A Visit to Carleton
A family friend visited Minnesota this week – not to see my little girls or our family’s new house and neighborhood, but instead to visit and interview at Carleton College, 45 miles to the south in Northfield, Minnesota.
I’d been to Northfield on several occasions previously – visiting cross-town rival St. Olaf, actually – but somehow had yet to make it to Carleton, despite the fact that I’ve long held Carleton as among the very best schools in the country.
I normally don’t write blog posts about my visits to schools – I’ve seen enough of these to know what admissions officers will say and see through the overly professional marketing that inevitably happens at these events. In fact, we’d visited Macalester – easily one of my top 15 schools in the country – that same morning, and I’d come away impressed, my extremely high opinion of the college unchanged.
But Carleton was different. Carleton floored me.
Let’s get the basics out of way. Carleton is a prestigious place. It’s been a top 10 US News Liberal Arts College for as long as I’ve paid attention to such rankings (at least 1996 – it’s currently tied for #7 with Wellesley). This means that Carleton 1) has a lot of money, 2) has strong branding and “hype,” and 3) is extremely difficult to get in to. More importantly as far as I am concerned, though, Carleton is one of the Super Five – my own designation for the five colleges that dominate PhD placement rankings: Swarthmore, Grinnell, Reed, Oberlin, and Carleton. As such, Carleton is clearly and unquestionably one of the best schools in the United States.
None of this is new, and none of this was highlighted in the info session or tour (the PhD placement rank was briefly alluded to). And nonetheless, I was floored. Following my visit, I’m leaning towards putting Carleton into a three-way tie with Swarthmore and Pomona for the all-important (please feel my sarcasm here) top spot in Garth’s personal college rankings.
Why? I already knew about the excellence of Carleton, as well as bits and pieces of the college’s culture, and generally thought of it as a smaller, rural University of Chicago. That’s a profound compliment coming from me. But that assessment misses two crucial points of Carleton that struck me as almost completely unique among elite schools.
Those two points: 1) non-pretense and 2) campus-wide interest in sports while maintaining an intellectual campus culture.
I love elite colleges. The ambition and creativity in the air is infectious and the environment as a whole is, to me, more invigorating than any other on Earth. But that “eliteness” often comes with a price. Arrogance. And that gross, old money, exclusive arrogance that is among the least attractive things I can imagine. Even for the down-to-earth, would-like-to-think-of-themselves as humble (including yours truly) students at “elite” schools, many wouldn’t be there if they weren’t attracted at some level to exclusivity as such. To me, this cultural valorization of exclusion is despicable (despite my guilt), and one that is unquestionably prevalent at any top school – even stretching to the top 30+ in US News.
Carleton gave me zero sense of this vibe. In fact, the longer I was on campus and the more Carleton people I talked to, the more I saw Carleton as the school that elite students who dislike arrogance and exclusivity choose to attend. Looking back at myself as a high school student, I’m disappointed I didn’t give Carleton a deeper look.
One of the reasons I didn’t give Carleton a longer look, though, ties to my other surprising discovery. When I applied to schools, I limited myself to four of the elite schools – “reaches” if you will: Williams, Princeton, Duke, and Northwestern. The reasoning is simple: all four of these schools, when compared with their peers at the time, had a strong sports culture. Princeton was the Ivy power in basketball at the time, recently coming off the back-door lay-in upset of UCLA in the Big Dance. Williams was a widely respected DIII powerhouse where everyone supposedly played intramurals. Northwestern and Duke, of course, are members of the Big Ten and ACC, respectively, and alongside Stanford are the only elite academic universities in a major sports conference (I elected to drop Stanford from my own choices simply due to location; I planned to go east for undergrad and west later; and sorry, Notre Dame, Georgetown, and Vanderbilt, you’re just behind in my admittedly biased ordering).
As I’ve learned more about myself and more about colleges over the years, I’ve discovered a trend. Schools with a stronger sports culture tend to be more preprofessional in nature. I’m not saying that Williams, Duke, Northwestern, and Princeton are heavily preprofessional schools as a whole – but they are in comparison with their more intellectual-leaning peers like Swarthmore, Brown, and UChicago. And this is a problem for me. I love the authenticity and learn-for-the-sake-of-learning character of the intellectual/theoretical schools much more than the polished professionalism that the more preprofessional schools exude. But I love sports. The more I’ve looked at schools, the more I’ve doubted whether the two – prevalent sports culture plus intellectual character – coexist at an academically dynamic institution.
Carleton says that they do. Unquestionably, Carleton is a theoretical, learn-for-the-sake-of-learning school, but my conversations on campus on Tuesday showed me the level of enthusiasm for and excitement surrounding sports on campus. Not to the level of a place like Northwestern or Stanford, of course, but far removed from the anti-sports culture that exists at places like Reed or UChicago.
At the end of the day, this relatively athletic and humble, exceedingly intellectual and ambitious student body forced me to reevaluate my own top schools, my playlist of where I would apply if put in the shoes of the students with whom I work. Again, I should reinforce that this doesn’t mean that Carleton should be the top choice school for anyone else – school selection is very much about knowing yourself, knowing the schools, and playing matchmaker – but for me, Carleton is unquestionably on my list now and a serious contender for the #1 spot.
And if you don’t know about the cookie house, you should find out.
I’ll be back.