Wednesday, April 29, 2015

"So You Don't Have To": A Visit to Lycoming College

At the end of April I visited Lycoming College, a private liberal arts college located in Williamsport, Pennsylvania (the home of the Little League World Series). Lycoming boasts a small, beautiful campus which puts everything a student needs (dorms, dining hall, gym, academic spaces, a charming quad) in very close proximity. The bulk of the campus can be traversed in about 5-7 minutes of average-paced walking yet it does not feel crowded or congested.  After he read some of the earlier posts on this blog, the Vice President of Enrollment Management at Lycoming invited me to visit his campus. I was already predisposed to like the college because several students from my school have attended over the years; I agreed to come out and take a look around, and I am so glad that I did! I think that Lycoming College is one of the best-kept secrets in higher education as it provides its students the kind of supportive, close-knit community of learners that many colleges strive for, but few achieve. I am glad to "spill the beans" (more about the beans later) and make Lycoming better known.

Lycoming College At A Glance

Just under 1,400 undergraduates (approximately 55% men/ 45% women).
Programs of Study:
28 majors, 58 minors and 23 concentrations in 24 programs. Bachelor degrees and teacher certifications.
NCAA Division III; 17 varsity teams (8 women's, 9 men's); numerous intramural sports.
Campus Life:
Over 80 clubs and organizations on campus. 4 fraternities and 5 sororities; about 30% of the campus participates in Greek life. All students live on campus. Downtown Williamsport is a short walk away, featuring multiple art galleries, restaurants and shops.
Costs & Aid:
Tuition, room & board and fees total just about $48,000 (tuition is around $35,000). Parents need to fill out the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid). 100% of Lycoming students receive scholarships or grants ($27 million was awarded in 2014-15).
Lycoming has rolling admissions with a priority deadline of December 1. Applications should be received by March 1 at the latest. Students can use the Common App or Lycoming's own, free, application. Beginning in the fall of 2015, applicants can choose an Early Decision option.
SAT or ACT. Mid 50% of the old scale SAT are 1370-1680 (CR+M+ W) and 19-26 for the ACT. A test optional method is available to students who finish in the top half of their graduating classes (students must submit two graded writing samples). Students who opt for this choice are still eligible for all forms of financial aid offered at Lycoming.

View of the Quad from the deck of the Student Center
Lycoming College is located in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, which is about three hours from Philadelphia and from New York City. Williamsport is a small city (c. 30,000) in the central part of the commonwealth. Williamsport has a thriving art community (the city boasts four art galleries) and with the presence of Pennsylvania College of Technology in addition to Lycoming, it is something of a college town.  Lycoming is a truly venerable institution, having opened its gates in 1812 and the campus has a well-established feel to it, though everything I saw on my visit was updated and tidy. Lycoming has made a concerted effort to upgrade and improve their facilities; the building you can see on the right side of the picture above will be completely renovated this Summer, and a new science building addition will come into service in the Fall.

This map demonstrates the compact campus layout
When I arrived on campus I snapped the picture at right of the campus map; it shows just how cozy the campus is (though according to my iPhone I logged about 4,600 steps during my visit). My visit was a great introduction to what the Director of Admission called "Lyco Love", which is his name for the extremely personalized attention that is paid to all visitors to campus. I thought I was being treated specially, but it turns out that in addition to the standard campus tour many prospective students have the chance to meet with at least one professor and then have lunch with professors, students and admissions staff. I also was able to visit with President Kent Trachte, but I was told that even such a high-level meeting was not off-limits to applicants and their families. It is no surprise that a very high percentage of students who visit end up attending Lycoming; the college really knows how to make a visitor feel special.

