Niche schools have developed as a way to give students exactly what they need in a college or university. Attending a niche school is about connecting with a university on a different level, through the unique options and opportunities they provide.
Schools with a Jewish focus
Most colleges and universities, even secular ones, have some sort of spiritual life center. And while they may be welcoming to all faiths, some students are looking for a school with a focus on their religion. For Jewish students, maybe that means a synagogue on or near campus, or excused absences from class for holidays.
“The close-knit program of our Judaic Studies gives students a safety net for their lives on campus,” says Richard Freund, Director of the Maurice Greenberg Center for Judaic Studies at the University of Hartford in West Hartford, Connecticut. “Many students come to our dinners and luncheons on campus that we sponsor for the community. Many of the people in the community ask us if there are students who would like to be hosted for a Sabbath, Holiday, or Passover meal.”
The Greenberg Center does not provide spiritual guidance, Freund says. Rather, it’s about creating bonds between students and professors joined by a common interest in Judaism. (Freund says he is still in touch with students he taught 25 years ago!)
“The University of Hartford is seen as a very welcoming Jewish environment that is built from many pieces,” Freund says. There’s the Jewish community of West Hartford, with synagogues and other institutions; kosher dining options; classes in Arabic, Hebrew, and Yiddish; Jewish Greek life and Hillel on campus; study abroad programs in Israel; the L'Shir a capella group; and a Jewish museum. Schools sharing Hartford’s commitment to Judaism often provide similar things.
“A school can demonstrate its commitment to faith by the resources they provide for students,” says Jennifer Walker, Senior Associate Director of the Office of Admissions at Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts. “There will often be resources that aren't readily available at other places and other students that share your unique interest.” At Brandeis, there are well-publicized policies supporting Jewish observances, like minimal conflicts with Shabbat and holidays. They also have visiting Jewish scholars and performances of Jewish dance and music.
“We have a variety of resources for Jewish students, and they can choose to use them or not.” It’s about choosing the level of participation that’s right for them, Walker says. “Students can do something Jewish once a week, once a month, once a semester, or not at all.”
“Core values of that faith can also permeate the campus,” Walker says. For example, social justice, an important part of a Brandeis education, is “very much founded in the history and tradition of the Jewish faith, as is non-sectarianism and the commitment to inclusion and community.”
Institutes of technology
Perhaps you’re considering a degree in engineering, science, or computer programming, and you’ve heard about institutes of technology, but you don’t really know what makes them special and unique.
Institutes of technology most often offer degrees in fields like electrical engineering, chemistry, applied mathematics, and computer science, as well as “hot” areas like software engineering, interactive media, and biotechnology. Often, students at technical institutes are fairly clear about the career field they want to explore. Degree programs are often structured so students take courses directly related to their major from the very first semester.
However, don’t rule out an institute of technology if you’re undecided about a college major. Many also have programs across a wide range of other academic fields. For example, at Rochester Institute of Technology in Rochester, New York, students can major in film and animation, accounting, and hotel and resort management; similarly, Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Massachusetts, offers degrees in economics, history, and even philosophy. Science and engineering are the primary focus, so make sure to take a look at the list of a college’s programs of study before you enroll to see if they offer what you are looking for.
If there’s one feature institutes of technology have in common, it’s a desire to prepare students for the future. As technologies change in the real world, tech schools are quick to install them in labs and classrooms and to integrate them into the curriculum. Most pride themselves on offering you the opportunity to learn on the same equipment and technology used in business and industry. This means when you start your career or head off to graduate school, you’ll be able to contribute from the get-go. In fact, institutes of technology are so future-oriented that they are often quick to offer undergraduate programs of study in new academic disciplines.
The faculty are highly trained in their areas of expertise—and they have a passion for teaching. Most are active in their fields as researchers and consultants, which means that you’ll have many opportunities to collaborate on projects and learn from the best. At Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University’s Arizona campus, professor Shigeo Hayashibara teaches various aspects of aerospace engineering fundamentals such as aerodynamics and works with students designing airplanes with advanced computer-aided design (CAD) applications. “Students can actually do better than they think; all we need to do is open a new door and encourage them to step in,” says Dr. Hayashibara.
