Three Is Better Than One

Bryn Mawr, Haverford and Swarthmore: The Main Line’s collegiate triple threat.

(From left) Students Annie Mendez, Mary Florence Sullivan and Noah Marks.OK, so maybe it’s getting a little old now. U.S. News & World Report has released its “Best Colleges 2011” rankings, and once again, Bryn Mawr, Haverford and Swarthmore landed in the top 30 liberal arts colleges nationwide. All have made repeat appearances on the list since its inception in 1983, and Swarthmore has never left the top three.

Through the class of 2010, the three campuses have collectively produced 44 Rhodes scholars and are national leaders in Fulbrights. Swarthmore and Haverford boast some of the highest graduation rates in the country, while Bryn Mawr ranks second on Washington Monthly’s College Guide, thanks to its extraordinarily active stance on social responsibility.

Any decent college can rattle off credentials, but what sets these three apart is an academic environment unmatched by any other higher-education institution in the Mid-Atlantic region. Over the years, Bryn Mawr, Haverford and Swarthmore have developed a unique symbiosis that transcends their statistical similarities and geographic proximity.

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“We have key things in common that have been critical to maintaining our relationship with each other,” says Jenny Rickard, chief enrollment and communications officer at Bryn Mawr, which was ranked 30th this year by U.S. News. “We all possess academic strength and common core values, while having our own distinct personalities as separate institutions.”

The Tri-College Consortium is a partnership among the trio that allows students from each school to take classes, share library resources and engage in other activities. “It provides the opportunity to experience a greater breadth of subject areas across the three colleges,” says Chris Mills, director of college communications at Haverford College, No. 9 in this year’s rankings. “Take biology, for example. With Tri-Co, you get different approaches from each school to the same scientific topic, which results in a very rich academic experience.”

The “smallest of the small,” Haverford has just 1,200 undergraduates this year and no graduate program. “Life here is conducted in a way generally reserved for graduate students to begin with,” says Mills. “Students have an active role in managing their academic experience, in which the honor code plays a huge role. Exams are self-proctored and self-scheduled, with the idea being that the honor code is owned and operated by the students. You want to act in a way that benefits the entire school community.”

Haverford also offers an exceptional study-abroad program, featuring two avenues of travel. With the more traditional option, sophomores and juniors can choose from more than 30 locations worldwide. Or students can expand their global awareness and social activism in communities across the world through the Center for Peace and Global Citizenship. “Projects have included turtle studies in sub-Saharan Africa and working on women’s health projects in rural Texas,” says Mills. “Those experiences—while not part of the academic transcript in traditional study-abroad sense—operate as field work for a senior thesis.”

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Swarthmore College is the highest ranked of the three schools on this year’s U.S. News list at No. 3, sandwiched between Amherst and Middlebury colleges. All of its 172 faculty members have their doctorate or terminal degrees, and teaching assistants or lab moderators are never part of the equation. The curriculum—not to mention Swarthmore’s rigorous honors program—relies solely on direct intellectual exchange between students and professors.

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“The honors program has been one of the hallmarks of our college for decades,” says Liz Braun, Swarthmore’s dean of students. “It typically entails students taking two credit preparations in four different subjects. At the end of senior year, they perform an external exam in which an outside professor from another college or university takes part. We want students to be able to express their ideas to any scholar in their field, not just someone who’s been nurturing them all along.”

Also notable is Swarthmore’s Career Development Services department. Just about every college has one, but not every school offers a career externship program in which students live temporarily with a Swarthmore alum, participating in career shadowing and more.

“We’re very engaged in bringing our alumni back, to have them help open our students’ eyes up to potential job opportunities and career paths,” Braun says.

The CDS department also employs advisors specifically for pre-law and pre-med students, in addition to the advisors and peer mentors already on staff.

As for Bryn Mawr, the all-women’s institution consistently ranks among the top 10 liberal arts colleges and universities in the proportion of students majoring in science and engineering. Considering the underwhelming presence of women in these fields, that’s quite an impressive accomplishment.

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“We stand out as being the first of the women’s colleges to provide education for women through a Ph.D. program,” says Rickard. “It’s a testament to our founders that we wouldn’t compromise anything, and we remain that way by virtue of the fact that we continue to offer the Ph.D. program and a graduate program in social work and social research, which is really something unique.”

Indeed, civic involvement and social welfare are top priorities at Bryn Mawr, which was the first college in the nation to offer a graduate degree in social work. “It’s not just about what schools do for students, but what students do for the world,” says Rickard.

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