All east coast college trips should start in Philadelphia. There are dozens of top colleges in the Philly area, and they have at least one of every type of college within a two hour drive. Princeton is an hour away.
If you plan to go to a mid-sized or small-sized campus, you have to visit it to get a feel for the place. The cultures are more subtle and stronger than at the big state schools. The biggest differentiator among the big state schools is the climate and location. But a student's relationship with a smaller school, is, as they say on Facebook, complicated.
Drexel ? (Endowment $687 million) Drexel is a co-op based college in the center of Philly, across the street from the University of Pennsylvania. What's a co-op college? It's a college where students spend a semester or more doing a real job that is related to their field of study. At Drexel for example students can get a job that spans spring semester and the summer giving them from January to August in a job. When I was in corporate America I stopped hiring interns because they were a lot of work and it was hard to get much valuable work out of them in such a short period of time. With a 9 month employee, an employer can give them real work to do. It's a puzzle to me that Palo Alto students apply to Northeastern in healthy numbers but they ignore Drexel. Drexel's brand new admissions team seems equally puzzled and is starting to recruit heavily in Northern California. If a student wants a true co-op experience in college there really aren't that many options.
Drexel is a true city campus similar to NYU, but has managed to create the impression that the buildings form a campus. Our tour guide was a senior graduating in Bio-medical engineering and was about to start a job at a Philadelphia-area pharmaceutical company. For students closed out of the highly competitive program at Cal Poly SLO, Drexel might be an option. Solid students applying to Drexel know they can get accepted, and four years later get a good job. Don't let Drexel's admission rate of 76% fool you. I believe it is a result of doing basically no marketing outside the Philadelphia area and I expect it to get more competitive as the new admissions administration aggressively spreads the word. While I was on the Swarthmore tour, I met a mom whose older daughter was going to Drexel. The daughter had a great dream co-op job in Hollywood and almost didn't return to school. If you are looking for a co-op school in a big city, I suggest adding Drexel to your list, especially if it already has Northeastern on it.
Haverford College ? (Endowment $495 million) It's easy to find out that Haverford is small, highly academic school with 1,100 extremely smart students that is very hard to get into, but it is not until you visit that you find out the most dominate characteristic. The Honor Code. The Honor Code is to a Haverford student what the Force was to Luke Skywalker. It is everywhere. It runs strong through the student body and provides a code of conduct any Jedi Knight would be proud of. Exams are closed book, closed notes, but taken alone by a student when they are ready. They can take the exam in their dorm room or anywhere else. There are no proctors. No one shares the questions on an exam. If your best friend has taken an exam you haven't taken yet, you wouldn't think of even trying to get a hint of what's on the exam. When the exam is over, students do not share grades. No one knows what anyone got on a test or what their GPA is. The grade is between the professor and the student. That's it. There is a student honor council to address instances when a student strays and gives into temptation and cheats. The goal of the Honor Council is to bring the student back into the community. It is focused on rehabilitation, not retaliation. Haverford was founded by Quakers and has an active Quaker life on campus that interacts with the wider Philadelphia Quaker community. This Honor Code/Quaker culture attracts a certain type of student. A student with high intellectual curiosity, with no need to compete to be valedictorian and who doesn't need comparative competition for validation. With 1,100 students like this walking around, the campus gives of a certain vibe. Some students will find the attitude as something to aspire to, other might think the attitude is a little too much. Students thinking about applying to Haverford really should visit to see if the Honor Code runs deep within them.
Swarthmore ? (Endowment: $1.88 billion) Swarthmore was also founded by Quakers, is just a few miles from Haverford, and both are highly ranked liberal arts schools, but I think the comparisons end there. We were at Swarthmore on accepted students day and I even caught a whiff of whimsy in the air. One former students says there is a rumor that an alumnus donated money so that peanut butter could be served at every meal. The admissions staff could not confirm this. Don't let this fool you, though. Swarthmore is one of the most competitive schools in the country and they know it. They have taken steps to ease the transition to the Swarthmore rigor. First semester grades are called "Shadow Grades," and classes are graded Credit/No Credit. First semester students receive written evaluations from their professors and know when they are in over their heads academically. Swarthmore encourages students to take advantage of the many support and tutoring services on campus to get back into the game and be successful. Despite the rigor, the students are not competitive with each other. If you can keep up the pace and depth of the classes you don't have to worry about how the next guy is doing. The students dress like normal college students and I didn't get the elite preppy feel that I expected. I get the sense that for Swarthmore, the West Coast equivalent is Pomona. And it is every bit as beautiful as Pomona, as it sits in a 425 acre Arboretum. Anyone who is thinking Williams, Amherst or Pomona should put Swarthmore on their list.
Villanova ? (Endowment $425 million) Villanova is the alma mater of Stanford President John Hennessy. We arrived early at Villanova and, perhaps providentially, so did Fr. Frank Chambers, associate director of admissions who dropped what he had planned to do by getting to work early to tell us about his school. He stressed the strong community feel among the students of the university reflecting the culture of the Augustinian order of Priests and Brothers who run the school. Academically the school would like to see itself in the same league as Notre Dame, however, the admission statistics put it in the same league as Santa Clara University, both with 49% admit rates and similar SAT scores. Biology and Neuroscience majors have become very competitive to get into. The engineering school admits by major, and doesn't switch applicants to a second choice. Chemical engineering especially hard to get into. The school offers a 7 year BS/MD degree in affiliation with the Drexel Medical School. The campus is beautiful and is located on the main line in a Palo Alto-like neighborhood complete with all the similar issues of getting city permission to build to expand. One final advice for anyone going to Nova who is thinking they might want to get married in the beautiful campus church: There is a three year wait list. Fr. Frank says students reserve the church before they even get engaged. The campus saying is, "First set the date, and then find the mate."
A quick note: We didn't visit officially visit Penn, but did visit the campus. It's a great academic school and many Silicon Valley students see it as the Ivy they might actually get into. But before you start thinking about attending Penn, I recommend you visit. It is a very beautiful campus, but it is an urban campus and with an Oxford/Cambridge look built in the late 1800's. It has modern architecture as well, but like the other Ivies, it does not look or feel anything like Stanford, Santa Clara, Berkeley or University of San Francisco.