CornellCollegeDuring your college planning process, I encourage you to ask a lot of questions. Here’s another one for your college planning process. What if you went to college but never had a semester break? And what if every professor demanded a minimum of four hours of class time each day, expecting you to focus on her class only while ignoring all others? If you choose Cornell College, in Mount Vernon, Iowa, this is exactly what you can expect. Here’s why that’s a very good thing.

At Cornell College, Students Focus on One Course At A Time

Aside from the fact that it shares a first name with Cornell University, Cornell College (founded in 1853, 12 years before the other Cornell) is most known for its unique block plan system called “One Course At A Time” (OCAAT). Each student at this private, liberal arts college enrolls in one and only one course for each of the eight blocks that fill up an academic year. A typical class meets each weekday from 9:00-11:00 a.m. with a break until 1:00, and then wraps up by 3:00. Each block is 3-1/2 weeks long with a four-day break before the next block begins, plus time off during the holidays and in spring.

Students gain focus, flexibility and passion for course work at Cornell College.

So why do it this way, other than to be different? It’s not a marketing ploy – Colorado College also employs a block plan – it’s a pedagogical choice (“pedagogy” is the fancy name for “the method and practice of teaching”). The decision in 1978 to move to OCAAT “enabled three distinctive academic benefits to blossom: focus, flexibility, and passion”. The first benefit, focus, is most obvious. You simply don’t have anything competing for brain space aside from the standard college distractions of social life and social media.

Six professors shared their experiences with OCAAT in the Spring 2012 issue of the Cornell Report. Richard Peterson, professor emeritus of sociology, was there when they made the switch and had these observations:

We found that we still assigned texts—books, scores, papers, experiences, what have you—but now we enjoyed the luxury of having extended, uninterrupted conversations about them. These deeper conversations about texts bring us closer to students and the students closer to the text. Writing, too, is still done as a central part of a Cornell education but is experienced differently. The same way time focuses reading and discussing, it also focuses writing. Instead of the long term paper, professors integrate writing and research throughout the block so that these become a habit of thinking rather than an end-of-term project. And, so we learned, we adapted, and we preserved the ideals we all admire and work toward.

That resonates with me, as I quickly discovered early on in my own academic career that the term paper was less valuable (and frankly more boring for me to grade) than a series of shorter writing assignments. In my days as an academic faculty member, as an artist and art professor, I’d relish the chance for my students to get a glimpse into the intensive learning environment of grad school, arriving early in the morning and painting all day.

The flexibility comes in having the time to take an entire class on a field trip without students missing other classes, and in the ample opportunities for internships and travel, without committing to an entire semester.

Cornell asks “How could we do college better?”

What I find most appealing about Cornell is the brave notion that “we can do this college thing differently, and maybe even better”. Academia spends so much time talking about transforming lives and opening up minds to new ideas but can be notoriously resistant to anything that interferes with the day-to-day lives and responsibilities of faculty. Cornell’s response? A simple, “So what?” They did it despite the protestations and continue to do so because it works and is in the best interest of both the students and, according to Professor Peterson and his colleagues, the faculty as well.

OCAAT is not for everyone, as evidenced by the fact that fewer than 1200 students attend Cornell. The other knock I hear when suggesting this campus to students is the location: a small town in Iowa. Some of love Mount Vernon, but it’s not for everyone. The students with whom I’m working primarily live in Wisconsin, so it’s not like I’m steering them from Paris to Ridgeway, Wisconsin. Secondly, Mount Vernon is indeed small (pop. 4500) but it’s less than 20 minutes from Iowa City (pop. 69,000 and home of the University of Iowa) and Cedar Rapids (pop. 129,000). For you Madisonians, Iowa City is essentially Madison without the State Capitol, which is to say it is a great college town.

Cornell College has the numbers and accolades to earn respect among elite and high-caliber peers.

  • Bright kids choose Cornell. Cornell students earned an average high-school GPA of 3.54 and scored 26 on the ACT. Two-thirds of them pursue graduate studies.
  • Cornell is one of only 40 schools profiled in Loren Pope’s book “Colleges That Change Lives“.
  • The New York Times selected Cornell as one of 20 “stealth powerhouses” that are “good alternatives to popular brand-name universities.”
  • Mount Vernon is listed in Arthur Frommer’s Budget Travel magazine as one of “America’s Coolest Small Towns”.
  • Only 15% of students come from Iowa. International students account for 6% of the student body.

Finally, attending Cornell isn’t cheap. But no college is. Costs are in line with similar institutions and like most private colleges the sticker price can be far different than out-of-pocket expenses. For 2012-2013 the comprehensive fees are $42,605: tuition $34,480; room & board $7,900; fees $225. (Note that these are direct costs of the college and do not include the travel and miscellaneous expenses commonly used to factor Cost of Attendance.)

And that’s Cornell College, my Campus Spotlight. It’s not your average school and doesn’t want to be. For more spotlight colleges and to find hidden gems such as this for your student, contact me for a free initial consultation.