Colleges that Change Lives

While attending high school, I evaluated colleges in order to choose one to attend after graduation, and developed a classification scheme for these colleges:

My experience as a student at large, impersonal public colleges met the basic goal of becoming a more well-rounded knowledgeable person and being able to navigate the increasingly challenging career world. Being a parent, I've been examining this experience in hopes of providing more useful college choice guidance than I received.

One of the questions about education I've been recently trying to answer is: are there colleges and universities that enhance students' learning experience well beyond "the basic goal", and that are still affordable?

Currently, I learn what I want to learn by reading books and web pages. In college, I often sat in large lecture halls with hundreds of other students, busily taking lecture notes, too busy to be able to both absorb what to me was new material and ask questions about that material, and chafing over having to be patient with uninteresting material. Based on my experience, what benefit would college provide a prospective student over disciplined independent-study practices that would make it worthwhile to pay the price? By not attending college, there's no time wasted commuting to schools, taking notes, or taking exams. Even commute-less web-based college instruction doesn't seem as flexible or interesting or personalized as independent study.

However, what if there was time to ask questions? What if there were professors whose job it was to make time for those questions and to answer them, or facilitate a discussion toward answering them? What if the classes were set up so that interaction was as important as taking notes? What if there were students that were all engaged in learning, in a college community created by faculty and staff whose mission and expertise was in creating a learning environment that would be worth the cost of a college education, and thus would provide more than learning on one's own?

In the summer of 2011, I read the book Colleges that Change Lives (CTCL) by Loren Pope. The author had an over 50-year career as a reporter on education, education editor of The New York Times, a university administrator, and the founder of the College Placement Bureau in Washington in 1965.

I was impressed enough with this book to subsequently read another of his books, Looking Beyond the Ivy League (LBIL), which is less focused on the details of specific schools and more focused on what can and should be the experience of a college student and the attributes of the college that would provide that experience, and what an applicant should focus on when applying.

In CTCL, the author presents a list of 40 colleges that provide this sort of interactive, challenging experience. And, these colleges have been this way for decades. Completely wrecking my categorization scheme, to my great surprise, these colleges combine the best of each of the categories I had developed in my college search: achievement-oriented, small, personal, community-oriented, non-selective, and affordable.

Oriented Toward Meaningful Achievement

If there are any seeming disadvantages to these colleges, it is this: the students must work hard. This situation becomes a deficiency only when students are wasting their time with demoralizing busywork that is soon to be forgotten after receiving grades and diplomas. These colleges seem to create environments in which students work hard toward achieving meaningful goals and end up appreciative of their efforts and memorable experiences and achievements there.

The author presents numerous cases where students produce notable achievements regardless of their standing or level of achievement upon entry. There are numerous reports of undergraduate students authoring scientific papers. A number of these colleges regularly have a 100% acceptance rate into medical school of those graduates who apply.


One of the chapters in LBIL is entitled Why Small is Best. The author says that student bodies much larger than 3200 "dilute the sense of community". This seems to work for faculty as well as students, where both sets of community members benefit from the small size of these colleges.


The dean of one of the colleges says:

"Our faculty is so dedicated they work with each student whether or not they have that spark. We look for students we can inspire and teach. We feel much more gratified when rough students blossom. This is a nurturing climate: three kids who were not impressive to begin with are now on the faculties at Harvard, Wisconsin, and Notre Dame."

This faculty involvement in each student personally is a common characteristic of these colleges, according to the author.

One of the statistics that the author presented for many of the schools (and that I found amazing) was the answer to the following question asked of numerous graduates 10 years after they graduated:

"If you were going to spend a night in your college town, would you feel comfortable visiting a faculty member by going out to dinner with them or staying at their home?"

Uniformly, the answers of the graduates of these colleges were definite and in the affirmative. The only difficulty expressed was by one student who said that it would be hard to choose only one faculty member of the many with whom he developed connections.


These colleges each create a unique community of students, faculty, and staff, to the benefit of all, making the college experience more meaningful than just filling students heads with facts. Students apparently have a lot of input in these communities. There appears to be a lot of cooperation among students, and an attitude of allowing everyone to excel in their own way rather than enforcing competition.


My favorite quotes about lack of selectivity were:

"We're about as selective as a pickup baseball team. All we want are kids who read and can do a little mathematics."

This quote is from a representative of a college that accepts 80 to 85 percent of its applicants, where only 20 or 30 percent of the accepted students are in the top 10 percent of their high school classes, but graduate with 80 percent continuing in graduate school, medical school, or law school.


"Regardless of where a kid comes from, we can take him somewhere."

This quote is from a chemistry professor at a college that accepts 80 percent of its applicants, with an average SAT score of 1200, and is one of the top 50 producers of the nation's future scientists (apparently according to National Resources Council's surveys or the National Science Foundation, whom the author cites for other similar statistics about other colleges in the book), and one of the few that has a 3-2 engineering program with Caltech.

Also, rather than having to apply the previous fall or miss out on attending the following fall, many of these colleges evaluate applications as they come in, so the pressure of application deadlines is greatly reduced. It seems to be more important to these colleges that prior to applying the student takes the time to investigate the college and decides it is a good choice.

There were also lots of encouraging comments about students with low high school grades and learning disabilities doing well at these colleges. One of the chapters in CTCL is entitled Today's Learning Disabled will be Tomorrow's Gifted.


There appears to be lots of merit-based and need-based financial aid available at these colleges, enough to avoid the fear of being burdened later by having to pay off loans taken during an overly-expensive college experience. Although, it remains to be seen if affordability will continue given the world economy's current struggles; these books were last updated in the mid-2000's, when the economy at least appeared to be in much better shape.

Summary Comments

CTCL's first chapter is entitled Relax! Your Future is Assured!. This summary phrase is the sense these books communicate: an applicant does not need to worry about padding one's resume with activities and achievement thought to appeal to some faceless admissions committee, but instead should continue to pursue a challenging education and personal interests and upon graduation from high school it will be easy to find a compatible college that will be worth the effort and expense. Also, the applicant doesn't need to choose a major that seems to offer a clear route to making money or developing a career; these colleges all offer general liberal arts educations, and their graduates are successful.

The author seems to be on a crusade against undergraduate education at Ivy League colleges, calling them "gyp joints for the undergraduate". He supports his frequently-repeated assertions with relevant statistics and quotes, including one by a Princeton faculty member in 2005: "I fear that liberal education in the research universities ... is a project in ruins". After reading both books by this author, I now believe he feels he must work that hard in repeating his message to break people free of their fears that their college investment will be a waste if it isn't spent at an Ivy League college.

There is a web site associated with the CTCL book.

I think these books would be best read by first reading LBIL to get an orientation toward how to approach a college search, then by reading CTCL to learn much more detail about this set of 40 colleges.