativity - this is an amazing resources for the arts. Along the visit, there were some little details I liked: The library has a significant games area with Scrabble, Catan, and all of the other suspects; the student union building had an open area with lots of tables: It was larger and seemed more unplanned / ad hoc than what I have seen at other colleges; theater is a big deal at Carleton with one big production from the theater department per trimester, along with three student-sponsored productions. One question I asked: "Is there anything right now that is 'under debate' on campus? I'm thinking about divestment in the 80s, or the struggle to establish Women's Studies departments." The guide gave a great and honest answer, noting that in the prior year, students of color expressed dissatisfaction about their places in the institution. The guide noted that the protest/discussion was "very well-organized," which seems to be a Carleton value (channel the conversation into something productive).

About the only thing that was a little jarring was that the tour guide kept coming back to the positives (and maybe negatives) of the fact that Carleton is on trimesters rather than semesters. Carleton has students do three classes per trimester. This produces an intense (too intense?) academic experience as they try to cram a semester's worth of work into a trimester. And this is not quarters: There is no summer program, though lots of students do summer research on campus (weighted to the sciences). The winter break is long: I think the guide might have said six weeks. I wonder if the heat is turned down in some buildings during the break to save money.

Carleton has real distribution requirements that are much stiffer than, say, Grinnell's. Another thing mentioned was that to graduate, you have to do a final project, which they call "Comps," and is shorthand for the comprehensive Senior Integrative Exercise,

a capstone academic experience required by every major. Comps is an opportunity to stretch your academic wings, exploring a topic of your choosing in depth with expert guidance from faculty advisers. Many Carleton alumni who go on to earn advanced degrees say that their comps project was outstanding preparation for graduate-level work. (here)

This actually culminates in a required public presentation/defense. When I was teaching as a graduate student I came to be fairly ambivalent about senior theses and the like. But one thing I admire about the apparently very strong Comps program at Carleton is that it makes it very hard for students to double-major, and guides students into minors. I like that. I like the idea that the curriculum nudges students towards focus.

I'd say the big thing I learned that I would want other parents to watch for is the way colleges apologize for things: You'll hear phrases structured this way: "Even though the college has this deficit, it is overcome by this other thing." For example: Even though Carleton is in a rural part of American, there are so many events on campus that you won't miss the city; and besides, we have shuttle busses to the Twin Cities. Similarly: Even though Carleton's academics are intense, they're balanced out by all of the other things you can do. Even though it's dang cold, here's a video of kids sliding down a hill on cafeteria trays (those crazy college hijinks!).

On the whole: Great place, great visit.

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