At the beginning of November I took the train to New York City to attend an Open House at Barnard College, one of the Five Sisters among the leading woman’s colleges in the U.S. Barnard is also the only one of the five–the others are Bryn Mawr, Mount Holyoke, Smith and Wellesley–that is located within a major city as well as the only one that is directly affiliated with a national research university. Barnard students also have the added satisfaction of being Ivy Leaguers.

I’m going to share my observations here. I also made a Pinterest page from the collection online.

A Barnard degree has been a Columbia University degree since the College first opened its doors in 1887. At the time Columbia College, the undergraduate college of Columbia University, had been an all-male school for the first 133 years of its existence. It would remain all-male for 96 more, becoming the last of the Ivy League institutions to formally admit women to its freshman class.

Barnard College is a self-governing institution. It has its own administration and trustees though it is a part of a larger university. It also has its own student government, though the College is also represented within the larger university community. Barnard’s varsity athletes compete for Columbia, making them the only students at a Five Sisters college who compete at the Division I level.

There are nearly around 2,600 students at Barnard as well as approximately 3,000 women who are Columbia undergraduates.  Combining the two–the campuses are across the street from each other–and woman make up around 64 percent of all of the undergraduates at Columbia University. Considering both schools, women make up a larger share of the undergraduate student body than they do at any other Ivy League school. This is quite a transition from the times when Columbia and Barnard were distinct single-sex schools.

During my time at Barnard College I learned that students who apply to that school also considered Columbia more than any other college. Students who chose Barnard were not necessarily considering a women’s college. They were more likely to consider another research university that is located in or near a very large city. A woman who chose Barnard might have also considered schools such as NYU, Penn or the University of Chicago.Wellesley was the most popular option among those who seriously considered another woman’s college.

Aside from Barnard being a woman’s college, it has a different curriculum from Columbia.

Columbia has a 62-credit Core set of courses that every student, regardless of their major, must take. These courses are based on classical texts in the humanities, social sciences and the natural sciences as well as mathematics. None of these courses helps to fulfill a major requirement. Fail one, you take it again. The plus side of Columbia’s approach is that the rigor of the curriculum has been proven–it is more than 150 years old–and widely respected by employers as well as graduate and professional schools. Columbia graduates, admittedly based on the small number I know, truly know how to think, and this Core builds critical thinking skills.

Barnard is moving to a more flexible curriculum, called Foundations. Foundations is more similar to other liberal arts colleges than it is to Columbia’s Core. The curriculum carries over some requirements: A First-Year Writing course, A First-Year Seminar as well as a Phys Ed course as well as distribution requirements with two courses each in Languages, Humanities, Natural Sciences (one with a lab) and Social Sciences. But there are also six courses required in a broader area called Modes of Thinking. These Modes cover:

  • Thinking Quantitatively and Empirically
  • Thinking Technologically and Digitally
  • Thinking through Global Inquiry
  • Thinking Locally—New York City
  • Thinking about Social Difference
  • Thinking with Historical Perspective

The Modes covering Thinking Locally and Thinking Technologically and Digitally are unique to Barnard among liberal arts colleges. The first is important because of the vastness of New York and its place in a global economy. The second is important because college graduates, regardless of major, must be prepared to make better use of computers and understand scientific concepts.

Unlike the Columbia Core Barnard allows individual Modes courses to satisfy either major or distribution requirements, but not both. As a result a Barnard student will have 30 percent of their courses–around 40 credits–in general education requirements versus the Core being more that half of the requirements for a Columbia College degree.

Barnard, however, offers fewer majors than Columbia, and Barnard students must graduate with a Barnard major (with accommodations for majors in Computer Science and Statistics, both Columbia departments). Barnard students can take on a second major from Columbia’s offerings. Interestingly, the undergraduate architecture major for Columbia is “owned” by Barnard.

Barnard is only the second woman’s college that I have visited. Bryn Mawr is the other. If I were to compare the two, I would say that both schools take very similar approaches to developing women not only for careers and further education, but also for leadership. Both communities have the right examples of women as leaders within their administrations, their faculty and their student bodies. They also do an excellent job at preparing women for careers in the sciences. Both practice need-blind admissions and will attempt to meet a student’s full financial need.  Both schools have agreements with co-ed schools. Men take classes alongside women on their campuses.