This shows the library staff's sense of humor
Lycoming is a true liberal arts college and as such it encourages students to gain exposure to a wide range of ideas by requiring them to take at least two sciences, two fine arts, two mathematics, two social sciences, etc. during their tenure there. Multiple people told me that professors in introductory level courses grade students on effort and growth as much as on mastery of their subjects. There is also a strong culture of faculty and staff doing their utmost to help their students. One example was the library staff; they recently hosted an event where the library was open until 2am and professors were present the whole time holding late night study sessions. This was apparently an initiative of the librarians, but very few professors at most colleges would participate in a scheme like this. Way to go, Lyco!

The entry to the Science Building

Similarly, I was impressed to learn from President Trachte that the faculty handbook makes clear that teaching is the most important criteria considered when deciding to promote a professor or to award tenure.  I had several conversations with four professors and three students and they all confirmed that a highlight of their experiences at Lycoming was the close relationships that are formed between students and their teachers. My tour guide called her advisor "one of [her] best friends" and a former student of mine who is in her first year at Lycoming told me that she had visited with a favorite professor in his office until 10pm the previous evening; when he left she stayed and worked on her own until 3am. One of the professors I spoke with said that he feels like he lets his students down if he misses a football game and another told me that he treats his students like colleagues and friends. All of these anecdotes are heartwarming qualitative information, but President Trachte told me that Lycoming did a study using data from the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE) that compared Lycoming students feelings of "faculty-student engagement" against all colleges, all arts and sciences colleges, and the most selective colleges. He said that the results showed that Lycoming students experienced more interaction with their professors and a more favorable feeling toward the faculty than any of the comparison groups by a statistically significant amount. This is quite impressive, and I would definitely encourage a student seeking a small college, or the chance to find a faculty member mentor to seriously consider Lycoming. 

The multi-sport center with indoor track
Lycoming has seventeen varsity teams which compete at the NCAA Division III level. They also have multiple intramural sports and a very well-equipped gymnasium with a hardwood court, an Olympic sized pool, several weight rooms and a multi-sport center with room for three basketball courts (which hosts events like Relay for Life and doubles as indoor tennis courts!) and an elevated running track. Turf fields for football, soccer and lacrosse and a very nice softball stadium are about a ten-minute walk away from the campus near a municipal park.

Students interested in applying to Lycoming can use the Common App or Lycoming's own free application. Lycoming carefully evaluates applicants to make sure that they will be given the chance to succeed. The college is willing to work with students whose standardized test scores are average; SAT scores for accepted students range from 1440-1880, which are good, but not spectacular. Lycoming seems to place more emphasis on student grades (most accepted students were in the top half of their graduating classes) and other individual traits. Lycoming has rolling admissions, so applying by December 1st is wise, but they will continue to receive applications through March. To be considered for financial aid, parents need only complete the FAFSA. 

The dining hall
No campus review is truly complete without a discussion of the dining hall, and I can say that the food in the cafeteria was quite good. I had lunch and the options were wide and varied, from a very well-stocked salad bar and fresh fruit selection, to pizza and burgers (beef and veggie) with hand-cut french fries to "homestyle entrees" to made to order sandwiches to very nice looking baked goods (I'm told that the kitchen makes 2000 cookies each week). I was also impressed with the "allergy-free zone" that had a separate seating area and food prep areas. It also appeared that the vegetarian and vegan options were produced on separate equipment to make sure that students would be able to honor their dietary commitments. 

The administration building
Financial aid-wise, Lycoming has made a concerted effort in recent years to increase the amount of merit-based aid they award. President Trachte told me that they have increased the financial aid budget by 40% over the past five years. At this point, 100% of students receive grants or scholarships from Lycoming (which doesn't include need-based federal aid).  Lycoming also strives to build a diverse student body, and this year 23% of students identify as people of color. Lycoming has forged strong partnerships with inner-city charter school programs such as "YES Prep" from Houston, "Say Yes to Education" from Buffalo and KIPP from 24 cities across the country to try to recruit first-generation college students. This is a wonderful initiative and I applaud Lycoming for working to expand that demographic; I think it is important for the nation's future that underserved populations are given the chance to live and learn at our elite institutions.