Technology, modern facilities, and state-of-the-art equipment also set tech-oriented institutes and universities apart. Chances are you’ll have wireless Internet access from virtually every part of campus—from your residence hall room to the dining hall. And the research you conduct will be on the most up-to-date and modern equipment.
When you combine future-oriented academic programs, an experienced faculty, and an exciting learning environment, the results of an education at an institute of technology are obvious: career placement is high, access to graduate school is good, and alumni are in demand!
First things first: not all Christian schools are Bible schools! A Bible school or a Bible-focused school is going to have a strong foundation in biblical study and teachings. While most Christian colleges and universities offer some biblical classes, Bible schools usually require biblical course work, and the Bible’s teachings are a big part of the university experience.
“[The Bible] is the very heart, character, purpose, and participation in the redemptive story of all creation that we get to be a part of every day; this effects who we are in our relationships, our careers, and our personal lives,” says Nikki Blakidis, a University Admissions Counselor at Tyndale University College and Seminary in Ontario, Canada. Regardless of the career path students choose, they come back to the stories and lessons of the Bible.
“In the context of faith, we believe that God lives not just in theological studies, but in how we approach all of life. It is important when considering how to do business ethically, how to approach literature contextually, how to critically study philosophy, and how the subject of human services can translate from words on a page to how one
lives, loves, and impacts the world and people around us,” she says.
“As far as the benefits of attending a Bible-focused university, there are many,” says Abby Scott, a 2009 graduate of Tyndale. However, she didn’t choose Tyndale because it is a Bible school. It was because of their applied psychology major, she says. The Bible focus was an added bonus. “It's also great that I can take courses where subjects that are not Biblical in nature are integrated with those that are Biblical.” Of course, students interested in becoming a preacher, a career missionary—anything in the church—will find that Bible schools offer the support and resources needed to pursue that career.
Students need to ask themselves two questions before choosing a school, says Paul Presta, Director of Undergraduate Admissions at Cincinnati Christian University in Cincinnati, Ohio. “What am I passionate about, and what can I see myself doing as a career?” When you’re passionate about what you’re studying and surrounded by people with a similar passion, it’s easier to become engaged, says Presta. That’s what students will find in their peers and professors at any niche school.
There are also many ways students can engage their faith at Bible schools. Tyndale, for example, offers daily chapels, Bible studies, and all-night prayer and worship times. Service work, such as mission trips and community service, is another important part of spiritual life at a Bible school. “When you’re serving the greater good, you’re learning something that’s not taught in the classroom,” says Presta.
Liberal arts colleges
What springs to mind when you think “liberal arts college”? Scruffy poets and philosophers discussing lofty ideas under leafy trees? Artists painting “Save the Whales” signs? The reality is that you will find much more at a liberal arts college if you are willing to look closer. (And if you are, you might be a good candidate for the liberal arts!)
Liberal arts colleges come in different shapes and sizes, but they all share basic characteristics and educational philosophies, and all focus on the undergraduate. The liberal arts approach views learning as an active process of exploration rather than a passive process of absorption. Instead of simply learning someone else’s answers to life’s questions, students are empowered to find their own answers through inquiry, dialogue, and analysis. Alternately guided and challenged by their professors and peers, students discover meaning for themselves, developing critical habits of mind, which include the rare ability to unlearn as well as to learn. This approach is distinctly different from the vocational/professional preparatory model found at large comprehensive universities around the world.
The liberal arts also demand that faculty be fully committed to teaching, to guiding rigorous class discussion, and to providing frequent and consistent feedback to help students hone vital tools of self-expression. Faculty members are not just teachers, but mentors.
