Wesleyan University was the last school that I visited in the spring. Located in Middletown, Connecticut, Wesleyan is considered to be one of the “Little Three” among the leading liberal arts colleges that compete in the New England School College Athletic Conference (NESCAC) along with Amherst College (MA) and Williams College (MA), one of the smartest athletic conferences in the US. I have also collected pictures for a Pinterest page.
These three schools are also among the older and better-endowed liberal arts schools in the nation. They all have impressive lists of “who’s-who” among their alumni bases. They all have resources for liberal arts majors that you wish that your home state university would have. Wesleyan’s most notable athletic alumni include New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick, Marvel film producer Josh Weeden, and actor, composer, rapper and writer Lin-Manuel Miranda, most recently creator and star of the Broadway musical Hamilton.
While these three colleges compete against each other in athletics and they are often cross-shopped against each other, there are differences between them.
- Wesleyan has approximately 2,900 undergraduates, about 900 more than Williams and 1,100 more than Amherst. Amherst compensates for its smaller student body by being part of a Five College Consortium that includes three other liberal arts colleges (Hampshire, Mount Holyoke and Smith) as well as the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. However, while Wesleyan is the largest of the three schools, the student-faculty ratio is only 8 to 1. Student-faculty ratios mean something at liberal arts colleges where most of the faculty are full time and they all teach undergraduates. Only seven percent of the classes at Wesleyan had 40 or more students. Seventy-two percent had fewer than 20.
- Wesleyan is test optional. Amherst and Williams are test mandatory. However, Wesleyan expects every student to have successfully (meaning with excellence) completed four years each of English, History/Social Studies, Mathematics, Foreign Language and Science in the most rigorous courses their high school can offer. Even if a student does not submit test scores, s/he will still need to have a transcript that would draw positive attention at Amherst or Williams, which are more selective schools. But if that student has it, as well as a passion that they can communicate well to the admissions officers, they should not be discouraged if they get below 700 on a section of the SAT. Less than half of the students who entered in 2015 cracked 700 on the Math and Critical Reading sections of the test. However, the New SAT might show higher scores in the years to come.
- Because Wesleyan is called a university it has organized its disciplines: Social Studies, the Environment, Letters (Arts and Humanities) and Integrative Sciences within their own colleges. Each college expects certain competencies of its students that form core requirements. Wesleyan, like Amherst and Smith, has an open-curriculum. There are no distribution requirements that students must complete to attain a degree, only suggested guidelines for students who have intentions towards careers or further education as well as the guidelines of the individual colleges.
- Wesleyan grants masters degrees and doctorates. Amherst and Williams do not. This is an advantage for students who want a taste of graduate-level work while undergraduates or want to enhance their prospects for further education by taking on a graduate program at a challenging school they already know well. The downside is that undergraduates in the majors that grant the advanced degrees must compete with graduate students for the attention of the faculty.
- Amherst and Williams are located in communities reputed to be destination cities. Wesleyan University is not. While Wesleyan students are actively engaged in service in the surrounding community, they rely more on the campus community for social life. Wesleyan is less than an hour from either Hartford or New Haven, but there’s little mass transit to get to either city. By comparison, Amherst is truly a college town, at the very least for being home to Amherst, Hampshire and a flagship state university. Williams is located in a region that has three art museums, including the world-renown Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (Mass MoCA) and a Tony-award winning summer theatre festival. Williamstown, home to the college, is also a very short drive from the Vermont border.
- Wesleyan students will owe more money at graduation. Amherst has a policy of attempting to avoid including student loans in financial aid packages. Only 31 percent of its Class of 2014 had to borrow at all; those borrowers owed, on average, less than $15,000. Williams was similarly generous. Only 35 percent of its Class of 2014 had to take out student loans; those borrowers owed, on average, just over $14,000. Nearly 40 percent of Wesleyan’s 2014 graduates needed to borrow; these graduates owed, on average, just under $23,000. The debt expected of a Wesleyan graduate is not unreasonable. It was $4,000 less than the maximum that a graduate may borrow to cover costs of a bachelor’s degree under the Federal Stafford Student Loan program, and about $2,000 less than graduates of the University of Connecticut, where 70 percent of the students are residents, borrowed if they had to take out loans. But any student who had the opportunity to choose among the Little Three, a school such as Haverford or an Ivy could have used an extra $8,000 to get on with their life after college. This might mean nothing to a family that is prepared to pay a premium for a premium experience, but it means a lot to someone who might struggle to pay down debt within a year after earning a non-science liberal arts degree.
There is a lot to like about Wesleyan University. Wesleyan does an excellent job of housing all of its students, advancing them from traditional (double rooms along a corridor with shared bathrooms) residence halls to suites to apartments or special interest houses. The university is a member of the Liberal Arts Career Network along with 38 other liberal arts colleges whose names you will also recognize. Wesleyan also participates in the Twelve College Exchange Program with Amherst as well as Dartmouth. That gives a Wesleyan student a possible opportunity to spend a year at a school that s/he might have considered before s/he decided to commit to Wesleyan.
I’m inclined to give Wesleyan University A’s on a Report Card for Graduation Rates, Freshman Retention, Costs, Comforts, Curriculum and Connections, but only a B+ for Community.
While the students who choose Wesleyan might want a campus-based experience, they have few opportunities to go elsewhere unless they spend their junior year abroad, at another school in the 12 College Exchange or at Columbia or Cal Tech if they are part of the 3-2 engineering program. Wesleyan University is one of the best liberal arts colleges around. However, it is not one of the best located.