Friday, December 26, 2014

"So You Don't Have To": A Visit to Virginia Commonwealth University

As promised, I will use this space to share my experiences visiting colleges with you. Hopefully you will find these notes useful. If you like the schools I discuss you should do everything you can to visit on your own, but this will tide you over until you are able to.

In mid-December I visited Virginia Commonwealth University, a public institution which is located in Richmond, the capital city of Virginia. VCU is located on a vibrant, exciting urban campus and has well-regarded programs in medicine, fine arts and business. Students at my school have not paid much attention to VCU, but based on what I saw, they are missing out; VCU offers a lot, and at a very competitive price. During my visit I attended an information session and took a tour and I came away extremely impressed.  I look forward to recommending Virginia Commonwealth University to my college counselees.

Virginia Commonwealth University At A Glance

About 23,000 undergraduates (approximately 57% women/ 43% men). There are an additional 9,000 so graduate students.
Programs of Study:
Over 60  majors. Bachelor (B.A., B.S., B.N., B.F.A.), Master and Doctorate programs in many fields. 13 pre-professional programs in health, law and education
NCAA Division I; 15 varsity teams (8 women's, 7 men's); 26 club sports and numerous intramurals.
Campus Life:
The Monroe Park campus is located in the center of the city, and the Medical College of Virginia campus is a short bus ride away. Both are extensive. Students live at Monroe Park campus, where they can partake of over 500 student organizations. There is also a separate campus in the nation of Qatar.
Costs & Aid:
Tuition, room & board and fees for Virginia residents total just about $22,000 (tuition is around $12,000); for out of state residents the total cost is just about $40,000 (tuition is about $29,000). Parents need to fill out the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid). Note that costs can vary greatly depending on housing options.
The Regular Decision deadline is January 15. Students seeking scholarships should apply by December 1.
SAT or ACT (test optional for students with high school GPAs of 3.3 or higher). Mid 50% of SAT are 1040-1240 (CR+M) and 22-27 for the ACT. SAT Subject Tests are not required.

Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU), is located in the heart of Richmond, the capital city of Virginia. As I mentioned in my notes about the University of Richmond, the city of Richmond is small to medium sized, with less than a quarter of a million people in the city proper, and a metro area population of about 1.3 million. Despite its size it offers many amenities typically found in larger cities, from effective public transportation, to multiple museums and ample opportunities for public and private sector internships. They also have excellent medical facilities, due in no small part to the presence of VCU's hospitals. VCU was established in 1838 as a medical school; it continued to add new programs for the next 130 years until in 1968 the Richmond Professional Institute and the Medical College of Virginia merged to form Virginia Commonwealth University. VCU continues to grow to this day, recently adding a campus in the Persian Gulf nation of Qatar.

VCU's main campus is located near Monroe Park in downtown Richmond. My tour did not cover the Medical College of Virginia campus which is across town. The campus is quite walkable and while I was there I saw a lot of construction, including a new main library addition that will open in late 2015. The campus is also car friendly, with ample on-street parking options and a wealth of parking garages available to cars with VCU stickers; all students are allowed to have automobiles, but they can also get city bus passes if they'd prefer to avoid the extra hassle of having a car. Richmond is served by Amtrak, and is easily accessible to the rest of the Eastern seaboard by high speed Acela trains, and to the world via Richmond International Airport so a car is definitely not necessary. 

Shaffer Hall, the dining hub on campus

Brandt Hall,  freshman suite-style dorms
I visited during Winter break and consequently our tour was not able to include some elements that are usually featured on such walkabouts, most notably the dorms. However, we did walk past several of them. VCU students can live in 10 residence halls (co-ed by floor), 6 of which are reserved for first-year students. Housing is guaranteed for first-year students and for students who would prefer to move off campus, there are many inexpensive apartments in Richmond. Housing ranges from high-rise dorms like the ones at right, to smaller apartment and suite style residences. Costs vary depending on housing options and academic programs; this webpage provides a form to help estimate how much a person would pay to go to VCU. It is clear, however, that for cost-conscious Virginia residents, VCU is a great option and even for out of state students, VCU can cost up to $20,000 less per year than comparable universities.