In many aspects of our culture, “bigger is better,” but a smaller learning environment can be ideal because it puts everything within your reach. It is an inclusive environment where there are fewer barriers to participation and leadership opportunities in a wide variety of academic and extracurricular opportunities. To facilitate this access, the majority of liberal arts colleges are intentionally small, with most schools enrolling 1,000–2,500 undergraduates. This means low student-faculty ratios and average class sizes of 20 or fewer.
At a residential college, the vast majority of students live on campus in what is essentially a 24/7 learning environment. This environment is ideal for liberal arts study because students learn as much from each other as they do from their professors and course work. Learning from roommates, teammates, and classmates, students develop personally and socially, creating lifelong friendships in the process.
According to Susan Lennon, President of the Women’s College Coalition, “A liberal arts education equips you with the portfolio of skills, knowledge, and hands-on experience that employers expect.” Though only about 3% of all U.S. college graduates come from liberal arts colleges, these graduates are disproportionately recognized as leaders in science and business fields, and among those who earn Ph.D.s. Liberal arts graduates are resourceful problem solvers and visionary innovators. They are uniquely prepared for today’s challenges and tomorrow’s opportunities.
Historically Black Colleges and Universities
“When a college or university is committed to its heritage, it tends to embrace a very strong commitment to values and traditions—typically, the very principals upon which it was established,” says Angela Nixon Boyd, Director of Admission at Hampton University in Hampton, Virginia. Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) do just that. They offer the same great educational opportunities as other schools but provide an environment firmly rooted in history and community for all their students, whether they identify themselves as black or not.
Although the academic experience is comparable to any other college or university, HBCUs offer some unique resources to their students. “Many HBCUs offer support services for students through federally funded programs that offer advising and counseling to first-generation college students whose parents or guardians may not have had the traditional college experience,” says Boyd. “Also, alumni are an amazing and immense source of support at HBCUs because of their commitment and dedication to their schools.” Often, families have a legacy of attending a particular HBCU, and tradition is an important part of the experience as well.
“HBCUs provide a unique environment where students are able to hone their leadership skills in ways that may be unavailable to them at majority (non-HBCU) institutions,” says Dr. Stephanie Wright, an assistant professor of history is the University of West Georgia. “There is an expectation that students will excel and students often live up to those higher expectations.”
Part of meeting those expectations is through rigorous class work, and students will find a curriculum that upholds the HBCU commitment to black history. “Most of the colleges have some course that ensures that the study of Africans and African Americans is a part of the college experience,” says Dr. Wright. “In other words, you cannot graduate from an HBCU without exposure to African and African American history and culture.”
Daniel Wilson is the Executive Director of Policy and Program Development for The National Caucus and Center on Black Aged and a 1999 graduate of Hampton. He says he had an amazing experience, even though it had a rocky start. During his freshman year his mother was diagnosed with breast cancer, and he was under a lot of stress at school and at home. “If it was not for my professors, I never would have survived the experience,” Wilson says. “For me, that’s what an HBCU encompasses—another family.”
Wilson’s education thoroughly prepared him for the real world, he says, but the relationships he formed made all the difference. “Friends—they will last a lifetime,” Wilson says. “We build off of one another’s successes.” Majority institutions are great, he says, but the experience is not quite the same. His advice for students considering HBCUs? “If you don’t go, you will regret it!”
If you are a music-lover and cannot see yourself studying anything but notes on a page, you may want to look into conservatories.
Conservatories are schools that are dedicated to the study of music, whether you study performance, business, music education, or any other subject pertaining to music. Many conservatories even branch out their subject matter to include all the fine arts, such as the Boston Conservatory, which features programs in music, theater, and dance.
Though conservatories are a great place for the aspiring actor or musician, competition tends to run high in admission, and the process is a bit more intensive than your run-of-the-mill college. Not only do conservatories want you to fill out all the usual paperwork, but they also ask for artistic résumés and for you to audition for the program in which you intend to enroll. So you must have the experience and talent to gain admission to these schools. The good news? Eight conservatories and music schools have their equivalent of the Common Application: the Unified Application for Music and Performing Arts Schools (http://unifiedapps.org). It’s a time saver if the schools on its list are ones you are interested in.
