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Hamilton Alumni Review
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Finding the Right Fit

by Mike Debraggio

For too many high school seniors and their families, deciding where to attend college is all about prestige and price — try to attend the so-called “best” college for the lowest cost.

A generation ago, however, when many of today’s parents went to college, the decision was more about fit and feel.

“That’s the way it ought to be,” said Hamilton College Dean of Admission and Financial Aid Monica Inzer. “I know the right choice has been made when, after visiting a campus, the student says, ‘I can see myself here. It just feels right.’ That may not be so reassuring to Mom and Dad, but choosing a college is all about picking the one that feels right.”

But how do students know, really know, that they have made the right choice from among all those sun-drenched, leafy campuses with the happy students, erudite professors, spacious residence halls, culinary-enhanced dining halls and state-of-the-art technology?

Colleges can help by identifying those characteristics that form the core of their academic and residential experience. For the past several years, Hamilton has undergone an extensive self-examination, using surveys, focus groups, exit interviews and other assessment measures.

Since 1999, for example, the College has been engaged in a comprehensive, multi-method longitudinal study funded by the Mellon Foundation to assess student learning in a liberal arts setting. That project was recently renewed through 2009. Simultaneously, in the winter of 2005, Hamilton asked George Dehne and Associates (GDA), a higher education market research firm, to survey current and prospective students, alumni, and faculty and staff members. The goal of the year-long project was to identify the areas in which Hamilton excelled and determine if those factors were motivating to the high-ability students the College was seeking to enroll. The student responses were especially revealing.

Questionnaires administered to current and prospective students asked their views on a series of attributes often ascribed to Hamilton or identified by the College’s Mellon Assessment Project as being noteworthy. In particular, the survey sought student opinions on five core attributes: the College’s open curriculum, its emphasis on writing and oral presentation, and the opportunities for students to conduct research and to study abroad. Students were asked if, as high school seniors, they were aware of these attributes of a Hamilton education and whether the attributes were important in their enrollment decision.





The data in Table 1 indicate that students were generally well aware of the College’s five core values, with the curriculum, study abroad opportunities and Hamilton’s emphasis on writing scoring particularly high for awareness and as motivating factors in the student’s decision to enroll.

“The data confirmed what we knew intuitively,” said Inzer.

Differences appeared for “ability to individualize one’s education” and “gaining a liberal arts education.” In the case of the former, alumni who attended Hamilton in the 1980s and 1990s studied under a curriculum with distribution requirements and, therefore, had fewer opportunities to individualize their education. The latter discrepancy about the importance of the liberal arts can probably be explained in light of the pressure many students feel to attend college so that they can find a job. Indeed, according to data reviewed by Gordon Hewitt, Hamilton’s director of institutional research, only about 3% of students nationally attend a four-year liberal arts college.

The “ideal” alumni and students also shared similar levels of satisfaction with the essential characteristics of a Hamilton education (Table 3) and were in agreement, for the most part, in their attitudes toward Hamilton (Table 4). 

In his report to the College, Dehne noted that the percentage of ideal alumni increased from the 1990s to the present. He also observed, “There is remarkable consistency among the graduates and undergraduates who came to the College for all the right reasons and took (are taking) advantage of its strengths.”

“The degree to which alumni and students valued the same attributes of a Hamilton education was an important finding,” said Vice President for Communications and Development Dick Tantillo.
 

Dehne also described the potential “magic bullet” — the discovery that “institutional quality refers to the ‘total experience including out-of-class opportunities,’ not just the academic program. Nine of 10 of all constituencies (except the faculty) surveyed described quality in this way.

“Although we have seen evidence of the interest in a total learning experience in other research projects,” Dehne wrote in his final report, “this is the first time we learned that the ‘total experience’ relates to the students’ and alumni’s notion of ‘quality.’”

He cited the following survey results to support his claim:

  • Nearly eight of 10 alumni were very satisfied (34%) or satisfied (44%) with Hamilton/Kirkland’s concern for the development of the whole person.
  • Eight of 10 strongly agreed (40%) or agreed (39%) that they chose Hamilton/Kirkland to have a total experience that connected their academic, social, personal and residential lives.
  • Two-thirds strongly agreed (29%) or agreed (38%) that they learned as much from out-of-class activities as from the academic program.
  • 95% of alumni rated the quality of their Hamilton/Kirkland education (i.e., the academic program) as outstanding or above average.
  • Dehne also observed that “alumni tended to be satisfied with the College’s delivery of a total experience” and he cited the data in Table 5 to make his point.