VCU's campus seems to be pretty security conscious. The University has 362 emergency call boxes spread across the campus, along with 90 sworn officers in their campus police department. While I was on campus I saw several VCU cops and also a Richmond police car. My tour guide said that the VCU police were "nationally ranked"  and attested that they were friendly and not viewed as adversaries by the students.

a view through the window into the fitness center
VCU has 15 varsity sports which compete at the NCAA Division I level; they are especially proud of their men's basketball team which made the Final Four a few years ago. They also offer over a score of club sports, ranging from badminton, to lacrosse to rugby. The athletic facilities are vast and well-equipped, including the student gym pictured at left; the climbing wall is changed every two weeks to present continual challenges to users.  In addition to sports there are over 500 student activities, including such oddities as a "pancake eating club". Any five students can form a club at VCU. I approve of this approach; when I was in college, a friend and I formed a "Yahtzee and Onion Rings" club, where we went to a local restaurant to listen to jazz, play Yahtzee and eat onion rings. It was one of my favorite parts of college, and I am glad to see a large public university embracing the quirkiness of its student body. 

countdown clock in Visitor's Center
Students who are interested in applying to Virginia Commonwealth University can use the Common Application. VCU is somewhat selective, admitting about 64% of its applicants. During the information session I was told that new for 2014 was an emphasis on more subjective elements of an applicant's portfolio. While it must be hard at a place that gets 15,000 applicants each year, they are now trying to be much more "holistic" in reviewing applications; the rigor of a student's courses will be carefully considered, as well as extra-curricular activities and student writing ability. The mid-50% of accepted students last year had GPAs of 3.34-4.02. That said, standardized tests are still required at VCU and they run a wide gamut; the mid-50% of the SAT (CR and M) range from 1040-1240 and the ACT between 22-27.

large ram's horns outside the student center
The most popular majors at VCU are Biology, Psychology, Mass Communications and Criminal Justice. VCU is a relatively diverse campus, with students from over 100 countries on campus, but 85% of the student body comes from Virginia. so international students only make up 5% of the total.  I was very impressed with the racial makeup of the campus. They state that 16% of their students identify as African-American (more than twice the percentage at the University of Virginia) and all of their promotional material prominently feature people of color. Over 19% of Virginia's population is African-American, so it is good to see one of its public universities try to match that ratio in the student body.

Currently VCU offers over 60 majors in the following 13 schools and colleges:

  • College of Humanities and Sciences
  • School of Allied Health Professions
  • School of the Arts
  • School of Business
  • School of Dentistry
  • School of Education
  • School of Engineering
  • Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs
  • School of Medicine
  • School of Nursing
  • School of Pharmacy
  • School of Social Work
  • VCU Life Sciences
  • VCU Honors College
Students can apply to the Honors College at any point in their careers, but for incoming freshmen VCU wants to see an SAT score (CR+M) of at least 1270 or an ACT score of at least 29. These are not very difficult hurdles, and I would definitely encourage high achieving, motivated students to consider VCU's Honors College. Honors students get special housing (with single rooms), access to extra scholarship money, early course registration, special library privileges and additional access to research opportunities. The deadline for applications is January 15, but students seeking merit scholarships should apply by December 1st. Parents should complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) by March 1st.

poster in the Visitor's Center
I enjoyed my visit to Virginia Commonwealth University.  It compares well against larger state universities (such as Penn State), while providing the added benefits of an urban location.  The campus is very artsy, perhaps due to the presence of VCUArts, the number one ranked public arts and design program in America.  Honestly, I wish I could show you the viewbook--it is one of the most creative ones I've ever seen, featuring numerous cutouts and clever typography; send for one and you won't be disappointed. Despite only 15% of the population coming from outside of Virginia, I got the feeling that VCU prided itself on its diverse student body. As an example, I was pleased to see literature about LGBTQ students prominently displayed in the Visitor's Center.

VCU combines a location in a thriving small city with a wealth of academic and cultural options for students to pursue. Despite the relatively large size of the student body VCU works hard to make sure that nobody gets lost in the shuffle; first year students, for instance, are required to meet with their advisors twice per semester, and many meet much more often. If you are looking for a large, urban college on the east coast (such as George Washington University, or Drexel University, or Pace University) I would definitely give VCU a close look. I know that I will be recommending it to my own students. 

Thursday, December 25, 2014

"So You Don't Have To": A Visit to the University of Richmond

As promised, I will use this space to share my experiences visiting colleges with you. Hopefully you will find these notes useful. If you like the schools I discuss you should do everything you can to visit on your own, but this will tide you over until you are able to.

In mid-December I visited the University of Richmond, in the capital city of the Commonwealth of Virginia. The University has become an increasingly popular option among students at my school, and colleagues who had been to the campus couldn't say enough about it. During my visit I attended an information session and took a tour and I came away extremely impressed.  The University of Richmond combines a campus so beautiful that it looks like a movie set with a wealth of opportunities for students to experience. I look forward to recommending the University of Richmond to my college counselees.

