Marlboro College featured in Loren Pope's Colleges That Change Lives

In an era when college rankings and name-brand recognition seem to drive the search process, many students, parents and counselors may be left questioning the options for a good college match. In a revised and expanded edition of the popular guide, Colleges That Change Lives: 40 Schools That Will Change the Way You Think About Colleges (Penguin; August 2006; 382 pages), former New York Times education editor Loren Pope assures families about their choices and profiles 40 colleges that excel at developing potential, values, initiative and risk-taking in a wide range of students. Pope, the author of Looking Beyond the Ivy League, believes that the college search should be focused on each student's individual learning style and interests rather than on magazine rankings.

In Colleges That Change Lives, Pope describes Marlboro College as “a place for self-reliant persons who are interested in ideas and the life of the mind”. We welcome you to read more about Marlboro College as excerpted from Colleges That Change Lives, and invite you to visit the Colleges That Change Lives website.

Ten years ago I wrote: “Marlboro College, nestled in one of Vermont's scenic hills near Brattleboro, has fewer than 300 students. They design their own programs—a poor idea for most collegians—but if I had $100 million I'd give a third of it to endow this school. There is no other college experience like it. The rest would go to Antioch and Hampshire, where students also design their own programs. Reed and St. John's—where they don't—would be included if they were as needy.”

Today I would change two things. There are 330 students, and I’d give half the $100 million each to Marlboro and Antioch. Hampshire’s fiscal health is better now. Each of these five schools has an ethos of commitment to learning and performance. They turn out the essential leaven of democracy: bold, clear thinkers, people of vision and character. You will find the Marlboro adventure far more intense and intellectually demanding than Harvard, any other Ivy or Ivy clone. There is simply no comparison. Nearly 70 percent of them go on to graduate school, and to the top ones. Nearly 60 percent contribute financially, which puts them near the top of the heap, even though Marlboro alumni tend to be in non-profit fields.

One of the fruits of the GI Bill, Marlboro was founded by returning veterans in 1946. Walter Hendricks, who had been teaching GIs in France, gave his old hill farm to realize his vision of a college where education would take place "mind to mind." He had the help of Robert Frost, Dorothy Canfield Fisher, Ambassador Ellsworth Bunker, and the famed scientist, educator, and regent of the Smithsonian Institution, Dr. Caryl P. Haskins. What tiny Marlboro has given to society in its short life is simply astounding for a college so little known and so little sought after. It shows what kind of young people it draws and what it does for them.

In just five decades Marlboro has produced an impressive array of alumni that includes editors at The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, a newspaper publisher, college and university professors, bankers, CEOs in business, doctors, lawyers, research scientists, artists, and poets.

Even more dramatic are the figures on Marlboro's exalted rank in the production of future scientists and scholars. Only three schools—California Institute of Technology, University of Chicago, and Reed—turn out higher percentages of future Ph.Ds. in the life sciences. Only ten do better in theology and religious studies. Just seventeen top it in math and computer sciences [….]

The founders provided for a self-governing community modeled on the New England town meeting, with everyone on a first-name basis and, as at St John's, with no faculty ranks. The basic tenet is that academic learning is inseparable from the community in which it occurs. Students, faculty, staff, and administration all are equal voting members. The town meeting can even vote down faculty decisions on academic policy, but the faculty can override by a two-thirds majority.

At first glance, Marlboro looks like a homey, old-shoe, nurturing place in the country for someone who needs help, the plain white frame buildings are so informal and the people so friendly. Indeed, in their first life, some of the buildings were barns and a farmhouse. But that impression is deceiving. Marlboro's academic program is rigorous, and someone who is dysfunctional is likely to be hurt. Nor would physically disabled people find the slopes easy to negotiate. This is a place for self-reliant persons who are interested in ideas and the life of the mind. Students here tend to be a year or so older than other college students, and that makes a significant difference in the level of maturity.

