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Three colleges where students love – I mean, really love – learning

Updated: Sep 16

This article has been edited since its original publication to clarify the substantial changes that have happened at New College of Florida.

At certain schools, students live and breathe learning.

Not just in the classroom, but outside of the classroom, these students are thinking, pondering, wondering, reviewing, challenging, revising, most of the time, even in their heads when they’re alone. They have big ideas for projects and research questions. At these schools, students truly love learning so much that it’s an inseparable part of campus culture.

Why choose one of these schools? Well, “love of learning” colleges are wonderful places to learn how little you really know, and push your own boundaries of what you think you can cram into your head. At “love of learning” schools, you can also fall in love with multiple fields of study and, through challenging discussions with peers who think like you do, pursue interdisciplinary interests, combining lessons from different courses to come to new ideas and conclusions. For this reason, students at these schools tend to have impressive resumes filled with independent research (not to mention, fantastic personalized recommendations from professors) and thus have an easy time transitioning to grad school as a next step.

That’s not to say there aren’t some drawbacks to “love of learning” schools. They’re usually small schools, so that needs to be acceptable. Most students don’t have the mental stamina for all the academic conversations (maybe it’s nice to unwind after class, not talk about the textbook some more) and they can definitely discover a bad fit if they’re not really the kind of student who thrives in this campus culture. Also, these schools prioritize the academic experience over other parts of campus life. So, no, there are no big sports to be found on these campuses. And, since most students are aiming at grad school, career-minded students might find themselves on a lonely mission, without a motivated peer group going through the recruiting process or a robust career services office to support them.

But, for the right student, a “love of learning” school is a hidden gem. Here are three schools in totally different parts of the United States where students thrive on learning:

New College of Florida

EDIT: Since this article's publication, the state of Florida has intervened at New College, replacing the Board of Trustees and turning the campus upside-down. Amid a faculty shake-up, curriculum overhaul, and an abandonment of their commitment to equity, the college is no longer a good recommendation for any student, especially LGBTQ+ students. Students who attend NCF are signing up for an unpredictable experience, at best, and a dangerous one at worst.

This small public college in Sarasota, Florida, is the officially designated honors college of the State University System of Florida. New College is an intimate community, with fewer than 800 students who know each other well. According to the admissions office, even in a boom case, they aren’t interested in growing past 1000 students. After all, they are trying to nurture a community where students can discover questions and chase after them in small classes.

Students are encouraged to pursue independent projects based on their interests. (For example, the tour guide had an interest in zen gardens, so he’ll be traveling to Japan, and when he returns he’ll build a large zen garden on campus.) The study abroad component is common, and New College works with students to help them arrange whatever idea comes into their heads, even if it’s difficult – and even provides travel grants.

Students at New College have a fun opportunity to design and teach their own tutorial courses – serious, fun, or somewhere in between – and professors may even co-teach the course with them.

What’s the social life like here? Students enjoy simple, fun recreational activities, including water activities and swimming at the outdoor pool. Students relax, study, and socialize at the coffee shops in Sarasota, and bringing a car is highly recommended. The student tour guide estimated that, off hand, over 60% of students are non-straight, confirming New College’s reputation as one of the most LGBTQ+-friendly campuses in the country.

The most popular majors at New College change from year to year, but on a given year, marine biology and psychology are safe bets.

Cool fact? As a public school, New College has the lowest sticker price on this list. Not only that, but they offer generous merit scholarships to out-of-state students.

Reed College

Across the country in Portland, Oregon, Reed College has a safe, woodsy, philosopher-in-a-remote-cabin feeling to its campus. Despite its proximity to a major urban center, the campus feels secluded and students are free to bury themselves in whatever amazing thoughts or ideas come to them. Students may be found near the river sitting and reading or taking a test – as Reed’s honor policy allows for students to do this with full trust.

Students at Reed participate in interdisciplinary research project, such as a physics-meets-music project that sought to explain the beauty of music by looking directly at the sound waves. Interesting project posters decorate the walls of most academic buildings on campus, showing what topics students are exploring outside of class.

Socially, students can expect to spend time with an out-there, nonconformist cohort of students who are free thinkers. Students are moderately political, not afraid to challenge campus administration on issues that matter to them. There are parties on campus, small in size but big in personality.

Like New College, Reed is an incredibly safe and supportive environment for LGBTQ+ students. However, unlike New College, Reed College has just under 1500 undergraduate students, making it a small college but still about twice as large as New College.

Last but not least, Reed meets full demonstrated need for students whose FAFSA and CSS Profile show that they can't afford the full cost of attendance.

Bard College

Bard College in New York State is far more secluded than both New College and Reed. However, its 1800 students are kept plenty occupied with a robust curriculum. Nine distribution requirements force students to venture out of their comfort zones and learn broadly; “love of learning” doesn’t necessarily mean total freedom, and happy students at Bard appreciate the structure. It’s a great fit for students who want a traditional academic experience in a community with a “love of learning” culture.

Bard is a collaborative place for its learners. As a cohort, Bard students share moments of discovery and action, including the Citizen Science workshop, which culminates in teaching science lessons in the public schools nearby. Bard students teach tutorial courses of their own design, sponsored by mentoring professors.

It wouldn’t be a “love of learning” school without projects. Students’ Senior Projects are given the full Master’s thesis treatment, requiring the approval of a faculty board.

The most popular majors at Bard are Literature and Written Arts, especially since famous writers like Neil Gaiman and Dinaw Mengestu teach at Bard. However, Bard is also an excellent place to be an artist, and Studio Arts and Photography are also popular.

Bard College is not only welcome to students who love learning, but they have programs that welcome very young learners onto campus, which makes for a diverse and unique set of thinkers on campus.

Bard is full of nonconformist students who generally love left-leaning politics and social justice topics. For fun, students enjoy the school’s 140 clubs, as well as the events Bard puts on. However, social life is contained. New York City is less than 2 hours away by train, but students who need the energy and excitement of a city may be better off looking to Reed.

I love them all! What's next?

If these schools excite your inner learner, start by signing up for their mailing list and engaging with their virtual events. Reed has an engaging newsletter with lots of personality that tries to help readers see “the life of a Reedie.” When you’re ready, ask to speak to real students at the schools you like. Especially with these schools, meeting real students is crucial to figuring out if you’re the unique kind of student who will fit in on their “love of learning” campus.

If you do your college research thoroughly, you'll end up on a campus where you're happy, successful, and thriving -- even if it's not one of these three. Download my completely free College Research Guide to see a list of the best resources for your college search so you know exactly where to start.

Robert Powers (M.A. Johns Hopkins) is the college consultant at College Torch. He is an expert in colleges and the college admissions process. Parents, join his private Facebook group for Parents of College-Bound Students.

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