University of Richmond At A Glance

About 3,000 undergraduates (approximately 52% women/ 48% men). There are an additional 1,100 or so graduate students.
Programs of Study:
Over 60  majors. Undergraduate degrees offered are Bachelor of Arts and Bachelor of Science. Multiple Master's degrees are also awarded along with Juris Doctor degree from the law school.
NCAA Division I; 16 varsity teams (9 women's, 7 men's); over 30 club and intramural sports.
Campus Life:
350-acre campus on the outskirts of Richmond, Virginia. 14 non-residential fraternities and sororities.
Costs & Aid:
Tuition, room & board and fees total just about $57,470 (tuition is around $46,680). Parents need to fill out the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) as well as the CSS PROFILE. The average need-based financial aid award is $42,000.
The Early Decision I deadline is November 15, and the ED II and Regular Decision deadlines are January 15.
SAT or ACT. Mid 50% of SAT are 1340-1410 (CR+M) and 30-33 for the ACT. SAT Subject Tests are not required.

©2014 Courtney Lewis
The University of Richmond, or "UR" as they like to call themselves, is located on the west side of Richmond, Virginia. Richmond is a small to medium sized city of less than 250,000 people (about 1,300,000 in the metro area) but it is the capital city of Virginia, and as such it offers many amenities typically found in larger cities, from effective public transportation, to multiple museums and ample opportunities for public and private sector internships. The university was founded in 1830, but moved to its current location in 1914. At that time a women's college, Westhampton College was founded alongside the men-only Richmond College. While the two institutions merged into the University of Richmond years ago, they still maintain a very unique "coordinate system"; under this scheme, the campus contains both colleges; women and men have their own deans, student governments, honor councils and residences. While UR is thoroughly co-ed with a nearly equal balance between men and women, this could still be a good option for someone interested in "semi single sex" education. 

The expansive campus is one of the most gorgeous I've ever seen. It spans 350 acres, but it is walkable end-to-end in 15 minutes. All of the buildings are air-conditioned against the Virginia humidity. Though its buildings have been built over the last century they have a great deal of architectural cohesion; additionally, they seem to have spared no expense to make the structures beautiful inside and out. The lake in the middle of the campus is lovely, and considering how mild the weather was in December, I am sure that students enjoy it nearly year round.

courtesy of the

UR was the beneficiary of one of the largest higher education donations in American history when alumni and local philanthropist E. Claiborne Robins gave $50 million in 1969 (over $300 million in contemporary dollars). Robins ran the pharmaceutical company A.H. Robins, former maker of Robitussin and ChapStick. I was told that to this day, a small portion of ChapStick sales goes to the University, and that the infirmary dispenses the products to students. The gift has grown through wise investment to an endowment of $2.1 billion, the 34th largest in America, which doubtless helps provide for the world-class amenities available to UR students. 

I visited on the first day of Winter break and consequently our tour was not able to include some elements that are usually featured on such visits, most notably the gym and the dorms. While I wasn't able to see the residences, I was told that nearly 90% of students live on campus for all four years, which indicates that they must be pretty nice. The university has 14 fraternities and sororities, but they are non-residential; in addition to this UR eschews freshmen-only residences, so students get to live with a representative cross section of their peers from day one. I have always approved of this myself; my first year in college I lived on a floor with older students, wound up in a band with a bunch of fourth-years and made many friends outside my age group.  It was quite rewarding for me, and I am sure that Richmond students have similar results. 

©2014 Courtney Lewis
UR has 17 NCAA Division I teams and 30 club sports, including ice hockey, badminton and quidditch. Several varsity teams play in Robins Stadium, a newly built multisport palace located next to the admissions office. As you can see from the picture, Richmond is proud to be the only team in the country called the Spiders, and the arachnid logo is omnipresent--web designs are even built into the steel railings around the stadium. I really mean it when I say that they are serious about being called the Spiders--one of their supplemental essays on the Common App is an open ended one, asking students to "please tell us something about spiders". That said, I am rather an arachnophobe, and I was not scared walking around campus, so you should be okay too.

