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

Size:
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.
Sports:
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).
Deadlines:
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.
Tests:
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. 

3 comments:

  1. Campus Life: 4 Fraternities; 5 Sororities are the current stat.

    I'm glad you enjoyed our campus so much! You really got at the essence of why we love it here as students.

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    1. Thanks for the correction--I updated the blog. And I am so glad that I got the essentials right. Thanks for the confirmation!

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  2. I spent a year abroad at Lyco and definitely feel the Lyco Love :)
    In comparison with German Universities this place has given me not only the best education I received during my studies but also lots of friends, a great atmosphere and incredible experience. I also liked how committed teachers were and I felt very well cared for!
    I would definitely go back there if I could :)

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