Drexel Tour: It’s What’s Inside That Counts

Crossing Market Street in Philadelphia is like leaving one universe and entering another: from the ivory toweriness of the University of Pennsylvania into the gritty realworldliness of Drexel University. The two schools sit directly across the street from each other and the transition couldn’t be more abrupt, like stepping outside Hogwarts and suddenly finding yourself in … Philadelphia. What’s interesting is that while Penn is mostly famous for being an ivy, Drexel has carved out an identity that is less about a collegiate brand than it is about the college experience itself. As one of only a handful of schools offering a work-study model, popularly known as a “co-op,” Drexel’s vision of the future of higher education is more than 125 years in the making.

Inspired by his own teenaged experience working in his father’s bank, Anthony J. Drexel’s idea was to integrate academics with employment, preparing not only minds but also navigating career paths in new industries. It’s a concept that is perhaps even more salient today than it was when Mr. Drexel plunked down some $3 million ($78 million in today’s dollars) to make it a reality in 1891. It was a fairly radical idea at the time, upending the notion that college was exclusive to privileged men pursuing the ministry, law or medicine. More than a century later, Drexel still seems ahead of its time and it’s a wonder that more institutions haven’t “co-opted” the idea.

Unlike most other schools, Drexel runs year-round, in quarterly increments that enable its students to take a full-time, paying job in the real-world for six months of the academic year. Many students find work right in Philadelphia, but co-options can be had in some 47 countries and 30 states. This unusual plan is offered on a four-year basis, in which students take one job, or a five-year program that includes three jobs. The gross median salary per co-op job is $18,044, which helps offset the school’s approximately $50K per year tuition, not including room and board. The value of this is self-evident, of course, and statistically supported by the 96% employment rate of its students within a year of graduation.

We met up with one of our former students, now a Drexel senior, whose experience added yet another dimension to the school’s already impressive reputation. He had transferred from a large, state university, in part attracted to Drexel’s 11:1 student-to-faculty ratio and median class size of just 19. Having completed his one co-op, he persuaded the school to allow him to take a second, but with a twist. Instead of finding employment at an existing company, he launched his own start-up under the aegis of the school’s Baiada Institute for Entrepreneurship, which provides him with workspace, mentoring and other resources. He took us on a quick tour of the institute’s facilities, and it is way past cool, complete with its own 3-D printer. The best part is, Drexel is helping to fund his venture with $15,000. That’s just not a college story you hear every day, or any day.

For all of A.J. Drexel’s prescience, and the remarkable success of the school’s co-op model, this university certainly is not for everyone. It presupposes that the purpose of college is to find a job, a proposition that may not appeal to those who envision scholastics in perhaps less transactional terms. It is also about as urban a setting as one is likely to encounter on a college tour, a mostly stony presence without much in the way of greenery or other gauzy accoutrements of dreamy college campuses. If you visit, you will undoubtedly see the magnificent, Italianate interior of its Main Building (pictured above), home of the Admissions Office. Be sure to see the world’s second-largest biofilter, a five-story cascade of greenery in the Papadakis Integrated Sciences Building, that is said to create the freshest air in Philadelphia. And don’t miss the stunning grand staircase in Lebow Hall, home of the business school, which is designed to minimize elevator use and maximize interactions between students.

Drexel is one of those schools where it’s more about what’s inside than outside. Interestingly, our tour of Penn on the other side of Market Street was conducted entirely outside; maybe that’s a metaphor of sorts for Penn’s 7.5% acceptance rate versus Drexel’s 75%. Clearly, Penn is not for everyone either, but it’s up to you to decide whether it’s what’s inside Drexel that matters most.


Penn Tour: Be What You Seem, Really

Yes, it exhibits everything one would expect at an “ivy league” school: a grand, bustling green campus, suitably majestic and imposing stone buildings, energetic students with laptops and books open, doing their level best to enjoy a relatively warm, early spring day. At a glance, the University of Pennsylvania, or plain old “Penn,” would be right out of central casting if there were such a thing for elite institutions of higher education. We do tend to think of the “ivy league” as a “brand” of extravagantly selective colleges that share a certain, albeit inscrutable, set of attributes.

That may be true only up to a point, as the trappings of elite schools are hardly exclusive to those belonging to this one particular, rarified athletic conference. What’s more, each of these eight academies has its own story to tell, in a voice and with a personality that sets it apart from the others. At Penn, that story arguably originates with its founder, Ben Franklin, who said: “What you seem to be, be really.” What that translates into today is evident in an academic approach that values the sometimes unlikely points of connection between ostensibly unrelated areas of interest, or as the locals shorthand it, “Penn Integrates Knowledge.”

