Skip to main content

Studying at Grinnell

Let’s suppose that you’ve decided that you’ve decided to study at a small liberal arts college rather than a large university. How should you choose between them? At first glance, many of the elite liberal arts colleges look very similar: All (or most) advertise close student-faculty interactions, research opportunities, strong peers, and a commitment to social justice. So what distinguishes them?

While I don’t know the particular things that distinguish our peers from each other, I do know of things that seem to distinguish Grinnell from many of our peers. This essay is my attempt to present some of them, primarily to aid prospective students in figuring out whether or not Grinnell is for them [1]. Note that this essay reflects my personal opinions, informed by about twenty years of teaching at the College, and not whatever the College’s brand strategy is. You’ll probably see some similarities to the official line, but also some differences.

In my experience, Grinnell empowers its students more thoroughly than our peers do. The belief that we best prepare Grinnell students for the future by giving them power over decisions is clearly reflected in both the individually advised curriculum and our commitment to self governance. I have also heard from administrators who have worked at Grinnell and at peer institutions that Grinnell students are more likely to be involved in conversations about administrative issues, and more likely to be listened to [2].

Grinnell also has a diverse student community. I believe that we are currently about 25% domestic students of color, 20% international students from around the world [3], and 55% domestic majority students [5]. I thought that was fairly normal until I had lunch with a group of guidance counselors who were touring our campus. When I asked them something important they learned, a number said something on the order of Most colleges exaggerate when they say that they have a diverse student body; You actually are as diverse as you say. Why is it important to have a diverse student community? There are many reasons. From my perspective, the most important is that a diverse group of students brings in diverse ideas. You learn a lot talking to people different than yourself. You may not always agree, but you still learn. Encountering difference will also help you as you move on to make changes in the world; I would hope that your experiences of difference would lead you to think more broadly of the impacts of what you do when you achieve positions of authority and power.

On a more practical note, when you work together on projects, having people who think differently often leads to better outcomes [6]. And, on an equally practical note: When you graduate, you will almost certainly be asked to work in diverse teams, and working in similar teams at Grinnell will help prepare you for those teams.

Grinnell has no Greek system [7]. That’s right, there are none of the fraternities and sororities that are part of the mythical college experience. That’s both a positive, in that there are many problematic issues of fraternities and sororities, and a negative, in that fraternities and sororities can provide many benefits to their members (e.g., providing a community) and beyond (e.g., through their service projects). Now, I’ll be honest: The lack of a Greek system does not mean that Grinnell does not have a problematic drinking culture; and that culture is something we are working to address. However, I do think that most schools have some problems with drinking [8]. I haven’t thought enough about all of the broader issues of a Greek system, But I do think that the lack of fraternities and sororities means that Grinnell students socialize with a broader group of their peers.

Grinnell does not charge for on-campus events. That may be confusing, so let me be clear: Students do not have to pay to attend sporting events, concerts, movies, talks, and parties on campus. In fact, almost no one has to pay to attend sporting events, concerts, movies, and talks on campus [9]. As far as I know, the primary exceptions are when we host athletic championships and our conference requires admission and when we show Metropolitan Opera simulcasts. But in both of those cases, the President traditionally finds the funds to pay the admission of students (and, if I’m lucky, faculty and staff). To me, this approach has some strong benefits, most importantly that students’ ability to enjoy these parts of a college education are not impacted by their ability to pay and that the no-fee approach brings our broader town community to events. The disadvantage is that students sometimes don’t value events as much as they should.

Our no-fee events are part of what I consider a very egalitarian culture at the College. I see many instances of the members of the College thinking about how to make access equal, independent of students’ economic status. President Kington observed that the cost of music lessons were challenging to some students, and found ways to cover those costs without much red tape for the students. When we cut access to a social media site through the campus network [10], students were upset not because of the loss of access, but because it meant that the access was limited to those who could afford a data plan on their cell phones [11].

Grinnell is in the middle of fields of corn and soybeans. We are sixty minutes from the nearest reasonably sized cities, Iowa City and Des Moines. Okay, that doesn’t sound like much of a positive. I believe that, of our peers, only Williams is more isolated. Our location carries a lot of downsides. For example, for students who like malls, there are no malls nearby (and not much general shopping); there aren’t many clubs at which you can see live music [12] or museums to explore [14]; and, in general, it’s hard to get away from campus [15].

