Last week Jill and I visited Smith College in Northampton, MA, one of the few remaining all-women colleges in the US (according to Wikipedia, there are 48 such schools). Smith has some personal appeal to me – my mother graduated from Smith way back in 19xx (I won’t embarrass my mom, but it was sometime before 1969 when I was born). In those days, women had fewer choices, as many elite schools were all-male. Today women have far more options, but I left Northampton thinking that many top female applicants are overlooking schools like Smith when in fact maybe they shouldn’t.
I’ve been counseling students for over 8 years, and during that time we’ve visited Western Massachusetts every summer and we always tour a local area college or two. But this is the first time that we ventured to Smith, which should give you an idea of how we felt (previously) about an all-women’s college (perhaps a tad dated?).
Then we visited. And, our feelings have certainly changed. I would be much more inclined to recommend a school like Smith to any of my female applicants who are looking for a small college experience, a rigorous academic environment and a vibrant community.
As I mentioned, we arrived at Smith (student population around 2,500) with few expectations, and immediately we were delighted with what we saw. Young women greeted us with great exuberance and enthusiasm, expressing their voices with strong identities. It was clear that Smith is a place where girls arrive in order to become women, and by that I mean confident women who are empowered with opportunities for self-expression in a safe environment and without judgment from their male counterparts. This expression can be in the arts, in letters, in political expression, in dress, and yes, sometimes in terms of gender identity. These women will leave Smith ready for life’s many challenges, and based on the performance of its illustrious alumni, I would argue that they are more prepared for the world in front of them than their female counterparts at co-ed schools. Smith demands that its students find and use their voice. It creates confident young women with the ability to think critically and solve problems. Smith grads lean in! Isn’t that what employers want – young employees who can think critically, solve problems and become future leaders?
And for those of you wondering, Smith is not a place where men are scarce. “A man-sighting is not like seeing Sasquatch, with cameras at the ready”, said Patricia Allen (Class of 2012) the Admission Counselor who led our info session. Quite the contrary. As a proud member of the 5 College Consortium, Smith remains the consortium’s most popular academic destination among both male and female students who attend the other 4 schools (UMass, Mt. Holyoke, Hampshire College, and Amherst College). Men are everywhere at Smith, it’s just that women are given specific opportunities for academic, social and political expression. One note on the consortium: Smith students can (and do) take classes, attend parties, use the libraries, participate in clubs, performance groups, intra-mural and club sports and in every other campus activity (except varsity sports) at the four other schools. A shuttle bus among the five campuses runs throughout the day and night.
One other bonus of a school steeped in tradition – students enjoy the benefit of a very engaged alumni group dedicated to helping fellow grads. There are also some distinct and fun, cultural traditions at Smith that pre-date even my mom’s time: 1. Each year on a beautiful day in the fall, the college president rings a bell to mark Mountain Day, canceling classes for the day and allowing students to be free within the nearby wilderness, on campus, in Northampton, or elsewhere; 2. Julia Child Day is held each year to honor the Smith alumna (Class of 1934) with special recipes at the 15 dining options throughout campus.
But wait – there’s more! Although we now think that what we had at first considered to be a Smith weakness (the all-female student body) is actually its greatest strength, there’s a lot more to love about Smith. As a small, liberal arts college Smith offers an open curriculum free of core requirements save a writing seminar for freshmen. The 5 College consortium opens up a total of about 8,000 classes to choose from (in addition to the 1,000 classes offered at Smith). And as I mentioned earlier, students have access to clubs and organizations among the 5, including the ability to audition for theatrical productions at each of the 5 schools. Smith also has an engineering department and excels at the STEM sciences – of course they do (my mom’s a doctor). And Smith is famously generous, meeting 100% of demonstrated financial need… and it has just received a generous gift to support the financial needs of Middle Class families specifically. And Smith is one of the rare highly competitive schools that also offers merit-based scholarships.
The other pleasant surprise from our trip to Smith was our brief stop in Northampton. My expectation was that Smith was in a relatively isolated environment – perhaps a visit in the dead of winter would convince me of that. But Northampton is a vibrant town, with numerous shops, restaurants and cultural establishments. Ms. Allen described Northampton as ” like Austin, TX (her hometown) but with a New England flavor”. In other words, a cool town with a great college vibe and a rich tradition.
Which brings me to some key take-aways – don’t needlessly limit your child’s college options because of either a pre-conceived notion about the campus life, student body or the published (GROSS) price. If you’ve got a child in or planning to attend college in the next few years, you simply cannot afford to put off learning about today’s college process, what you will be expected to pay (and it will be a different number for every family, potentially for every child even within a family), what the school’s graduates are doing, etc. I’m going to be discussing the college process including the financial aid formulas, which assets count, which don’t — and how you can determine your true costs and best fit schools – at my next two classes. I’ll also review the changes to the Asset Protection Allowance, which will greatly affect middle class families.
I’ve been teaching the live class for over 8 years, and parents love it. And unlike college, our classes are free and exceedingly stress-free. You can register for the webinar here.