Proof that Lycoming is in it for the long-term
And make no mistake: Lycoming wants to be considered an elite institution. President Trachte considers it a goal to become recognized as "one of the very best of the liberal arts colleges" and he believes that they have the resources to make it happen. Lycoming's endowment is over $200 million and is in the top 75 in the category of endowment per student. He praised his predecessor for ensuring the college's financial stability during the Great Recession and now he wants to use those resources to attract the best students and professors; build the best programs and facilities and raise the college's profile. The science building addition that will open in the fall will contain "highest-end planetarium available" and will provide the physics, astronomy and geology classes "a place to do modern science". A physics professor who toured me through the addition (we had to wear hard hats because of the frenzied construction work taking place) was practically giddy that "this building will open up so many possibilities for us--we don't even KNOW what we will do with it."

The physics professor's palpable excitement was due to Lycoming's campus culture of innovation. Anyone (student, faculty or staff) can come to the President's office to propose improvements and they are listened to carefully.

Some examples of innovative ideas that originated with members of the community and came to fruition were the relocation of Lycoming's art gallery to downtown; an outdoor dining area near the library; an expanded dining facility in the main academic building; and a really fascinating international project. I met two political science professors who told me the story behind "Warrior One Coffee". This project helps fund student travel to a remote village in the Dominican Republic where students from every discipline can have immersion experiences in a different culture while also pursuing social justice issues by helping the residents gain economic independence through the sale of their local coffee beans.

Lycoming encourages its students to participate in the life of the mind and to grow as academic practitioners. In addition to the off-campus art gallery there is a space on-campus that hosts rotating displays of student research and artwork. The walls of the academic buildings are covered with posters describing student research and the college is generous about funding student travel to academic conferences and research opportunities. One interesting way that they do this is through "May Term". This four-week session takes place after final exams and often involves individual and group study opportunities all over the world. There are several locations that affiliate with Lycoming, but the new coordinator of study abroad is quite willing to help students go anywhere they need to go. My tour guide will be spending time in Greece this summer to pursue her art studies. In keeping with the theme of encouraging student travel, tuition for travel abroad has been cut in half.

The Quad. Graduates depart campus from the steps in the distance.
I hope that after reading this post you can tell how much I enjoyed my visit to Lycoming, and how impressed I was by the campus, the people and the future of the institution. Having taught for 19 years at small independent schools, it is not uncommon to work with students who want to find a college that will give them the supportive environment they have experienced in high school and Lycoming is just that kind of college. The close personal relationships between teachers and students is inspiring, and the College's commitment to finding students who will be the best fit for the community is unwavering. Lycoming wants the best students they can get, but it is the kind of place that can bring out the best in solid students who were NOT the best in high school. They will fly prospective students into Williamsport to visit, and the personalized approach to the admissions process may very well turn their heads. Lycoming has excellent programs in art, archaeology (one of few programs that give undergraduates a chance to work in the "Old World" and the "New World") and business to name a few. They have recently won a grant from the Mellon Foundation to facilitate humanities and social science professor/student collaborative research; over the next two years, ten (of eighty total) professors will be supported in building new collaborative projects with their students.

The energy and excitement I saw on campus were contagious.  Lycoming may be have just begun their third century but their outlook is that of the upstarts who are in a hurry to make their mark. I strongly encourage any student considering a small liberal arts college to give Lycoming a long look. 

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

"So You Don't Have To": A Visit to Rochester Institute of Technology

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 get there yourself.

In mid-April I visited Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT), a private university located in upstate New York. RIT sports a modern, brick-clad campus and its research and laboratory facilities are first-rate. My perspective on RIT has benefited from having several of my former students choose it. Just recently (during a great follow-up visit with them at a diner near the campus) they disclosed that RIT has been a good mix of challenging academics and preparation for their future careers. After seeing the combination of "geek chic" and vibrant energy on the campus, I am happy to recommend it to my college counselees who are looking for a thriving community that offers lots of practical experience.