Important new things have been achieved in the last ten years. A capital campaign raised $20 million, a $400,000 grant from the Freeman Foundation funds an expanded Asian studies program that brings experts to the campus and sends students and faculty on research trips to Vietnam and China.

A $1 million gift to the DNA lab offers science students new research opportunities; there is a new performing arts center; the size of the library has doubled; and there is a new suite-style dormitory. A new weekly “dedicated hour” brings each professor’s advisees together for problem-solving, socializing, and maybe a sundae. Financial aid has been beefed up as well. In addition to its commitment to help every student who qualifies for financial aid “to assemble the resources necessary to attend,” it offers merit-based scholarships of up to $10,000.

As for admission requirements, if you really want to go to Marlboro and can show the admissions committee in an interview that you belong there, you're in. You will be asked if you really understand the writing requirement and the Plan of Concentration, and you'll be told that the demands are tough [….]

For graduation there are only two requirements beyond the usual one of earning 120 credits with Cs or better, plus a sort of family obligation to the place. The first is that every freshman has to pass muster with a 20-page work of clear writing by the end of the year. Because good writing is mainly good thinking, this is quite demanding. Otherwise, he can have the comparative luxury of taking a variety of liberal arts courses for the first two years. These provide for breadth and for introductory courses to one's areas of interest.

The second requirement is a Plan of Concentration designed by the student and one or two faculty advisers that fully occupies the junior and senior years and involves putting together a whole thesis. It is a focused course of study, but the range and the variety have no limits [….] A Plan may be cross-disciplinary and it often changes, deepens, and broadens as the learning progresses, raising new questions and the need to explore new areas. A concentration in World Studies, for example, requires two terms in two different cultures.

As for the common obligation, one day a semester, everybody pitches in to work on some of the things that need fixing or cleaning up. Indeed, some of the buildings were built by students, staff, and faculty.

Instead of going to a class three hours a week, a junior or senior will meet one hour a week with one of his or her tutors, to report on what has been done, to plan, or to discuss. For example, someone doing a project on environmental science and environmental policy and ecology may be having tutorials with a biology, a political science, an economics, and perhaps a sociology professor. Otherwise the student is very much left to his own devices and self-discipline.

As one girl said, "there is no place to hide." Everything is riding on what she is doing on her own—and on her own initiative. It is a far heavier responsibility and a good deal more work than the conventional way. It takes someone able to go ahead on her own to handle this kind of freedom. It is the reliance on student initiative that separates Marlboro education from one-on-one elsewhere.

The Plan is a heady adventure, one that attracts transfer students to Marlboro, and it is what alumni talk about as their most exciting and stimulating experience. Juniors and seniors were telling me the same kinds of things Reed students did about how rewarding it was to work on their projects or foreign experiences on their World Studies internships. Whatever his or her particular Plan, all Marlboro graduates have proved to themselves that they can define a problem, set clear limits on an area of inquiry, analyze that object of study, evaluate the result, and report thoughtfully on the outcome of a worthy project.

One of the great things about the Plan is that it puts teachers and students on the same side of the fence. The final evaluation of every student's Plan—which includes a three-hour oral exam—is conducted by an outside examiner, an expert in the particular field who may be from Amherst, Columbia, Harvard, Williams or elsewhere, along with Marlboro faculty members. So the student's teachers are being evaluated too. The outside examiners often give better grades than do the Marlboro faculty. A Cornell professor said the one he examined compared very favorably to Cornell's top honors students in English. An MIT professor went further. He said a senior physics major's knowledge of relativity was "greater than that of all but the rarest MIT graduate." Marlboro's physics lab may not be as showy as some at other schools, but in the summer of this student's junior year it got her an internship at the Argonne National Laboratory working on the Hera Electron-Proton Particle Accelerator. A Yale divinity school evaluator called another student's work "quite extraordinary."

