How Do Swatties Stack Up? Visiting Professors And Transfer Students Provide A Cross-College Comparison

According to Forbes, we’re attending the ninth best private college in the U.S., but if you ask US News and World Report, Swarthmore places six slots higher, rounding out the top three private liberal arts schools behind Williams and Amherst. College Prowler says our guys are a whole two letter grades more attractive than our gals. Urban Dictionary tells us that we do, occasionally, have fun in addition to our coursework, but when asked, we prefer to complain that we don’t. We’ve embodied these various perspectives to form our motto — sometimes said proudly, other times, whined — that anywhere else, it would’ve been an A.

The rankings are contentious. Self-promotion is biased. Urban Dictionary entries are most likely written by admissions rejects. So how do we get a sense of how we really stack up as an institution?

For those of us who have only ever called Swarthmore home, it’s difficult to know what exactly we’re missing while sitting in line during office hours or banging out twelve page papers on Friday nights. However, for professors and students who arrive from other colleges and universities, the experience can either stand up — or fall down — next to the institutions they forsook for our cozy arboretum home.

Whereas academic differences become magnified when transitioning from a large research university, variations between private liberal arts colleges are often less discernible. Visiting Assistant Professor of Linguistics Nathan Sanders, who comes to Swarthmore from Williams College, reports no noticeable difference between the caliber of students at the two schools. While a greater percentage of Williams students are involved in sports, the student bodies at both institutions seem “equally committed, vibrant, diverse and active.”

“I view the top three schools in the rankings [Williams, Amherst, and Swarthmore] as basically equivalent academically,” Sanders said. “Whatever differences there are overall in rankings is just statistical noise — it’s insignificant, and it’s washed out by the students. If you get a good crop or bad crop of students in a class, that makes more of a difference than the rankings.

Visiting Assistant Professor of Philosophy Krista Thomason, who taught at Mount Holyoke before arriving on campus, also noted the comparable nature of the two liberal arts schools. Students at both institutions have been engaged and willing to participate in classroom discussions, although Thomason describes Swatties as being a little more eager than students at Holyoke

“Mount Holyoke is very proudly a member of the Seven Sisters — it’s really in the same genre as Swarthmore,” Thomason said. “They’re similar in a lot of ways. Liberal arts colleges do attract a particular type of student looking for a certain kind of experience … maybe that’s something more transformative, or traditional or [has to do with] learning for sake of learning.”

Potential engineering major Winnie Ngo ’15, a transfer student from Northwestern University, hasn’t had a difficult time transitioning to the coursework at Swarthmore; in fact, she says the amount of work assigned at the two institutions is comparable. The non-emphasis on grades and the collaborative nature of the work environment set Swarthmore apart from the more cut-throat setting of the pre-professional research university, a positive and negative, in Ngo’s opinion.

“It took me awhile to admit I didn’t like [the atmosphere] at Northwestern … and I eventually got to a point where I realized I was never going to like it,” she said. “Overall, I love the academic and social environment Swat stands for … but sometimes I wonder what everyone’s going to do when they graduate. At Northwestern, we’re super prepared for the work environment after graduation, and that can mean that we’re prepared to work with men that don’t like the idea of female engineers. There were minor cases of discrimination … here, reality is different than the environment we have.”

Ngo noted that Swarthmore students seemed to cope with uncertainty surrounding post-graduation jobs and plans by refusing to think about the impending future. “People say that you can’t think about it here, that you just have to study what you’re interested in,” she said. “I feel like that’s a very defined example of how we are sheltered here.”

Although it’s been a smooth transition to the school thus far, the loss of freshmen fall’s credit/no credit grading system is a hard-felt loss for Ngo and other transfer students. Exploring the course offerings of the college without the levying of grade-related worries adds stress to the approaching sophomore papers and plans for 2015-ers.

New professors on campus also bear the weight of the would’ve-been-A mentality of the college.

“We are strongly encouraged not to inflate,” said Lauren Farmer, Visiting Instructor of Political Science. “It’s good to hear that there’s a strong culture about not inflating grades, so students stand up on own merit — inevitably, Swatties do stand up on their own merit.”

The pressure not to inflate comes from within the department and from the administration, according to Farmer.

“The fact that standards are strongly reinforced adds to the reputation of the school,” she added. “It’s absolutely understood on the outside, that a B-something at Swat means top-notch work.”

If there’s a system of reinforcement for curve-breaking at the college, Sanders hasn’t been informed.

“No one’s said anything about how to attack it, or how to structure the grading,” he said. “I think that’s something Swat could potentially work on — directly addressing the problem.”

At Williams College, professors are sent reminders at the beginning of each semester with a target average for the class. Introductory-level classes typically have a target average of 3.2, whereas high-level senior seminars have targets of 3.5, according to Sanders. Under this system, grades have slowly been declining towards the target numbers.

Assessing grade inflation at a school like Swarthmore, which doesn’t calculate GPAs, can prove challenging. The lack of emphasis on the grades themselves tends to push talk of inflation under the table; however, Sanders noted that for graduate schools looking at students from similar institutions, A’s across the board makes transcript comparison futile. Systems like Williams’, which explicitly attack the problem, allow top students to rise more visibly from a pack of almost equally qualified learners.

Jeannette Leopold ‘13, who transferred from Haverford College before her junior year, said she hasn’t noticed a difference in grades within the Tri-Co. The Honors theater major, who has also studied at Bryn Mawr, actually noticed an improvement in her grades after transferring to Swarthmore in 2011, although she noted this could have been a result of settling into the college routine.

“The ‘everywhere else it would’ve been an A’ is talking about schools outside the top elite colleges,” she said of Swarthmore’s unofficial motto. “It definitely doesn’t apply to Haverford, and I don’t think it applies to Bryn Mawr, either.”

While the breakdown of letter grades at the College remains ambiguous, there is one B that Ngo feels the rankings got right: campus attractiveness.

“There’s just less options than at Northwestern,” she shared with a smile. “I heard from friends before coming here that guys have it worse. Everyone’s still new to me, so I’m still like, ‘oh, hey’ — and I guess the opposite is true, too: there’s still a lot of people I haven’t gotten to know.”

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