This distinctively Penn storyline quickly came clear during an outstanding information session featuring short stories of student journeys, and how various undergrads allowed their curiosities, and the relationships between those interests, to lead the way to their academic pursuits. For example, Greg’s love of skiing led to a fascination with climate change. He then linked his environmental concerns to his academic focus on mechanical engineering, and how that knowledge might be applied to climate-related challenges.

Penn encourages this type of free-range exploration by urging students to think about what they love before even considering potential majors, and to consider a more holistic approach to studies within the context of their ultimate goals. They are then free to follow their bliss across the full spectrum of Penn’s liberal arts, engineering, and business schools, blowing up the silos between traditional majors. Our tour guide, whose studies span neuroscience, computer science, urban planning and Spanish confirmed that Penn’s omnivorous educational philosophy is more than just talk.

Building on all the above, the admissions officer who led our information session emphasized the importance of the “What do you want to study at Penn?” question on the application. She said that, too often, applicants answer the question generically, as if they simply cut and pasted the same response for every school (because that’s actually what they did). Doing so is almost a sure-fire way to end up in the “R” pile, even if your grades, rigor and board scores are perfect.

Conversely, if one takes the time to study what each and every school has to offer, and explain how that aligns with one’s goals and aspirations, it can be your ticket in. While Penn does not factor “demonstrated interest” into its decisions because it does not want to disadvantage those who cannot travel to Philadelphia, it does give points to those who show that they have taken the time to understand why Penn is a good fit. Ironically, the best — and maybe only — way to do this is to visit the school. It is not easy to glean “Penn Integrates Knowledge” from the school’s website; as central as this story is to Penn’s existence it is buried under layers of online navigation menus. We certainly wouldn’t have fully appreciated its importance short of spending a half a day on campus, seeing and hearing it for ourselves. Wherever you plan to apply, we encourage you to do the same, as it could make make all the difference.

While it’s true that most students will not have the opportunity to attend Penn or another of the “ivy league” schools, the same principles can be applied elsewhere. To that end, high school students might take a more expansive view of their academic interests right now, and think about how to substantiate them during their high school careers, regardless of where they plan to apply. Colleges do tend to favor those who show depth and consistency, but in today’s world that can mean mixing and matching a range of interests and influences to come up with fresh ideas and new solutions.

It’s about more than just standing out; it’s about being what you seem to be, really.


How Campus Visits Alter Student Goals

Chalkbeat: “When researchers asked hundreds of eighth-graders living near Arkansas’s flagship university whether they’d ever visited a college campus, they were surprised by the response. Only about half said they had. The team of researchers set out to see whether getting more of those middle-schoolers onto a college quad could affect their decision making about higher education … Spending time on college campuses, the researchers found, slightly improved students’ chances of speaking with school staff about college. It also seemed to increase the rate at which the students took honors or advanced courses in ninth grade. It didn’t increase the rate that students planned to attend a four-year college, though. The results amount to promising initial evidence that college visits — a common but rarely studied tactic — are helpful for students, while also highlighting the limits of such an approach to fundamentally change students’ aspirations.”

“The study, which has not yet been formally peer reviewed, focuses on 15 middle schools and several hundred Arkansas eighth-graders who volunteered to participate last school year. Eighth grade, the researchers figured, could be a sweet spot for altering students’ paths … Some of the students were randomly assigned to take three trips to the University of Arkansas over the course of eighth grade; the others got only a packet of information about college opportunities … Students who went on the tours went on to correctly answer more factual questions about college and to report having more conversations with school staff about college, though the increases were small in both cases. Those students were also about 6 percentage points more likely to enroll in advanced math, science, or social studies classes in ninth grade.”

“There’s not yet data on how the Arkansas students perform in high school or whether they actually enter and complete college. But the researchers are continuing to study the students, as well as another group of eighth-graders visiting the campus this year.”


U of Delaware: Five Things You Might Not Know

The University of Delaware campus somehow manages to be inviting even in the dead of winter, when most of its palpable energy moves indoors. Precisely because it was a snowy Monday afternoon, and visitors were few, the two of us were treated to a personal tour by five (!) undergrads, each more enthusiastic than the next. That was the first surprise. The second was the five things they told us that most applicants probably don’t know about the University of Delaware. Number one is the the school’s 350-acre, 100-cow, teaching farm and creamery that makes and markets ice cream. The UDairy Creamery not only enables students to learn about dairy production, food science and sustainable agriculture, but also business management and finance. A rotating menu of 34 flavors is available to students on campus and to outsiders via bulk orders.