However, I also see some strong positives from this isolation. One is that most students are on campus or in town most of the time. We are not a school in which students disappear on the weekends. I think having most of the students nearby helps build strong community. As a faculty member, I also hope that the isolation reduces distractions, and therefore gives students more time and opportunity to study [16].

Let’s see … is there anything else? We have close student-faculty interactions, but so do our peers. We have a research opportunities for all initiative, but most of our peers offer broad research opportunities [17]. We send lots of students to study abroad, but so do many of our peers. We value social justice. I hope our peers do, too. We have need-blind admissions [18], but I’m not sure how distinctive that is [19]. We have an awesome mission statement, but I’d also expect that our peers have strong mission statements. We have a lot of amazing campus traditions, including the Mary B. James ball, Titular head (a student film festival), Drag Show, and more. But every campus has its own traditions. It’s not that these characteristics are not key to a Grinnell education; they are. Rather, it’s that they don’t set us apart from our peers.

So, what is distinctive about Grinnell? We empower students. We have a very diverse student body, particularly for a school in the middle of the corn and soybean fields. Campus social life is not affected by a Greek system. And we are egalitarian. There are probably other things, including ones that appear in our promotional literature. However, those are the ones that are most important to me.

You will likely find some of the things I wrote to be positive, and some to be negatives. But I assume that you will find positives and negatives in almost every school you consider. How should you decide? If possible, visit schools and see if you will enjoy being with the people there: the students [20], the faculty [21], and the staff. Consider how the facilities and programs will support you as you learn and grow. Talk to people you trust to help you think through what characteristics. I always find it useful to make a comparison chart, but I know that such charts don’t help everyone.

In any case, good luck with your search and decision!

[1] That’s right. My goal isn’t to convince you to come to Grinnell. My goal is to help you figure out whether or not Grinnell might be a good match.

[2] Students don’t necessarily feel that they have enough of a voice. But the administrators, who are relatively independent, suggest that they have a significantly greater voice here and, as importantly, use that voice.

[3] Our international students really are from all around the world. I’ve heard from some folks that at many institutions, international is shorthand for lots of students from one or two countries; Grinnell has students from dozens of countries [4].

[4] I expect the same is true of most elite colleges; that is the international populations at elite colleges are more likely to come from a diversity of countries than the international populations at more tuition-driven institutions.

[5] I believe the class of 2020 had 25% domestic students of color, 25% international students, and 50% domestic majority students. I assume things are more at the 25/20/55 level, and will stay at that level.

[6] There are a lot of books on the power of diverse teams. You can find a list as easily as I can.

[7] We do, of course, offer Classical Greek as part of our Classics program. But that’s not what one normally means by a Greek system.

[8] Even schools that are supposedly dry still have students who drink. Being dry creates a different set of problems, including the reluctance of students to get help when a peer over-indulges, since there is concern of likely penalties.

[9] We hope that non-students don’t attend parties.

[10] I am neutral about that decision. I think that many students’ use of the social media service violated our campus computer use policies. But I also worry about the somewhat coarse response.

[11] Until cell phone ownership became near universal, students at Grinnell who owned cell phones tried to conceal that fact from their peers because they did not want to seem overly privileged.

[12] That issue is offset somewhat by our lively and free campus events, but it’s still different.

[14] Grinnell’s Faulconer Gallery on campus is an excellent art museum. Many departments, such as Physics and CS, have small museums created through display cases in the hallway. And the contents of the College’s former museum of natural history are scattered throughout campus. But that’s still limited.

[15] Okay, not that hard. Many students have cars and take friends elsewhere.

[16] You can stop laughing now.

[17] That’s not to say that we don’t have some advantages. For example, I’m pretty sure that Grinnell has over 100 students doing paid research on campus each summer. I expect that almost none of our peers has close to that percentage.

[18] That is, we do not consider a student’s ability to pay when making admissions decisions, and we meet full demonstrated need for admitted domestic students.

[19] One of my readers claims that we are one of only three American schools that does our form of need-blind admissions. I find that surprising. I wonder who the other two are.

[20] While the characteristics of student bodies can shift over time, in general, students who choose to attend an institution are usually quite similar to those who already attend.

[21] Faculty tend to be there for the long haul, although you will see some leave and some new ones arrive.

Version 1.0.2 of 2017-01-08.