Having such a clear and consistent view of Hamilton from among its different constituencies allows the College to speak with one voice in describing its value and importance when recruiting the best students and faculty members, and more fully engaging alumni in actively supporting their alma mater. “These findings point the College in a clear direction for the way in which it ought to communicate with its various publics,” Tantillo said. “The whole of the Hamilton experience is actually a collection of the many individual experiences that span different generations and viewpoints. Together they form the collective voice of Hamilton.”

“It’s a powerful message that resonates among all our audiences because everyone is included,” Inzer added. “Fundamentally, we’re talking about a shared set of beliefs that define who we are as a community.”

Taking the results of the Dehne research and what has been learned thus far from the Mellon Assessment Project, the College sought to describe the Hamilton experience in a way that was both descriptive and compelling for potential students. Four primary themes emerged:

1.    Hamilton’s innovative curriculum
2.    The College’s emphasis on writing, speaking and research
3.    Hamilton’s enduring community
4.    The successful outcomes of alumni

Helping students make choices that are right for them means knowing what Hamilton does best. “Ideally, we want to emphasize the things we do well that will be attractive to the students we seek to enroll,” Inzer said. “Some of those things have been strengths for years; others, like the open curriculum, are relatively new to this generation of students.”
 

 

Open Curriculum

…giving students the freedom and responsibility to chart their own course of study on and off campus with the support of close faculty and advisor relationships.

Hamilton’s open curriculum is both distinctive among its immediate peer group and motivating to high school seniors when making their decisions where to enroll. At least seven in 10 students said Hamilton’s curriculum was extremely or very important in their decision to accept the College’s offer of admission (Table 1), but Hamilton stresses that, with the freedom inherent in an open curriculum, students still must have the maturity and accept the responsibility to plan a coherent and highly individualized academic program.

“Quite frankly, the benefits of an open curriculum would be lost if we didn’t have such strong students academically,” Inzer said.

Equally as important, such a program could not be successful without Hamilton’s small student-to-faculty ratio, a renewed emphasis on student advising and an existing culture where faculty members regularly engage with students in activities outside the classroom. The strength of Hamilton’s highly regarded off-campus programs in Paris, Madrid, Beijing, Washington and New York provide further opportunities for students to chart their own academic path.

“The core curriculum of the past was in some ways safe,” President Joan Hinde Stewart wrote in the Fall 2005 Alumni Review. “A riskier approach was adopted by Hamilton’s faculty in 2000 and has borne fruit. The new curriculum reflects the College’s academic values and is a shining example of a liberal arts education that is at once challenging and flexible.”
 

 

Writing, Speaking and Research

…teaching students to think critically and communicate effectively across a wide range of disciplines

Even with its open curriculum, Hamilton places such importance on writing that it is one of the College’s few curricular requirements; it is also one of the College’s strongest programs. As part of the Mellon Assessment Project, a panel of outside readers evaluated papers that students wrote in high school through their senior year at Hamilton. With remarkable consistency, when evaluators applied eight different criteria to five of the same students’ papers, the reviewers were able to order the papers exactly according to the years (high school, freshman, sophomore, etc.) in which they were produced.

“There’s no question that students’ writing improves at Hamilton,” said Dan Chambliss, the Eugene M. Tobin Distinguished Professor of Sociology, who has directed the Mellon Project since its inception in 1999. Not surprisingly, then, nearly 80% of alumni rated themselves as much better (43%) or better (36%) than their peers in writing effectively, according to the Dehne survey.

“We know with absolute certainty that Hamilton students’ writing improves while at college,” added Inzer. “I don’t know of any other college that can make that claim. Since companies want employees who can communicate well, this is an important distinction.”

Similarly, more than six of 10 of that same group rated themselves much better (28%) or better (34%) than their peers in making oral presentations. Although the College has not had a public-speaking requirement for more than three decades, being able to present one’s ideas orally remains part of the ethos at the College. Small classes, an emphasis on class participation and a growing expectation among the faculty for students to present their results orally have enabled Hamilton to maintain this curricular emphasis. The required sophomore seminar, which culminates with a public presentation, provides another such opportunity, and the establishment of an Oral Communication Center in the soon-to-be-renovated Kirner-Johnson Building will strengthen even further the teaching of oral communication.