But there are some differences between Barnard and Bryn Mawr worth noting.

Being affiliated with a research university, Barnard students take a five-course load, as Columbia students do. Barnard students have a choice of more than 3,000 courses from their catalog as well as Columbia’s. Bryn Mawr students, by contrast, take a four-course load.

Also, being affiliated with a research university, Barnard requires applicants to submit ACT or SAT scores. Three of the other Five Sisters women’s colleges: Byrn Mawr,  Mount Holyoke and Smith are test optional though Wellesley is not. Barnard is the most selective of all five, offering admission to less than 20 percent of those who applied to join the freshman class that entered this fall. Barnard’s acceptance rate is about half that of Bryn Mawr.

Bryn Mawr is the better endowed school ($854 million vs. $276 million for FY 2014 according the National Association of College and University Business Officers) and is smaller (1,700 vs nearly 2,600 students).  But Barnard left its 2014 graduates who took out loans with, on average, less than $18,000 in debt, according to the Project on Student Debt. Bryn Mawr students who borrowed, owed average just under $25,000 in debt. Nether school has a “no-loan” financial aid policy. Less than half of Barnard graduates had debt versus more than 60 percent of Bryn Mawr graduates.

Barnard does a better job at retaining and graduating its students. Ninety-seven percent of Barnard’s first-year student continue into their sophomore year vs. 91 percent for Bryn Mawr. Eight-seven percent of Barnard’s class that entered in 2012 finished in four years versus 76 percent for Bryn Mawr. Both schools are excellent performers, though Barnard is better.

Bryn Mawr students held their faculty in high regard than Barnard students who made rankings on Bryn Mawr students gave their faculty of 4 our of a possible 5. Barnard students gave their faculty a 3.8. But it must be noted that Barnard faculty are hired under different conditions from Bryn Mawr faculty. Barnard faculty are likely to have received more scrutiny of their scholarship and research. They are also likely to teach Columbia undergraduate and graduate students. They will typically teach one more class than Columbia faculty unless they receive an accommodation for research or administrative duties. Bryn Mawr does offer graduate degrees. But no one would compare Bryn Mawr to Columbia with respect to the scope of their graduate and professional offerings.

Bryn Mawr is close to a major city, with academic relationships with Penn, while Barnard is smack in the heart of one with stronger ties to Columbia. It is easier for Barnard students to knock on doors than Bryn Mawr students. And it is easier for the brightest Barnard students to take graduate courses while they pursue an undergraduate degree. They are part of the one of the leading research university communities in the world.

Barnard’s room and board charges are slightly more than $15,000, reasonable considering that you are living in New York. Bryn Mawr charges about the same to live in a well-to-do suburb of Philadelphia. Bryn Mawr, in my opinion, has the more attractive, as well as the more residential, campus, though both colleges house nearly all of their undergraduates.

I gave Bryn Mawr straight A’s when I rated the school. I’m inclined to do the same with Barnard.

It is just as accommodating to its students while having the added advantage of being located in New York, a center of so many things.

Barnard might also be the more attractive option for a woman who might want to go to Columbia, but finds the Core unappealing.

If someone were to tell me that Barnard College was the best liberal arts college in the country I  would not argue.

But it helps to have the desire and grit to take advantage of New York City.


2 Comments on “My Time on Campus: Barnard College

  1. Comprehensive, informative and well-written. Thank You. Quick question: My daughter has been accepted to Columbia University and Barnard College (PS2 Science Scholars program). She is definitely interested in majoring in the sciences and is a bit concerned about the competitive culture at CC vs the competitive but collaborative culture at Barnard. Any suggestions? insight?

    • I would prefer a more open curriculum plus the Scholars Program for a science major. It leaves more room for science courses, more freedom to choose humanities and social science courses, and an opportunity to make stronger acquaintances with research-driven faculty. Barnard faculty are also considered to be Columbia faculty, part of the same scholarly network.

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