Rochester Institute of Technology At A Glance

About 13,500 undergraduates (approximately 67% men/ 33% women). There are an additional 2,500 or so graduate students.
Programs of Study:
Over 95 majors, 82 minors and 42 "immersions" (three-course concentrations). Bachelor (B.S. or B.F.A.), Master and Doctorate degree programs in many fields, including accelerated B.S./M.S. and 4 + 1 M.B.A. options.
NCAA Division III (except men's and women's ice hockey, which is Division I); 26 varsity teams (13 women's, 13 men's); over a dozen club sports and numerous intramurals.
Campus Life:
Over 300 clubs and organizations on campus. Downtown Rochester is not far away, and it has several nice museums as well as parks along the Erie Canal. They also have campuses in Bosnia, Croatia and Dubai.
Costs & Aid:
Tuition, room & board and fees total just about $47,300 (tuition is around $35,000); note that total costs for deaf and hard of hearing students is closer to $26,000. Parents need to fill out the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid).
The Early Decision deadline is December 1. Other admission is rolling, with a priority deadline of February 1.
SAT or ACT. Mid 50% of the old scale SAT are 1630-1950 (CR+M+ W) and 26-31 for the ACT. Note that for some programs the mid 50% of scores is much higher. The overall acceptance rate is around 57%

In the center of campus is this infinity sculpture.
Rochester Institute of Technology is located just outside the city of Rochester, New York. Rochester is the third largest city in the Empire State, but it is on the smaller size with less than a quarter of a million people.  Rochester boasts that they are "within six hours of New York City, Boston, Detroit, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Cleveland and Montreal" and that they are "much closer than that to Niagara Falls and Toronto". In plainer language it means that they are a relatively isolated campus. This might explain why all students (even first years) get to have cars. I'm sure that comes in handy when people just need to get away or when they want to take advantage of the many off campus work opportunities presented to them at RIT. Despite its size it offers many work opportunities thanks to the presence of such large corporations as Eastman Kodak, Monroe Muffler and Brake and Wegman's; all of which are based in the metro area. RIT was established in 1829 and it moved to its present campus in 1969, which explains its architecture, some of which is modern and interesting, while other building exteriors are nondescript at best.

More academic buildings
RIT's campus is quite extensive. My tour was not as comprehensive as a normal one because I attended on a special open house day, but I was able to see quite a lot (while logging over 6,000 steps according to my iPhone!). Nearly all of the buildings look virtually identical, thanks in part to the use of a special type of brick which is unique to RIT. They call the campus "Brick City", and it is easy to see why once you get there. I found the campus to be pretty unattractive myself, but I don't think people should choose a college based on the exterior of the buildings (besides, for half the year it is so cold most people use the underground tunnels anyway, and they seem to be much more appealing.

My tour guide did not emphasize campus security the way that many tours do, and I didn't see lots of emergency call boxes, but the campus seemed to be very well equipped with light posts for nighttime walks around the campus. Later, when I mentioned this to one of the members of the admissions office I was told that there are actually 90 "blue boxes" around the campus. But most notably, RIT has found a new, modern, high-tech solution to the issue of student safety. RIT students have designed a smartphone app which students can activate and will send Public Safety officers right to their location, even if they move. Pretty cool!

The pool in the Gordon Field House
RIT has 22 varsity sports (11 each for men and women) which compete at the NCAA Division III level, except for the ice hockey teams, which are Division I (and play in a brand new 4,000 seat arena complete with a 100 member pep band). They also have numerous club sports and intramurals, and RIT makes sure to keep their turf field plowed of snow even in the deepest winter to facilitate student participation; according to the school, more than 50 percent of students play intramural sports. RIT's athletic and recreational facilities are very well-equipped, including multiple pools, workout facilities, tennis and racquetball courts, and numerous sports fields. There also seems to be a bit of the quirkiness that one finds on a campus full of smart people; when I was walking back to my car after the tour I passed three strangely dressed young women (wearing striped shirts and tulle skirts) advertising a "prom dress rugby" match the next day.

