As fall semester got underway, Rock Jones, president of Ohio Wesleyan University, found himself visiting with parents of new first-year students at a reception, then again at breakfast the next morning.
“On both occasions, I asked how their families had come to know Ohio Wesleyan,” he recalled. “Many said, ‘The book.’”
He didn’t have to ask which one. Experience has taught Dr. Jones that inclusion in Colleges That Change Lives is one of Ohio Wesleyan’s most reliable marketing advantages.
The book and a separate non-profit organization of the same name have in recent years championed 40 liberal arts colleges that aren’t particularly well-known.
As it happens, nine of the 40—Ohio Wesleyan, Allegheny College, Birmingham-Southern College, Cornell College, Emory & Henry College, Hendrix College, Millsaps College, Southwestern University and Willamette University—are United Methodist-affiliated.
“The title itself reflects so well the mission of our United Methodist-related colleges and universities,” said Dr. Jones. “These institutions are committed to providing a transformational experience for students in every aspect of their lives.”
The late Loren Pope, a journalist and independent college counselor, made it his cause to challenge the idea that Ivy League schools and other elite colleges and universities offered the best undergraduate education.
“A good school is an extended family,” he said in an interview with the New York Times in 2007, at age 96. “The learning is collaborative, not competitive. It’s a community of learning and values are central.”
Pope’s book Looking Beyond the Ivy League was published in 1990, and six years later came his first edition of Colleges That Change Lives.
Along with collaborative learning, he touted the schools for having professors committed to teaching, not just to research. They were schools that were primarily residential (fostering a sense of community), with small classes and opportunities for undergraduates to do research and travel abroad.
Pope made it a point to choose schools that weren’t so well-known and that took into account the whole person applying, not just board scores and GPA.
The colleges named in Pope’s book eventually began to see themselves as a group, and worked together informally on recruiting events.
In 2006, Pope brought out a new edition. That year, with his approval, a nonprofit formed called Colleges That Change Lives. The 40 schools named in the 2006 edition were, and still are, the members of the nonprofit.
They pay a fee to belong, which supports a website and a program honoring outstanding college counselors. And they collaborate on regional college nights.
“We’re met with standing-room-only crowds, no fewer than 400 people wherever we go,” said Marty O’Connell, executive director of Colleges That Change Lives and former admissions director at McDaniel College, one of the 40 schools.
Brian F. Dalton, vice president for enrollment and communications at Allegheny College, recently attended the group’s events on the West Coast and in the South.
“You really get spoiled,” he said. “The students that flock to these are absolutely exceptional. They’ve done a lot of preparation for their search. Their questions are well developed, and really tell you a lot about where they are.”
Ms. O’Connell noted that the group doesn’t pretend to have the transformation market cornered—“It would be pretty absurd to suggest there are only 40 colleges that change lives”—and wants to be more than a marketing association.
“We’re trying very hard as a nonprofit to stand for something,” Ms. O’Connell said. “We’re trying to get students to calm down and be thoughtful about this process, and have their parents realize there are plenty of options.”
A new edition of Colleges That Change Lives, by journalist Hilary Massell Oswald, is just out.
“There have always been not-so-well-known schools, particularly liberal arts colleges, that offer excellent undergraduate educations,” she said in an email interview, “but it was thrilling for me to see these places in action. If college-bound teens and their parents had more good information about what makes a top-notch undergraduate experience, these places would be far better known.”
The new edition as prepared by Ms. Oswald is full of blurb-worthy profiles of the colleges selected, including those affiliated with the UMC.
The book notes, for example, the well-documented record of Emory & Henry in encouraging students to do community service.
“Virginia has no shortage of familiar schools with robust reputations,” Ms. Oswald writes. “But Emory & Henry, in the colorful hills of the state’s southwest corner, does the finest job of them all of producing contributors to society.”
Of Allegheny College, she says: “The students I talked to said they chose Allegheny because ‘it just felt like home’ or ‘this place is really accepting.’ They were also quick to point out that Allegheny is challenging, and I think the academic rigor, paired with the supportive environment, makes for a powerful and delightful campus culture.”
Not surprisingly, colleges in the book have been quick to issue press releases with such quotations. Dr. Dalton calls inclusion in Colleges That Change Lives “a great endorsement.”
“This gets us in the hands and in the minds of people who never would have encountered Allegheny if not for that book,” he said.
Colin Soleim, a junior math major and French minor at Allegheny, drew on the previous edition in choosing his school.
“I read a few other college books before I found Colleges That Change Lives, but all those books try to quantify a college experience with statistics while Colleges That Change Lives goes beyond that and recognizes that a college is more than the sum of its numbers” he said. “Colleges That Change Lives helped me to envision what my life would be like at Allegheny.”
The new edition comes out at a challenging time for these 40 schools and other liberal arts colleges, Ms. O’Connell said.
The lingering effects of the recession, a demographic blip—reducing the number of college-age kids—and the profusion of higher-ed options, including online programs, have all proved obstacles as the schools seek to fill their first-year classes with good students.
That makes the distinction of being in the book and in the nonprofit even more important. Dr. Dalton estimates that 30 to 35 students in Allegheny’s first-year class—about 5 percent—learned of the school through one or the other or both.
It doesn’t hurt that Allegheny is the first school profiled in the book.
“And until they get one above an ‘Al,’” Dr. Dalton said, “that will continue to be the case.”