Getting To Know: Sarah Lawrence College (NY)
Sarah Lawrence College got on my radar thanks to a recent briefing for college advisors. This school was founded as a women’s junior college in 1926, and became a four-year women’s college in 1931. The college went co-ed in 1968, after declining an opportunity to merge with Princeton the year before. Sarah Lawrence College is located in Bronxville, New York, only 35 minutes by train from The Big Apple. The college even provides a shuttle into the city that drops students off at the Metropolitan Museum of Art! The college was founded by William Van Duzer Lawrence, an entrepreneur who donated his estate to the founding of a women’s junior college upon the death of his wife, Sarah Bates Lawrence. Legendary journalist Barbara Walters, award-winning actor Julianna Margulies, former White House Chief of Staff and Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel and director J.J. Abrams are among this college’s distinguished alumni.
I collected a few photos of this beautiful campus for you. From a virtual distance, the campus appears to be a perfect place for a writing workshop or corporate retreat, with a mix of small houses and modern buildings. However, when I watched student-directed tours of their residences, I felt that their homes away from home were showing their age. But I also saw rooms with picture windows, cozy living rooms and other amenities that you will not see in most college residence halls. There’s a “cozy lived in” look to the student center and residence hall lunges that I don’t see at other schools, as if a home is really a really home vs. a place where you live until you go home for breaks or the summer.
Sarah Lawrence’s educational model borrows from old, but proven, educational practices
Classes are a mix of small group seminars, lectures and one-to-one tutorials. A Donning System matches each student with a faculty advisor to help guide them through each year of their education. This is much like you will find at St. John’s College (MD & NM) which I reviewed last year. These student-faculty relationships work well when they’re strong and interests align. If they work poorly a student could end up leaving. But the most recent freshman retention rate that I found was 88 percent, excellent for a liberal arts college. The educational model appears to work for most Sarah Lawrence students. Two-thirds of the freshmen who entered in 2013 and 2015 graduated in four years, quite good for any private liberal arts college.
Students take three courses a term, some carry five credits over one semester, others ten credits over two. Each class has “conference work,” which can be research papers or projects. This is much like taking two classes within one or like being in graduate school instead of an undergraduate college. Students receive written evaluations. The written evaluation is a preparation for real life where you are evaluated by an immediate superior, an independent reviewer or expressions of public opinion. But they also have a traditional transcript at the end of their four years to submit to graduate schools, employers, etc. Much of the focus when thinking about a student’s success in a course is on the written evaluation but the grades are there as well.
Sarah Lawrence also borrows from the new with a relatively open curriculum.
Within an open curriculum there are no formal course requirements; in some cases, like Brown, there are no requirements at all. It takes an intellectually mature person to understand how courses in different departments could support a career objective. From a virtual distance, I thought that was an important purpose of the Donning System. But the dons need to know their faculty colleagues well enough to be an effective advisor. It’s quite possible that every student the don advises will have their own unique interests.
There are no formal majors at Sarah Lawrence, but there are over 50 disciplines within four areas of study.Sarah Lawrence students have no specific requirements. But they must take at least one course in three of the four areas of study: Humanities, History and the Social Sciences, Natural Sciences and Mathematics, and Creative and Performing Arts. Beyond this requirement, students have total freedom to choose their classes, as long they have taken any pre-requisites.
There are even more learning opportunities at Sarah Lawrence
Like most small liberal arts colleges Sarah Lawrence has:
- independent study options for juniors and seniors, research opportunities
- Internships for credit combined with fieldwork, an independent study project with a faculty member
- Study abroad–including the only program offered by an American college in Cuba
- A senior thesis; this is one-third of the senior year course load
There is considerable freedom and flexibility to design an education. But there is a much smaller number of courses within each discipline than you would find at schools that have more traditional majors and degree requirements. I also felt that the expectations to write and speak well would be higher at Sarah Lawrence due to the small classes sizes and the conference work. If you hate writing or wish to hide among the crowd at a lecture, choose another school.
Who fits best within Sarah Lawrence College?
From a virtual distance I felt that Sarah Lawrence attracts bright, creative individuals, who might or might not be experienced in being part of groups. I heard a phrase “to Sarah Lawrence.” I took this to mean that some try to impress others with their creativity or intellect, not caring about the opinions or feelings of others. However, I also felt that a talented loner in high school with an open mind might meet others with similar talents and interests. Sarah Lawrence College does not appear to bond around traditions, but might bond around shared struggles with the workload or similar interests outside of classes. There are NCAA D-3 athletic teams and various arts and identity groups that you will find at other schools. But no one group appears to dominate the campus culture.
This is one place where I recommend two visits, one to gather first impressions, the other to confirm or refute them after receiving an acceptance. I would also suggest speaking with alumni in your area. Sarah Lawrence has over 6,000 alumni registered in LinkedIn.com who are based in or near New York City. However the communities in Los Angeles (900), San Francisco (750), Boston (600) and Washington DC (400) are large considering the small size of the college.
The Sarah Lawrence experience is quite expensive.
Last year the estimated cost of attendance–tuition and fees, room and board, books was over $77,000 according to College Navigator. However, 90 percent of the freshmen who entered in 2020 received scholarships to help lower costs. These averaged $35,000.
Interestingly, less than half of the student body in 2020-21 had to take out loans. When I see numbers like this, I have to believe that most of the students had the resources to come, or had more resources than they would need to cover an education at Home State U or Neighboring State U. Over 70 percent of the student body comes from outside New York, where education at state colleges and universities is less expensive than most other states.
Sarah Lawrence is a great school for a person who comes to college with an idea that they would like to become a reality, even if is not tied to a major. Such ideas might be a research interest, a film or play, a manuscript, even a business plan. I also felt that a prospective student should have an interest in exploring New York City. Bronxville is a nice place to get a cup of coffee or a meal off campus (Full disclosure–my brother lived there for a time). But it does not have the amenities that I have seen in a community such as Saratoga Springs, home to Skidmore College, also in New York. However, a bright and creative student who is open to different people and viewpoints could have a rewarding experience at Sarah Lawrence.
Report Card-Sarah Lawrence College
- Four-Year/Six-Year Graduation Rates: A/A
- Freshman Retention: A
- Costs: B
- Curriculum: A
- Community: B+
- Comforts: B
- Connections: A (NYC)/B (LA, SF, DC, Boston)/C (elsewhere)
I’m taking next week off from posting, but will be back with more School Profiles. Check out past Profiles and College Insights!
Listen to my talk, What Exactly Is a Good College? hosted by test-prep experts Amy Seeley and Mike Bergin on Tests And The Rest!
Listen to my talk, College Is A Learning AND Living Community hosted by Dr. Cynthia Colon from Destination YOUniversity on Voice of America Radio!
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