Cornell College Teaches ‘Round The Blocks’
At the start of the pandemic I wrote about creative colleges that use a block plan. Cornell College, a liberal arts college located in Mount Vernon, Iowa, has operated on a block plan for over four decades. The college has a nice collection of YouTube productions on the campus, the block plan and the community. Cornell is also one of the Colleges That Change Lives.
I asked Drew Shradel, Director of Admissions at the college, to tell us more. Listen to the interview now.
Under the block schedule called ‘One Course At A Time’ Cornell students take a single class over 18 days. They get a week and a half off before the start of their next class.Each Cornell College student takes four classes per semester, as students do at most other liberal arts schools. Blocks do not necessarily need to be taught on campus. They can be designed for online and off-campus instruction. It’s possible to study abroad or study away in more places using a block plan than it is on a semester or quarter schedule. Not to mention that you have only one class at a time to worry about while you are home, away or abroad.
Virtually everyone lives on campus, and I saw some really nice accommodations. Greek life is fairly popular here, but the fraternities and sororities are local, and do not have their own houses. A movie producer who is interested in filming a romantic story or comedy in a quaint Midwestern college town should put Cornell on their list of possible locations. If she wants to make the hero an emerging baseball or softball star, the famous Field of Dreams, where the Yankees will face the White Sox next season, is only an hour away.
With fewer than 1,100 undergraduates, Cornell College is a very small school. Colorado College, which has more experience with a block plan, has about the twice that number. Colorado College is one of the more selective liberal arts schools in America. But Cornell College accepted 62 percent of all applicants to last year’s freshman class. This school is test optional. Those who did submit scores had an average SAT score of 1220 and an average ACT score of 26. Those scores were about the same as those for the freshman class at the University of Iowa in Iowa City, only 40 minutes from Cornell by car. The average GPA was a 3.5.
I don’t know if Cornell students cross-shopped their school against their home state university, including its honors college. Cornell’s student body is about 1/3 the size of the honors college at Iowa, which has expected much higher test scores in past admissions cycles.This school has a cost of attendance in excess of $63,000, if you come from outside Iowa. But the scholarships make it price competitive with public colleges.
The block plan, as executed at Cornell College, has some pluses.
- It’s a great way for undecided students to decide on a major, after they have taken the first year seminar. You take the introductory courses in the prospective majors over your first two or three blocks. Then you use later blocks to take a second-year seminar, then the courses required for your major, and your degree.
- The plan works well for majors in Economics, Education, Engineering and the sciences. The knowledge learned in the earlier courses helps you to succeed in the most advanced ones, as long as you get a good teacher in the intro, aka “gatekeeper” classes that may weed out students at other schools. Classes are very small at Cornell College. No class offered in 2018-19 had more than 29 students.
- It will help students who are serious about engineering and the health professions. Instead of juggling two or more courses with labs and classroom instruction, trying to maintain excellence, you have to worry about maintaining excellence in only one.
- All on-campus classes end at the same time, making it easier for coaches to schedule practices for varsity athletes. Over a third of Cornell students participate in 19 varsity sports, including football.
Those who like Cornell College through an in-person or virtual visit should ask questions about the block plan.
It is not the best fit for everyone. While 69 percent of the freshmen who entered in 2013 stayed on to graduate on time, this school loses between a fifth and a quarter of a freshman class. Liberal arts schools have lower retention rates for various academic, financial and social reasons. But I can see Cornell College students having other issues. A small school means that the faculty is small. Those who get off to a bad start with a professor in a block course in their intended major are more likely to see that professor again. I can also imagine students struggling in a class in their weakest subject without the help of a good teacher. But Cornell College students gave their faculty a high rating of 3.94 (out of a 5) on RateMyProfessors.com. They held their faculty in very high regard.
Cornell College has a large number of majors, minors and partnerships for such a small school, as well as collaborative opportunities through the Associated Colleges of the Midwest. The alumni base is large enough to be supportive, if life keeps you within Iowa, or takes you to Chicago, Denver or Minneapolis. I was a little surprised, because two-thirds of Cornell students did not come from Iowa. On the other hand, the school’s uniqueness might also be the bond that hold a small alumni community tighter than it might otherwise be. It helped make them who they are.
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