UR prides itself on being a "suburban campus with an urban feel" that "doesn't know our own size"; based on what I saw, they definitely punch above their weight--the casual observer would be excused in thinking that the university had at least twice as many students as they do. Richmond maintains a center in the heart of the city called "UR Downtown" that is a short shuttle drive away and makes it easier for students to take advantage of urban resources. The university seems to combine the best of a big university with a smaller college--classes average 16 students, and the largest lecture hall on campus has a maximum occupancy of 47. Students seem to like this: I was told that Richmond was ranked the 7th happiest campus in the nation, and that a remarkable 94% of students return for a second year. Based on other benchmarks, I bet they stay happy. Richmond wants their students to have the financial flexibility to be able to travel, do internships and otherwise engage with the larger world, and to that end they have just announced "the Richmond Guarantee" which will provide up to $4,000 per student to subsidize an off campus learning activity. Finally, of the class of 2013, 96% of graduates were "employed, engaged or enrolled" in a position that let them use their degrees within six months of commencement.

©2014 Courtney Lewis 
Students who are interested in applying to the University of Richmond can use the Common Application. UR is very selective, admitting only about 30% of applicants. They promise an "holistic review", and I was told that the student's transcript is looked at very closely. They are looking for students who have earned A, A- and B+ grades in a rigorous curriculum. UR looks to see that students have challenged themselves to the best degree that they were able based on the context of the school's overall curriculum; in other words, a student who attends a school without AP classes won't be penalized for not taking those courses, but if she attends a school with a dozen AP options, she should have taken several. UR requires standardized tests, and their mid-50% scores (1320-1410 for SAT and 30-33 for ACT) are pretty high. They look closely at the SAT writing section, as well as the written parts of the Common App (including the spiders part) to make sure that all incoming students can express themselves well. The Early Decision I deadline is November 15 and the EDII and Regular Decision deadlines are January 15. Students seeking to be a "Richmond Scholar" (beneficiaries of 45 full tuition scholarships) must apply by December 1.

All UR students start their careers in the College of Arts and Sciences; students don't declare a major until sophomore year. I was told that the top four majors are psychology, biology, international studies, and business administration; the business students have a "trading floor" to work with, and are actually given a portion of the University endowment to invest every year. 59% of students study abroad in their career which is a pretty good rate. Richmond makes sure that students are reimbursed for "cultural activities" (museums, lessons, etc.) while studying out of the country; my tour guide spent several months in New Zealand and was reimbursed for taking the Lord of the Rings tour. Undergraduates who study classes related to the law can use the law school and its library, which can be a big help for research projects. I was told that students form close relationships with their professors; our tour guide related that when she was studying in the business building a professor came to check on her, because she hadn't moved for so long! At UR all courses are taught by faculty members; there are no teaching assistants. The university is very proud of its School of Leadership Studies, which they say has been a model for similar programs at other colleges across the country in the last two decades. It is an interdisciplinary program that draws from multiple perspectives to help frame what makes a leader, rather than specifically training students to assume a leadership role (though doubtless many eventually do). Students apply in their second year if they want to major in Leadership Studies.

©2014 Courtney Lewis
The Boatwright Library (named after a longtime college president) is a lovely building that has many modern features. It makes a good balance between offering students collaborative and individual study spaces with plenty of available technology and nearby support from librarians (with welcomingly decorated offices). It is open 24 hours every day and like many buildings on campus features a cafĂ© space. The library devotes a large amount of space on the main floor to collaborative learning. Whiteboards abound for groups of students to work together; students were asked what they most wanted to see during the recent renovations, and this is what they asked for. The library has over 500,000 volumes; there is also a music library and a law library (located in the law building). Also, for history students drawn to Richmond by Revolutionary War or Civil War history, the Library of Virginia is nearby and is another great source of research material for students; when I was there they had a museum quality exhibit on the slave trade in Richmond that gave me many ideas to use in my history classes.

I really enjoyed my visit to the University of Richmond.  It is quite diverse, drawing students from 47 states and 70 countries; in fact the other people on my tour came from Connecticut and China. While I didn't get to see the dorms or the gym, I still felt that I received tons of useful information; my tour was led by a senior from Virginia named Pooja, who was one of the best tour guides I've ever had and she covered a lot of ground. Pooja's love of the University was abundant and obvious throughout our hour long walk around campus; she kept saying how much she would miss it when she graduated, and it is easy to see why. The University of Richmond seems to be the perfect combination of small college feel and big university features. I had never visited a college so far south, but it was quite accessible from northeastern Pennsylvania (a six hour drive) and is on the Acela (high speed rail) line from Amtrak making it quite easy to take the train to Boston, New York, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. Having visited I can understand why it is so popular, and I will definitely be recommending it to more of my students in the future.