Undergraduate research is another way that Hamilton students individualize their academic program, and communicating the results of their research — orally, in writing, or both — is an important dimension of their education. Once largely the province of the sciences, students now conduct research in nearly all disciplines at the College, thanks to multiple endowed funds that provide stipends to nearly 100 students each summer. Of course, much of the work that takes place in the summer continues into the academic year and becomes part of the student’s senior project. Hamilton is so committed to substantive research done by undergraduates that it may have the only program in the country that brings students to campus the summer before they enroll in the fall.
 

 

Enduring Community

…immersing students in a resource-rich environment and a beautiful setting where intellectual curiosity, respect for others, and the sharing of a common experience lead to deep and enduring friendships among students, alumni, and members of the faculty and staff.

As intangible as it may be, first-time visitors to the Hamilton campus often come away with the same impression: there’s a genuine community on College Hill. “Hamilton students are intellectually curious and confident in their abilities,” Inzer said, “but they don’t take themselves too seriously. They’re smart, but they’re not pretentious.”

Some speculate that it’s the shared experiences of harsh winters or the rigors of the academic program that instill a cohesiveness among students, faculty members and alumni. Whatever the reason, students on the Hamilton campus can be who they want to be. All are accepted, all have a place. “I remember when we did a focus group more than a year ago and we asked students which was the ‘in’ group at Hamilton,” Inzer said. “All we got back were blank stares.”

In fact, Hamilton students are accepting of difference. Nearly one-quarter (23%) of the last two incoming classes are comprised of domestic students of color and international students, which compares to only 12% just nine years ago. Similarly, Hamilton takes great pride in being a “school of opportunity,” as evidenced by the percentage of students on financial aid (approximately half), a figure that compares favorably to nearly all of the College’s immediate peers.

More than most colleges, alumni remain a vital part of the Hamilton community. It’s a source of tremendous pride that for 25 consecutive years, more than half of all alumni have supported Hamilton financially — a figure that places the College among the top 1% of all colleges nationally. Equally as important as the financial investment alumni make in their alma mater is the willingness to give of their time, energy and advice to the students who inherit the Hamilton legacy. Hamilton alumni are exceptionally loyal and passionate supporters of their College and of the students and faculty members who currently live and work on College Hill. That support manifests itself through internships, speaking engagements on campus, job-shadowing opportunities and admission volunteers.



The “ideal” alumni and students also shared similar levels of satisfaction with the essential characteristics of a Hamilton education (Table 3) and were in agreement, for the most part, in their attitudes toward Hamilton (Table 4). 



In his report to the College, Dehne noted that the percentage of ideal alumni increased from the 1990s to the present. He also observed, “There is remarkable consistency among the graduates and undergraduates who came to the College for all the right reasons and took (are taking) advantage of its strengths.”

“The degree to which alumni and students valued the same attributes of a Hamilton education was an important finding,” said Vice President for Communications and Development Dick Tantillo.
 

Dehne also described the potential “magic bullet” — the discovery that “institutional quality refers to the ‘total experience including out-of-class opportunities,’ not just the academic program. Nine of 10 of all constituencies (except the faculty) surveyed described quality in this way.
“Although we have seen evidence of the interest in a total learning experience in other research projects,” Dehne wrote in his final report, “this is the first time we learned that the ‘total experience’ relates to the students’ and alumni’s notion of ‘quality.’”

He cited the following survey results to support his claim:

  • Nearly eight of 10 alumni were very satisfied (34%) or satisfied (44%) with Hamilton/Kirkland’s concern for the development of the whole person.
  • Eight of 10 strongly agreed (40%) or agreed (39%) that they chose Hamilton/Kirkland to have a total experience that connected their academic, social, personal and residential lives.
  • Two-thirds strongly agreed (29%) or agreed (38%) that they learned as much from out-of-class activities as from the academic program.
  • 95% of alumni rated the quality of their Hamilton/Kirkland education (i.e., the academic program) as outstanding or above average.
  • Dehne also observed that “alumni tended to be satisfied with the College’s delivery of a total experience” and he cited the data in Table 5 to make his point.




