First Impressions: Washington & Jefferson College (PA)
At the beginning of August I took a visit to Washington & Jefferson College with Bridget Hotrum, a friend and independent counselor from Western Pennsylvania, who shared photos with me. I also gathered a few photos before my visit on Pinterest.
The history of Washington & Jefferson College dates back to 1781.
Neither George Washington nor Thomas Jefferson ever came to campus or to the local area. However, Benjamin Franklin made a contribution to help found the school’s library. In addition, fifteen US presidents have made a trek to Washington, Pennsylvania, the college’s home, before, during or after they served. James Monroe was the first to come in 1817. Barack Obama and Bill Clinton were the most recent visitors in 2008.
For those who care about college rankings Washington & Jefferson is one of the Top 100 National Liberal Arts Colleges in US News.
It also ranks 13th among National Liberal Arts Colleges in Pennsylvania. The Keystone State has more liberal arts schools than any other state in the US. Washington & Jefferson ranked just behind Pennsylvania’s three Colleges That Change Lives: Allegheny, Juniata, and Ursinus. But unlike those schools, Washington & Jefferson is relatively close to a major city. This and the curriculum, in my view, are the greatest strengths of the school.
Washington & Jefferson is a small school with 1,250 undergrads located in Washington, Pennsylvania, about 40 minutes from downtown Pittsburgh.
This college has tried to strike a balance between the liberal arts, ethical leadership and skill development. It offers 32 majors, 37 minors and seven concentrations that cut across academic departments. There are also structured Emphasis programs within Business, Communication Arts, Computer Science and Music. Students can also work with academic advisors to develop an Emphasis within most other majors.
Washington & Jefferson is one of the few schools that I have visited that requires a student to have a double major or a major and at least one minor. Everyone must gain some practical experience either through an internship or study abroad during their education. The best way to do it is through the Magellan Project, which offers funding to support the costs of that experience. But if you have an interest in becoming an entrepreneur, Washington & Jefferson is one of only two small schools I have visited that has its own small business incubator. Juniata is the other. This school also has an impressive track record with law school admissions, including partnerships with Duquesne School of Law and the University of Pittsburgh Law School.
Washington & Jefferson also stands out by offering accelerated pathways into health professions.
It has agreements with Temple University School of Medicine; the Chatham University School of Physical Therapy; the Pennsylvania College of Optometry at Salus University; and the Chatham University Physician Assistant Studies Program as well as a path to a Masters in Biostatistics at West Virginia University or two guaranteed seats in the PsyD program at Chatham. You won’t find this many partnerships at most other small colleges.
The college considers Pittsburgh it’s ‘true home’.
The college has its own shuttle, the Pittsburgh Pipeline, that will make over 200 trips into the Steel City during the academic year. Washington has the Tanger Outlets and many other familiar dining and shopping options, but they’re not close to campus. It really helps to have access to a car if you like this school. Fortunately, the college charges nothing for a parking permit. Among the 10,000 Washington & Jefferson alumni registered in LinkedIn.com, over 4,100 reside in or around Pittsburgh. If you have not been to Pittsburgh, take a visit for a fall or spring vacation. It’s a really nice city that offers more than any college student would find time to do over four years.
Over seventy percent of Washington & Jefferson students come from Pennsylvania. Most come from the Pittsburgh area, but nearly everyone (92%) lives on campus. Greek life attracts approximately 30 percent of the men and women. These organizations have a “Greek residential block” on campus instead of a long fraternity row.
As far as the college community goes, I wouldn’t argue with the messaging. The faculty and administration has been able to hold the community together each year. Although Washington & Jefferson ls is not overly selective, the four-year graduation rate has been at least 66 percent for each class that entered from 2002 through 2015, according to the college’s most recent Fact Book. It’s topped 71 percent six times, most recently with the class that entered six years ago. That’s a better grad rate than you would find at Penn State, Pitt or any State System school in Pennsylvania.
The re-branding was necessary. The surrounding neighborhood is not the nicest I have seen around a residential liberal arts college and the campus has some aging buildings. Ambiance has probably been a major reason that enrollment has dropped by just over 100 students since 2014, according to the college’s 2019-20 Fact Book.
However, the school competes in 24 NCAA D-III varsity sports, including Water Polo. That’s more than Pennsylvania liberal arts schools that have considerably larger endowments such as Haverford or Swarthmore. But athletics are an important part of community building as is Greek life, the current renovations to campus residence halls and recent renovations to the recreation center and Old Main. I was surprised by how large this hilltop campus was when Bridget and I took our tour.
Washington & Jefferson has an athletic history that dates back to 1883, including football.
In 1922 the college was invited to play in the Rose Bowl and played Cal, aka UC-Berkeley, to a 10-10 tie. The coach at the time, “Greasy” Neale,would lead the Philadelphia Eagles to the NFL Championship in 1949. The current football coach, Mike Sirianni, has the second-best winning percentage of any coach in NCAA Division III football. His younger brother is the current Philadelphia Eagles head coach, Nick Sirianni. The previous coach, John Banaszak, earned two Super Bowl rings as a starting defensive lineman for the Pittsburgh Steelers. The college’s men’s ice hockey team plays its games at the Isoplex at Southpointe, the practice faculty for the NHL’s Pittsburgh Penguins. When you see a college with coaching trees and access to pro-level facilities, believe that they take sports quite seriously.
There are some generous scholarships at Washington & Jefferson.
The college has an estimated total cost of attendance of approximately $63,000 for the upcoming school year. However, the three largest merit scholarship programs cover over half of the cost. The fourth will cover more than a third. The largest, the Thrive Scholarship, requires only a 3.1 GPA for renewal. Admissions have been test optional for some time. But any student with a B average or better can qualify for admission and a scholarship, even without submitting scores. The Magellan Project and the numerous partnerships towards advanced degrees get this school on lists against more selective liberal arts colleges as well as Penn State and Pitt.
Over 80 percent of 2019 graduates had to take out loans to cover educational costs. But the average amount borrowed was $27,000 exactly the maximum they could have borrowed over four years under the Federal Student Loan Program.
Washington & Jefferson’s approach to the liberal arts is a combination of passion and pragmatics. I likened it to Juniata in the sense that the college helps its students to go beyond choosing a major to helping them to figure out what they might want to do before graduation. You would not walk out with “just a Business major,” or “just a Communications major.” Instead you could design the degree around interests and talents while building the resume.
Like Juniata, the academics and career development come together from the freshman year forward, sometimes with an eye towards an advanced degree. Also, like Juniata, among other D-3 schools in Pennsylvania, Washington & Jefferson might be a great place for a student-athlete does not harbor professional aspirations in athletics, but wants to continue in their sport.
You can probably walk into Washington & Jefferson totally undecided on a major and walk out with something good that you never expected from your college education. But you have to get to work and make friends quickly, so you can have some fun in Pittsburgh when you can take a break from the books.
Report Card: Washington & Jefferson College
- Four-Year/Six-Year Graduation Rate: A/A
- Freshman Retention: B
- Costs: B+
- Curriculum: A
- Community: B+
- Comforts: B
- Connections: A (Pittsburgh)/C+ (elsewhere)
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