Images of Ritchie (get it?) the Tiger are all over the campus
Students who are interested in applying to Rochester Institute of Technology can use the Common Application. RIT is somewhat selective, admitting about 57% of its applicants. That said, some majors are more competitive than others. Overall, 95% of students finished in the top half of their graduating class; the mid-50% of the SAT are 1630-1950 (CR+M+W) and 26-31 for the ACT--these are pretty high scores! Please note that 15 programs require an art portfolio to be submitted along with the application. RIT has a comparatively late Regular Admissions deadline of February 1, and after that they have rolling admissions until the class is complete. To be considered for financial aid, parents need only complete the FAFSA. 

I still can't believe this was made on a printer!
It is important for me to emphasize that RIT is not a liberal arts institution. Students who want to take a smorgasbord of introductory classes and dabble in various disciplines would find themselves out of place at RIT where focused, driven student who enter with a clear sense of their future plans are the norm. Students learn deeply about their chosen field, and academic buildings have much more laboratory space than classrooms, emphasizing RIT's hands-on approach. And the lab spaces are SERIOUSLY high-tech. In the space of only a few buildings I saw a semi-conductor lab, a high-end woodworking shop, and a production facility for small cars and aircraft.  In the last room, a motorcycle was mounted on the wall. Our tour guide told us that the cycle was manufactured in the lab--in fact, she said that except for the rubber tires, the entire thing had been printed on 3-D printers!

"What happens when the left brain and right brain collide"
RIT places a premium on students learning by doing. One of my former students is studying
mechanical engineering, but he has also begun developing mobile apps (winning second place in "Tiger Tank", a take-off of tv's Shark Tank). The president of RIT gave my student a $30,000 grant to develop the program and RIT will be the first customer.  RIT does everything they can to encourage students to make a contribution to their field. Every May they host "Imagine RIT", which draws over 35,000 visitors to campus to see the creative output of RIT students. It sounds like a great event, and when I visited (about three weeks prior) there was already lots of excitement about it. According to RIT's President Bill Destler (who is quite popular with my students--they call him "Banjo Bill" for his large collection of the musical instruments), "Imagine RIT demonstrates what can be accomplished when the left brain and right brain collide". In a lot of ways, that is a great description of RIT itself.

A student at the WE@RIT booth in the engineering building
The most popular majors at RIT are engineering, computer and information sciences, and visual and performing arts. Perhaps that explains the extreme imbalance between men and women on campus. At a time when 71% of women attend college the year after graduating high school, but only 61% of men do, it is not common to see a college with two-thirds of the student body being men. With these demographics in mind, RIT appears committed to doing what they can to improve opportunities for women. I met with two of my former students and they said that they felt that the messages of gender equality and equal opportunity were constantly reinforced in their classes and in interactions with professors. The "WE@RIT" women engineering group seemed to have a high profile on campus, and several of the most outstanding graduates (more on that later) were members.

Keeping in mind RIT's approach of practical educational experiences and fostering creativity, the university offers over 95 majors in the following colleges and schools:

  • College of Applied Science and Technology
    • School of Engineering Technology
    • School of International Hospitality and Service Innovation
  • Saunders College of Business
  • B. Thomas Golisano College of Computing and Information Sciences
  • Kate Gleason College of Engineering
  • College of Health Sciences and Technology
  • College of Imaging Arts and Sciences
    • School for American Crafts
    • School of Art
    • School of Design
    • School of Film and Animation
    • School of Media Sciences
    • School of Photographic Arts and Sciences
  • College of Liberal Arts
  • College of Science
  • National Technical Institute for the Deaf
Students can also earn degrees from the Center for Multidisciplinary Studies, and the Golisano Institute for Sustainability.

