When It Must Be Boston (Part 1: Wellesley and Tufts)

Many students and their families are drawn to a mecca of collegiate studies:  Boston.  Parents are looking for that “East Coast edginess”, a certain reputed quickness of mind and pace.  Whether Boston students truly match that stereotype is unclear, and, in any event, they are focused elsewhere – they see a lifestyle that few other cities can match.

Boston has four seasons and a cultural life second only to New York.  But unlike New York, Boston is one very large – and approachable – college town.  The percentage of young adults (ages 20-34) living in Boston exceeds that of any other major U.S. city, as does the number of college students per capita (250,000 students).

Public transit is widely available, and even the infamous “T” subway can be tamed by riding it outside commute hours.  Many colleges have their own shuttle services to various points of interest, including other nearby colleges.  For example, Wellesley shuttles its students to MIT to attend classes and for “social opportunities.”  (Did you know that there are frat parties at MIT?  Space does not permit details, but suffice to say that Wellesley and MIT have been linked academically and socially for decades.)

I was in Boston last month to attend the Spring national conference of the Independent Educational Consultants Association, and visited six colleges in and around Boston which might pique your interest.

The next few posts will discuss those colleges, two at a time.


Part 1:  Two From The Elite 

Wellesley College

Single gender higher education has been shrinking over the last few decades, leaving just a few standouts; Wellesley is one of them.

Founded in 1870, this college is just 12 miles west of Boston and enrolls 2,300 female students.  The 500-acre campus and surrounding town are gorgeous, and the school’s $1.85 billion endowment is one of the largest in the country.  With that kind of money, it was no surprise to see workers constructing a new arts annex primarily devoted to the visual arts, part of a complete renovation of campus buildings.

This is an elite college, ranked in the top ten liberal arts colleges nationwide.  As noted previously, students are encouraged to take classes at MIT.  Wellesley is also a member of the “Three College Collaboration,” allowing students to take classes and engage in projects with the Olin School of Engineering and Babson College.  Fifty percent of students study abroad.

Wellesley students describe their academic environment as “very rigorous,” although most of the stress is self-imposed.  These are students who consider a canceled class to be a personal loss.  They have a passion for their work.

Wellesley’s single gender environment is designed to build self-confidence – as one student put it, “the ability to find my voice”.  Being close to Boston, and with shuttles to MIT and Harvard (on weekends), Wellesley is an academic retreat, not a shelter.  Students “can find the party off campus without having to live in it.”  Wellesley is for women who want the very best in their education, and are willing to work intensively to get it.  They use their education and talent to make a difference in the world.

Wellesley is updating its 19th century student traditions to match the tenor of the times.  In early days, graduating seniors in their caps and gowns would compete in a mile long “hoop race” – that old game where children spin a hoop along a path with a stick.  The winner was pronounced the woman most likely to be married first.  That changed in the 1980s – the winner was deemed the woman most likely to become the first CEO.

Now, in a shift which could be grist for a doctoral thesis, the school states that “the winner will be the first to achieve happiness and success, whatever that means to her.”  (Our tour guide stuck with the “CEO” version.)

But some things never change – the winner is still carried off by her “sisters” and “has the honor” of being thrown in nearby Lake Waban.  (That tradition started when the winner turned out to be a male Harvard Lampoon editor who had infiltrated the race.)

The point of such rituals is to instill in students a solidarity which continues after graduation.  Wellesley has a formidable alumni network to enable all students’ ideas of success.  Wellesley refers to it as “the most powerful women’s network in the world.”  (That $1.85 billion endowment is no accident.)  There are ten “active” alumnae in the network for every student on campus.

Most colleges promote their internships; Wellesley offers connections.  The difference can be life-changing.

Perhaps most interesting is that it appears easier for a female student to get into Wellesley than other, equally prestigious, schools.  Because this blog is all about using data to make better college admission decisions, we explore this issue further.

U.S. News and World Report ranks three colleges as tied with Wellesley for the #4-7 best liberal arts schools nationwide:  Bowdoin, Middlebury, and Pomona.

Consider the following “selectivity” statistics of those colleges, i.e., the percentage of applicants admitted (numbers in parenthesis are average SAT and ACT scores):

Bowdoin:             14.9% (1440/33)

Middlebury:       17.2% (1360/31)

Pomona:              12.2% (1450/32)

And Wellesley?  30.4% (1390/31)

Although selectivity is not the best indicator of difficulty of admission, a dramatic disparity among schools is informative.

You may have noticed that Middlebury’s test scores are a bit lower than Wellesley’s scores.  As a group, female high school students earn higher GPAs than their male counterparts.  Co-ed institutions seeking to maintain “gender balance” must therefore admit males with lower scores than the mean, and require higher scores for female applicants.  For example, Middlebury admits 19% of male applicants versus 16% of female applicants.  At Pomona, the numbers are 15% and 10%, respectively; at Bowdoin, 17% and 13%.  Thus, between schools of equal merit, women are more likely to be admitted to a single gender institution than to a co-ed counterpart.

In sum, the odds are better at Wellesley than at other equally prestigious schools.  And that is something to be “cock a hoop” about, indeed.


Tufts University

While Wellesley is a college that is seemingly less popular than its merits would suggest, Tufts may have the opposite problem – it is currently so popular that many students who would benefit from attending will be turned away.

Everybody likes Tufts – just search the web for references to happy students and Jumbo the elephant (the school mascot).  The campus is only five miles from Boston, situated on a hill with views of the area – be prepared to walk up and down a lot around campus.  Boston is very close, but the campus itself is somewhat isolated by virtue of its geography.  Shuttles take students into the city.  Note, however, that only two years of on-campus housing is guaranteed, so students must be prepared for apartment living after their sophomore year.

The key to Tuft’s success in recruiting students is to paint the picture of a friendly, supportive environment populated by a small group of 5,000 very bright students and a team of committed professors who are all kind to one another.  The “cut-throat” environment is said to not exist at Tufts.

After visiting the school and doing my homework, I see the same picture.  Everyone does like Tufts.  It does have a friendly “vibe” on campus.  Even the admissions staff blog – one of the best I’ve seen – tries to “de-stress” the admissions process.

You will also find a fine research university located only five miles from downtown Boston.  Opportunities for multi-disciplinary study abound.  Tufts offers an accredited engineering program, somewhat unusual for a school of its size.  It is even possible to transfer into that program; most universities discourage such transfers.

The university boasts a strong connection with the arts, including a five-year program for those rare students dedicated and talented enough to obtain bachelors degrees from Tufts and the New England Conservatory of Music.  It is not unusual for “Jumbos” to double major in a STEM discipline and an unrelated field, such as the arts.  Like Wellesley, 50% of Tufts students study abroad.

All courses at Tufts are taught by full professors – not teaching assistants or adjuncts – except in the Experimental College, where students help design courses taught by local experts.  And there are a lot of professors:  the student/professor ratio for the university as a whole is a very low 9:1.

Tufts is an elite college which seemingly offers something for everyone – if only everyone could get in.  The problem is that Tufts is so attractive, particularly as a second choice behind the Ivy League colleges, that it is simply oversubscribed relative to its considerable merits.  Only 17% of applicants are accepted, and the mean SAT/ACT scores are daunting:  1435/32.

Should this deter students from applying?  No, but they should know the odds before expending the time and effort to do so.  One admission tip:  pay particular attention to the “why Tufts” question on the application; Tufts has been known to reject sterling applicants who know so little about the school that it is clear that they are using Tufts as a “safety school” in case they are not admitted to the Ivy League.  Visiting the school before applying is a must.

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