Having such a clear and consistent view of Hamilton from among its different constituencies allows the College to speak with one voice in describing its value and importance when recruiting the best students and faculty members, and more fully engaging alumni in actively supporting their alma mater. “These findings point the College in a clear direction for the way in which it ought to communicate with its various publics,” Tantillo said. “The whole of the Hamilton experience is actually a collection of the many individual experiences that span different generations and viewpoints. Together they form the collective voice of Hamilton.”

“It’s a powerful message that resonates among all our audiences because everyone is included,” Inzer added. “Fundamentally, we’re talking about a shared set of beliefs that define who we are as a community.”

Taking the results of the Dehne research and what has been learned thus far from the Mellon Assessment Project, the College sought to describe the Hamilton experience in a way that was both descriptive and compelling for potential students. Four primary themes emerged:

1.    Hamilton’s innovative curriculum
2.    The College’s emphasis on writing, speaking and research
3.    Hamilton’s enduring community
4.    The successful outcomes of alumni

Helping students make choices that are right for them means knowing what Hamilton does best. “Ideally, we want to emphasize the things we do well that will be attractive to the students we seek to enroll,” Inzer said. “Some of those things have been strengths for years; others, like the open curriculum, are relatively new to this generation of students.”
 

 

Open Curriculum

…giving students the freedom and responsibility to chart their own course of study on and off campus with the support of close faculty and advisor relationships.

Hamilton’s open curriculum is both distinctive among its immediate peer group and motivating to high school seniors when making their decisions where to enroll. At least seven in 10 students said Hamilton’s curriculum was extremely or very important in their decision to accept the College’s offer of admission (Table 1), but Hamilton stresses that, with the freedom inherent in an open curriculum, students still must have the maturity and accept the responsibility to plan a coherent and highly individualized academic program.

“Quite frankly, the benefits of an open curriculum would be lost if we didn’t have such strong students academically,” Inzer said.

Equally as important, such a program could not be successful without Hamilton’s small student-to-faculty ratio, a renewed emphasis on student advising and an existing culture where faculty members regularly engage with students in activities outside the classroom. The strength of Hamilton’s highly regarded off-campus programs in Paris, Madrid, Beijing, Washington and New York provide further opportunities for students to chart their own academic path.

“The core curriculum of the past was in some ways safe,” President Joan Hinde Stewart wrote in the Fall 2005 Alumni Review. “A riskier approach was adopted by Hamilton’s faculty in 2000 and has borne fruit. The new curriculum reflects the College’s academic values and is a shining example of a liberal arts education that is at once challenging and flexible.”
 

 

Writing, Speaking and Research

…teaching students to think critically and communicate effectively across a wide range of disciplines

Even with its open curriculum, Hamilton places such importance on writing that it is one of the College’s few curricular requirements; it is also one of the College’s strongest programs. As part of the Mellon Assessment Project, a panel of outside readers evaluated papers that students wrote in high school through their senior year at Hamilton. With remarkable consistency, when evaluators applied eight different criteria to five of the same students’ papers, the reviewers were able to order the papers exactly according to the years (high school, freshman, sophomore, etc.) in which they were produced.

“There’s no question that students’ writing improves at Hamilton,” said Dan Chambliss, the Eugene M. Tobin Distinguished Professor of Sociology, who has directed the Mellon Project since its inception in 1999. Not surprisingly, then, nearly 80% of alumni rated themselves as much better (43%) or better (36%) than their peers in writing effectively, according to the Dehne survey.

“We know with absolute certainty that Hamilton students’ writing improves while at college,” added Inzer. “I don’t know of any other college that can make that claim. Since companies want employees who can communicate well, this is an important distinction.”

Similarly, more than six of 10 of that same group rated themselves much better (28%) or better (34%) than their peers in making oral presentations. Although the College has not had a public-speaking requirement for more than three decades, being able to present one’s ideas orally remains part of the ethos at the College. Small classes, an emphasis on class participation and a growing expectation among the faculty for students to present their results orally have enabled Hamilton to maintain this curricular emphasis. The required sophomore seminar, which culminates with a public presentation, provides another such opportunity, and the establishment of an Oral Communication Center in the soon-to-be-renovated Kirner-Johnson Building will strengthen even further the teaching of oral communication.