If you’re a liberal arts–type of person, conservatories may not be the right path for you. Because the focus is completely on the arts and performance, most conservatories do not offer courses in a broad range of subjects (you most likely won’t find Physics 101). So you need to be entirely sure that music is your definite career path before enrolling at a conservatory. However, if you know that you want to study music, but possibly take other subjects for fun or to learn something different, many conservatories have agreements with larger universities so their students can take classes there.
Conservatories will not have the typical “college scene” with the big football game or frat houses, but they do offer a campus that is focused solely on the arts. The teachers at conservatories have been in the business and know their stuff. (The New England Conservatory in Boston, Massachusetts, has faculty and alumni that make up almost half of the Boston Symphony Orchestra.) You will also have access to some of the best facilities in which to practice and some great spaces to perform and show off your skills.
If you’re looking for the big campus feel, you can check out large universities that have a conservatory as a part of their campus, such as the Peabody Institute of The John Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland. Although these schools may give you the best of both worlds, remember that you’ll be balancing general education requirements with the commitment needed to excel in a conservatory. One night you may be practicing on your cello and the next studying for an anatomy final.
Whether you plan to be the next Beethoven or just want to study music, it’s worth checking out conservatories. They may just be the right fit.
You might think that going to a women’s college or an all-male institution makes for a boring college experience. But that couldn’t be further from the truth. The benefits of attending a gender-specific school are plentiful—ask any student who attends one!
Women’s colleges can be found across the country, and each one has its own distinct identity. They give the unique opportunity for women to study in a supportive, challenging setting of strong female influences. The community helps students set higher expectations for themselves, achieve greater goals, and succeed to the best of their ability.
Recently conducted research comparing the experience of students at women’s colleges with females at co-ed private liberal arts colleges and co-ed flagship public universities found that students at women's colleges are more likely to experience high levels of academic challenge, engage in active and collaborative learning to a higher degree, and take part in activities that provide opportunities to integrate their curricular and cocurricular experiences. Students at women's colleges tend to thrive studying subjects such as science and math—subject and career areas in which women are traditionally underrepresented—and, later, pursuing graduate studies and careers in these fields.
Women's colleges offer notably distinctive options, including women-centered pedagogies, curricula, and environments—from female role models to leadership opportunities to alumnae networks—that are focused on you: your education, your personal and professional development in the many different roles you will assume in life, and your advancement in an ever-changing world.
Doris Molina, a student at Mills College in Oakland, California, says, “The best part about attending a women’s college is the opportunity to build sisterhood relationships without the need of sororities. I think what female students look for in sororities is the support, leadership, and experiences that I have already encountered at Mills College.”
When you hear about men’s colleges, you may think of antiquated sexism and the “old-boy’s club” mentality. But that is just not the case.
Men’s colleges are not as prevalent as women’s colleges these days. In the 1960s, most men’s colleges started becoming co-ed, and now there aren’t too many all-male institutions left. Most are seminaries and rabbinical schools. The few secular schools that are still out there (such as Morehouse College and Wabash College) tend to be small liberal arts colleges. They focus not only on educating the mind, but also shaping men with high moral aptitudes. At Hampden-Sydney College in Virginia, the students are bound by an ethics code. Exams are not proctored and each person that enters the college must sign the Honor Code and promise to live as a “Hampden-Sydney Man.”
Another benefit of an all-male education is the discussion on gender and sexism in an environment that is open. One Hampden-Sydney student explains: “Attending a men’s college [. . .] allowed me to try my hand at a wide array of opportunities that otherwise I would have ignored due to social pressures or stereotypes.”
Finally, men’s colleges offer a sense of community that can rarely be matched at other institutions. From faculty to alumni to students, all have the shared experience of attending a unique institution and connecting through that common bond.
**To see more of any of these types of institutions, visit InsideCollege.com (www.insidecollege.com). You can search for conservatories, HBCUs, women’s schools—anything—and find lists of colleges and universities that match your interests.**
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