Monday, September 07, 2009


Most of the time, I ask my first year writing students to write a short diagnostic paper about why they're here at NWU. This weekend, I'm reading them. Okay, I didn't read them this weekend, but I'm reading them today.

So far:

The groundskeepers deserve a big round of applause; many students talk about how beautiful the campus is and say that they decided to come here when they saw it.

It's close to home and not scary. I'm guessing a fair number of our students self-select to come close to home. And the ones who want to study far from home either come here from the other side of the state (some) or go elsewhere. From my point of view, it seems a little stifling or something, the sense that my students really want something very familiar and familial. I remember wanting to go where I could sort of reinvent myself and have a separate life. But a lot of my students seem to want to come here because a sibling is here or went here, or their parents did, or they have family in town, so they've visited and it's familiar. I worry that they really don't want to challenge themselves to deal with new things. Or maybe they want to limit the challenge?

We're quite the financial deal. I understand choosing a school you can afford, but being the cheapest deal around may not make us a good value. There's a point at which you get what you pay for. But a number of students talk about applying to a private SLAC and only after getting accepted realizing that they just can't afford it. (They get financial aid grants, but not nearly enough to make up the difference in costs.)

A couple people have made vague references to the school having a good reputation.

A couple people have mentioned that we have the major or sport they want. Or they didn't get into the major/team at the school they really wanted, so here they are.

Not a single student has mentioned even word one about wanting a liberal arts education or wanting to be really challenged in their education.

I'm guessing that students who are really aware of education to the point of knowing what a liberal arts school is are probably students whose parents are college grads. Maybe they're students who go to private schools because they can afford it or value it enough to go into debt. (Just to clarify: I had no clue what a liberal arts school was even in grad school, except it was what some peers who'd been to private schools called their schools. I went to an ag' school and sure wouldn't have known the difference.)

It's also telling how much influence their parents' educations have. You can sort of see the different ways parents who themselves have been to college handle getting their kids to college. The first generation students talk differently about their choices, and talk less about their parents being involved. (Though they may depend more on a sibling's input if that sibling is older and already in college.) The students whose parents went to college may talk about their parents telling them something about their own college experience or choosing schools.

We supposedly identify as a regional comprehensive liberal arts school, but it doesn't seem to reach our incoming first years' collective consciousness. It's not easy to see if you look at our website, either.

What we do is get them in with the beautiful campus and then try to teach them to appreciate the liberal arts. It works for lots of them. They mostly learn lots here, and do get a good, solid education.

What would happen if we tried to push ourselves for real as a liberal arts school? Would we lose application numbers? Would our applicants change? Would we get fewer first generation students? (That would be a bad thing, I think, because our purpose for being is to serve the students of the state, and there are a lot of first generation students who need us.) I doubt we'd compete with the midwestern private SLACs.


  1. I suspect your student body is a lot like ours, and I've often wondered what would happen if Misnomer U. played up the "you should come here if you're a serious student looking for dedicated professors and an academically challenging environment" angle in its recruitment materials. (Sadly, using the phrase "liberal arts" is a losing proposition, as we're in a part of the country where many of the prospective students think "liberal" is a synonym for "crazy.") Instead, to the extent that we have a recruitment strategy at all, it seems to involve making the place look approachable and non-scary, and I'm not sure that's the right way to go.

  2. Ooo, that's an interesting set of thoughts. I wonder if it's also a factor that they're all assuming they'll get *some* kind of college education, which is usually grounded in the liberal arts. So they're thinking of that as a given, and they're responding to your question in terms of why they chose NWU rather than why they chose college at all. Same could go for their sense of wanting to be challenged... I definitely wanted a liberal arts education and a challenge (though I chose a big state university system), but as a student I don't think I would have articulated either of those desires. "Education" just meant "liberal arts" to me, and I thought of college as the kind of place where you found your own challenges. Had you asked me those questions as a freshman, I probably would have answered that the main factors were low tuition, and that it was close enough to be familiar but far enough to let me be independent. But I really was into the liberal-arts idea at heart.