Undergraduate research is another way that Hamilton students individualize their academic program, and communicating the results of their research — orally, in writing, or both — is an important dimension of their education. Once largely the province of the sciences, students now conduct research in nearly all disciplines at the College, thanks to multiple endowed funds that provide stipends to nearly 100 students each summer. Of course, much of the work that takes place in the summer continues into the academic year and becomes part of the student’s senior project. Hamilton is so committed to substantive research done by undergraduates that it may have the only program in the country that brings students to campus the summer before they enroll in the fall.
 

 

Enduring Community

…immersing students in a resource-rich environment and a beautiful setting where intellectual curiosity, respect for others, and the sharing of a common experience lead to deep and enduring friendships among students, alumni, and members of the faculty and staff.

As intangible as it may be, first-time visitors to the Hamilton campus often come away with the same impression: there’s a genuine community on College Hill. “Hamilton students are intellectually curious and confident in their abilities,” Inzer said, “but they don’t take themselves too seriously. They’re smart, but they’re not pretentious.”

Some speculate that it’s the shared experiences of harsh winters or the rigors of the academic program that instill a cohesiveness among students, faculty members and alumni. Whatever the reason, students on the Hamilton campus can be who they want to be. All are accepted, all have a place. “I remember when we did a focus group more than a year ago and we asked students which was the ‘in’ group at Hamilton,” Inzer said. “All we got back were blank stares.”

In fact, Hamilton students are accepting of difference. Nearly one-quarter (23%) of the last two incoming classes are comprised of domestic students of color and international students, which compares to only 12% just nine years ago. Similarly, Hamilton takes great pride in being a “school of opportunity,” as evidenced by the percentage of students on financial aid (approximately half), a figure that compares favorably to nearly all of the College’s immediate peers.

More than most colleges, alumni remain a vital part of the Hamilton community. It’s a source of tremendous pride that for 25 consecutive years, more than half of all alumni have supported Hamilton financially — a figure that places the College among the top 1% of all colleges nationally. Equally as important as the financial investment alumni make in their alma mater is the willingness to give of their time, energy and advice to the students who inherit the Hamilton legacy. Hamilton alumni are exceptionally loyal and passionate supporters of their College and of the students and faculty members who currently live and work on College Hill. That support manifests itself through internships, speaking engagements on campus, job-shadowing opportunities and admission volunteers.
 

 

Outcomes

…cultivating creative, responsible individuals whose reserved self-assurance and independent thinking enable them to be compassionate and confident leaders in their lives and communities.

More than 75% of Hamilton and Kirkland graduates strongly agreed (35%) or agreed (41%) that their college experience “contributed greatly” to their career success (only 2% of respondents disagreed or strongly disagreed). Even with that level of success, the expectation among students (and their families) for postgraduate satisfaction remains great.

Typically, 10 months after Commencement, 93% of Hamilton graduates are employed, enrolled in graduate school or pursuing a fellow¬ship. Oftentimes Hamilton’s alumni network has aided recent graduates in finding their first job, testifying again to the College’s enduring sense of community.

For a college with a relatively small number of alumni (approx. 17,500), Hamilton graduates have made their marks disproportionately in education, government service, business, the arts, entertainment, and, of course, as writers, editors and authors. But more than doing well in their professional lives, Hamilton wants its graduates to be active in their communities. “Alumni do well and do good,” Tantillo said. “We hope we instill in our graduates a desire to be actively involved in their communities and to take action; in other words, to do good works.”

“These are the four fundamental points we want prospective students to know about Hamilton,” Inzer said, referring to the College’s open curriculum; its emphasis on writing, speaking and research; its enduring community; and the many successful outcomes of its alumni. The four points are reflected — some directly, some indirectly — in a succinct statement that appears on the College’s Internet home page: A NATIONAL LEADER for teaching students to write effectively, learn from each other and think for themselves.

Tying together these four key points is an overarching theme, “The Voice of Hamilton,” which seeks to describe a campus community where students come to find their voice, where everyone’s voice matters and where alumni represent the collective voice of Hamilton. “So, if prospective students are truly obsessing about enrolling at the ‘best’ college,” Inzer said, “then we hope they will chose Hamilton because of what we value, what we do well and because our community is the best fit for students who want to ‘find their voice.’”

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