That UD was the first college to offer study abroad back in 1923 is a second little-known fact. What’s more, UD’s World Scholars program allows students to study abroad during their first semester freshman year, live in an on-campus International House sophomore year and then study abroad a second time junior year. Seniors are invited to networking opportunities with global professionals, and a special symposium. A global outlook is a major feature of the UD community, which relates to our third little-known fact: UD’s Student Center displays about 100 flags representing the home countries of its international students. The flags are changed annually as students come and go.

Number four: Students can take a four- or five-week intensive course during winter break, shoehorning a semester of learning (and credit) into a single month to catch up, get ahead, or perhaps make room for a semester abroad. And coming in at number five, at the end of our tour, is the full, 2,220 square-foot trading floor, complete with Reuters and Bloomberg data feeds, where members of The Blue Hen Investment Club student-manage some $2 million in assets. We didn’t have time to visit Vita Nova, the university’s four-star, student-run restaurant, or stay at the student-run UD Marriott, but both certainly underscore the hands-on ethos that marks UD as a surprisingly engaging school that consistently punches above its weight.


College Tours: Providence & Bryant

Our students sometimes comment that their college campus tours are a blur, that one seems pretty much like the next. This is understandable, given that so many schools tend to cover similar points in their information sessions, and make the same stops during campus tours. Yet, it’s usually not that hard to “hear” what makes a school different, and special. Such was our experience while visiting two Rhode Island schools located fewer than ten miles apart — Providence College and Bryant University — earlier this week.

At a glance, the two schools differ in terms of size (Providence is small/medium-sized, while Bryant is just plain small). They are also different by dint of diversity (Providence is 80% Catholic) and selectivity (Providence acceptance is about 56% and Bryant 72%). What stood out most, however, was the way in which the two schools are similar: They both highlight their heritage and how that informs what they offer, both conceptually and in practice.

Providence was founded in 1917 by Dominicans, whose organizing principle is a quest for “truth.” This manifests itself in at least two notable ways, most visibly in the white-robed friars who roam the campus. Less obvious, but just as significant, is the two-year, cross-discipline course in Western Civilization required of all incoming students that explores human history through literature, philosophy, art and, yes, theology. The goal is to teach students how to think. Our tour guide confirmed that this orientation serves students well no matter their eventual academic focus (he is a theater major).

Bryant got its start in 1863, originally as a business college in downtown Providence. In 1967, Earl Tupper of Tupperware fame donated about 400 acres in Smithfield, RI and the school relocated there. The college later became a university with the addition of a liberal arts school, but its roots in business remains its raison d’etre. The beauty is that students combine business and humanities studies to work towards what Bryant calls a “culture of innovation.” Its spectacular Academic Innovation Center gives the concept a jewel-box of a home, its classrooms featuring collaborative clusters of desks surrounded by walls of whiteboards, encouraging a free and open exchange of ideas.

It’s highly unlikely one would come to appreciate any of this without visiting these two very impressive schools because neither institution’s website truly captures its essence. Providence buries the freshman-year immersion in Western Civilization that may define its key point of difference, and Bryant does not cover the origin story that makes it what it is at all. Admissions officers at both schools did a much better job of telling their respective stories, as did the tour guides (with a special shout-out to senior William Oser at Providence, who was as informative as he was entertaining). If you don’t believe us, watch William’s Vogue-style, 53-question interview with Fr. Brian Shanley, president of Providence College:

Our advice, then, is that when you visit college campuses, lean in and listen carefully. The sound you hear may be that of the perfect school for you.


Student YouTube: A Lens Into Campus Life

Chronicle of Higher Education: “Search any college’s name and you’re likely to see a student-produced dorm-room tour or move-in day video among the top hits … Videos uploaded by college students offer an authentic lens into student life and campus culture, which are helpful for high schoolers looking to visualize themselves on a specific campus … Keri Nguyen, a Florida high-school senior, even applied to a few colleges she felt were a reach for her academic record because of the YouTube videos she watched.”

“Olivia Pongsrida, a junior majoring in sociology at the University of Washington, started her channel in her sophomore year as a creative hobby … Many of these college Youtubers see themselves as unofficial academic ambassadors, well aware of the influence they have on anxious high schoolers applying to college. Pongsrida and May Gao, an influencer from Brown University, have offered to read applicants’ college essays. They interact with the online communities they’ve developed, answering questions and comments on social media.”

“At West Virginia, students in a video titled “The Most Honest WVU Campus Tour Ever” entertainingly exaggerate how great the campus is. The University of Oregon featured random students walking around campus in a “Duck Advice for Freshman” video … But what is most appealing to a high-school audience is rarely found in college-produced content — personal detail and a sense of trust between YouTuber and viewer. College influencers offer up their high-school GPAs, test scores, extracurriculars, even the essay that got them into college. This level of transparency is invaluable to viewers, especially those applying to college.”