The attitudes of students here echoed those at few other places in this book. I have talked to no group of young people more thoroughly sold on what they are doing. Marlboro is a do-it-yourself kind of place, said one, "and if you want something to happen, you've got to make it happen yourself." That's a virtue, he added, because the world is full of people waiting for someone to tell them what to do. Another felt that Marlboro's little democracy gave her a sense of personal power and independence, and "I'm no longer satisfied to leave decisions that affect me up to someone else."

Nor is there anywhere else a more palpable sense of trust and of being engaged in a common enterprise, if one of infinite variety, than at Marlboro. The library is open 24 hours a day and operates on the honor system; nobody is monitoring the borrowed books. The student leaves a dated, signed card in a check-out box by the door. The computer center is also open around the clock.

Not once during my visit did anyone make that frequent small-college gripe that everyone knows your business. That certainly is the case, but here it tends to make people think of the consequences of any action or churlish attitude that is going to be known to the whole community.

The loyalty to the college seemed incredible, and I was told that was true even of those who'd left without graduating. Everyone I talked to spoke with evident interest in their projects and their plans for now and for after graduation.

They also seemed more mature than most, which is not surprising because the average age here is a little higher than at most colleges. These are people interested in ideas, so while they may come expecting to study religion or theater or whatever, they may wind up going to graduate school in philosophy or Russian studies, or even graduate schools of business. The experience has helped them find themselves.

Students also become self-sufficient socially. Marlboro is not even a hamlet. What after the Revolutionary War was a town of 3,000 now has a very good inn, a post office, and about 30 houses scattered about; Brattleboro is ten miles away. So a Saturday evening's entertainment may evolve from someone's bringing music to the student center to an impromptu party with dancing. The college also has a full schedule of imported concerts and lectures by noted people. In the summer it is the scene of the Marlboro Music Festival.

It is not just a conceit that causes Marlboro to use many pages in its catalog to describe individual faculty members as people with many interests in addition to their scholarly ones. One, for example, went to Cornell, got doctorates in divinity and in literature, started Outward Bound programs at Skidmore College and at the State University of New York at Potsdam, had his own wilderness programs, was also a university professor in New Zealand, and is at Marlboro because he loves the outdoors and the kind of place Marlboro is. He is, in short, one lively person, and typical in his enthusiasms and his love of what the college is doing.

Marlboro is an egalitarian place where respect is shown. There is more intimacy in the best sense and more interaction than at other colleges, thanks especially to the two years of one-on-one tutorials. Students are heavily involved in their own education, which is a collaborative effort of student and mentor, with the mentor risking some judgment too. For all the demands, it is a place of relaxed camaraderie. During a mid-afternoon visit, I watched the president and a faculty member in a pickup basketball game with students, and the whole place made me think of an extended family hanging out in shirtsleeves.

Who should come here? First off, one has to be self-sufficient socially because this campus is at the end of the road. It is rural, pastoral, and hilly. Next, one must like people and be prepared to be a working part of a small self-governing community. But above all, a Marlboro student should be a person who isn't going to be scared off by what one professor said: "The more you demand the more you're going draw. We expect a lot of our seniors. People who come here should be interested in ideas, the life of the mind. That's central here. And they must be self-reliant."

That number, like the number attracted to Reed or Antioch, or St. John's or Hampshire, is small, but they constitute a Gideon's army. Gideon, in one of Israel's crises, culled an army of a few hundred from a host of thousands and defeated the Mideanite oppressors. The analogy is apt.

Pope complements his own descriptions of the college above with an additional personal testimony from Marlboro College graduate Edward Augustyn ‘01. “[Augustyn] has provided the best, most vivid account of a college experience I’ve ever known,” Pope asserts, and goes on to say “it will help you decide whether to take this adventure, and it would be wrong to try to summarize it.” We encourage you to read Edward Augustyn’s testimony in the 2006 edition of Colleges that Change Lives by Loren Pope, published by Penguin Books.

Visit the Colleges That Change Lives website.