RIT is also one of a small number of institutions that requires (in most cases) a co-operative or internship experience for all students. A co-op is an opportunity for students to leave the groves of academe and get real work experience (and get paid for it) during their college years. This is a great chance for students to learn more about their chosen fields while also getting exposure to prospective employers and building their resumes. One of my former students did a co-op with Cisco and was offered a job with a year and a half left in his undergraduate career; how wonderful it must be to know that a great job awaits him when he finishes his studies! According to RIT, nearly 95% of their graduating students are employed or in grad school within six months of commencement, and of those employed, over 50% work for one of their co-op employers. If you are interested in RIT (or in co-operative education) you should request their brochure. It lists the requirements for co-ops for each major, and the average earnings per semester for students. This is a fantastic advantage for RIT graduates and appeals to students who can't wait for that real world experience.
Another aspect of RIT which sets it apart is the National Technical Institute for the Deaf. Deaf and hard of hearing students are fully accommodated at the university. According to their website, the NTID provides "deaf and hard of hearing students with outstanding technical and professional education programs, complemented by a strong liberal arts and sciences curriculum, that prepares them to live and work in the mainstream of a rapidly changing global community and enhances their lifelong learning." Every class, lecture, or public gathering features sign-language translators and videos are all close-captioned. Deaf and hard of hearing students can have their own personal translators as well, and anyone wanting to learn American Sign Language, or considering a career in translating, might want to consider RIT.

Rochester Institute of Technology is a very interesting place, and one thing that I really liked was the culture of appreciation and gratitude that they exude. I visited in April because one of my former students was going to receive recognition as an RIT Outstanding Undergraduate Scholar. This is an award given to the top 1% of students in every major; actually being in the top 1% is just the beginning, because the award is only granted following the vote of faculty. The award ceremony took place in the fieldhouse with faculty and administrators parading in full academic regalia preceded by a bagpiper. As each student was brought to the stage to receive their medal from President Destler, the university Provost read a long list of compliments about them written by their professors. When that was done, students were able to shake hands and/or hug their professors. It was a warm, moving ceremony that celebrated the students' personalities and their accomplishments, and the descriptions of each student in the program were impressive indeed. I have no doubt that the best of the best at RIT are truly among the top students in the world.

I will always cherish this certificate
It wasn't just students who were recognized at RIT that weekend. They also had a ceremony for outstanding alumni and one for outstanding staff members (I was so psyched to see that one of the staff members receiving recognition had been a close supporter of my former student). Another really neat form of appreciation and gratitude came after the ceremony you saw above. It turns out the RIT asks each of the Outstanding Undergraduate Scholars to nominate the high school or community college teacher who meant the most to them earlier in life. I was honored beyond expression that my student named me as that teacher. The other honorees and I were brought to Rochester from all over the country (or the world), put up in a hotel and invited to the awards ceremony and to a banquet immediately following. After the lovely dinner (at which students, professors, family and high school teachers enjoyed convivial conversation) the provost went to the microphone and read wonderful tributes to the teachers written by the students while the president presented a commemorative certificate. The entire event was built around the leadership of RIT expressing their appreciation for secondary school educators, and an awareness that we (and the students) were all partners in their success, and in making the world a better place. I am so thankful to have had the chance to be a part of this ceremony and I know that I will treasure this experience for the rest of my life.

This statue is a mash-up of art, engineering and humanities
After reading this post, I think it goes without saying that I enjoyed my visit to Rochester Institute of Technology, not just because of the chance to connect with two wonderful former students but also to get to know the university that has helped them thrive and reach the next level of their careers.  RIT compares well against larger state universities in terms of resources but also provides many of the amenities and benefits (especially financial) of a prosperous private university.  The campus, while not particularly attractive, was very functional and easy to navigate, and it didn't lack anything (though more trees and grass might have been nice).  According to the presentation I attended, RIT guarantees "the best career focused education anywhere" and that their alumni will be "as competitive in the job market as any graduate anywhere in the world". If you are looking for a large, college on the east coast that offers co-op programs (such as Drexel University, or Northeastern University or Worcester Polytechnic Institute) I would definitely give RIT a close look. I look forward to recommending it to more of my own students.