The Tower & Girl of UT Austin

UT Austin: “For more than 80 years, the UT Tower has been the academic symbol and architectural emblem of The University of Texas at Austin. The 307-foot-tall Tower … is a commanding symbol of pride on the Austin skyline, especially at night. From its beginning, the Tower has been bathed in a combination of orange and white light to celebrate academic honors and sport victories … Most commonly used, the top glows orange to commemorate regular-season victories or a conference title in any intercollegiate sport, and it stands dark on somber occasions.”

“The Main Building and its tower were originally designed to serve as the campus central library … librarians were stationed on every other floor. They would roller skate to retrieve requested books and send them down to the desk via dumbwaiter to the students below … In recent years, the Main Building has been renewed as space for students. Within the atrium of the Life Sciences Library, freshmen now attend classes in small seminar rooms.”

“Above the Observation Deck are the bells of the Knicker Carillon, which ring on the quarter hour. With 56 bells, the carillon is the largest and heaviest in Texas, with the low B flat 2 bell weighing in at 7,350 pounds and the high G7 a mere 20 pounds … And above the carillon is one final sight to behold, but you’ll need binoculars. The building’s very top is home to a peregrine falcon, nicknamed ‘Tower Girl.’ She is the — ahem — apex predator of the Forty Acres. Tower Girl lives in Austin year round, and this fastest of all animals on Earth can be seen dive-bombing unfortunate grackles, pigeons and other prey.”


College Tour Tips

US News: “The fall months – September through early December – can be extremely busy for high school juniors and seniors … In light of this scheduling load, it might make sense to zip through college tours. Madeline Dyke, a sophomore at Williams College, urges students to do the opposite.” She suggests “that this can include staying in a dorm overnight and sitting in on several classes … attending one or more class sessions, with permission, can inform your understanding of teaching styles at the college or university Similarly, an ‘overnight visit will give students a good idea of the campus culture and social life,’ she says.”

“Alexis Miller, a junior at Indiana University—Bloomington, toured four schools in the fall, including her current collegiate home. She says that it is critical for current high school students to assess colleges with an eye toward the long term … For example, it may be tempting to select the university that houses freshmen in new dorm rooms with semiprivate bathrooms. However, will this ultimately be more valuable than a strong program in your major of interest or access to robust internship offerings?”


Harvey Mudd: STEM ‘Boot Camp’

Business Insider: “Located in Claremont, California is an 829-person liberal arts college that might go unnoticed to the uninitiated. It’s not a member of the Ivy League, nor does it have the celebrity of Stanford University, its neighbor to the north. In fact, if you’re not familiar with the Claremont Consortium, you’ve probably never heard of the school. Harvey Mudd College is a STEM powerhouse. It routinely shows up on lists that rank the best value colleges and, based on median salary, its graduates out-earn those from Harvard and Stanford about 10 years into their careers.”

“Mudd embraces its academic rigor and describes its core curriculum as a ‘boot camp in the STEM disciplines — math, physics, chemistry, biology, computer science, and engineering — as well as classes in writing and critical inquiry’ that it says ‘gives students a broad scientific foundation and the skills to think and to solve problems across disciplines’.”

“Every entering student must take a computer science class, a rare requirement for a liberal arts college. But Mudders must also graduate with a strong liberal-arts background, taking just as many courses in the humanities as they must in core introductory courses in the sciences.”


‘Hotel at Oberlin’ Reflects College’s Values

The New York Times: “Oberlin, like many other colleges and universities around the country, has decided that campus guest quarters, instead of perfunctory, can become pampering places that help promote the institution’s brand and image.”The Hotel at Oberlin “was designed to be one of the most environmentally sustainable hotels in the world. It has earned platinum-level status under the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design certification system used by the U.S. Green Building Council.”

“Even guests who might be oblivious to the hotel’s solar, geothermal and radiant cooling and heating systems might have trouble overlooking amenities that chain hotels would not think to offer for rooms starting at $129 a night.For example, soap dishes in each room are made by a local glassblower. Shampoos and lotions are locally produced and made with all-natural ingredients. And the food at 1833 Restaurant, the hotel’s dining facility, is locally grown as much as possible.”

Mike Frandsen of Oberlin comments: “One of the objectives we had going into this was communicating Oberlin’s core values. So if we didn’t pick out the soap dishes and the picture frames, we did make a conscious decision to work with people who understood that sustainability is something we value here at Oberlin, and a big part of our story.”