by Stuart Nachbar *

Colleges That Change Lives

There are many books you can buy that profile colleges and universities. Among the more notable is The Colleges That Change Lives.  There have been four editions of The Colleges That Change Lives since 1996; the most recent edition was released in 2013. The major purpose behind the book has been to profile colleges that are usually not exceptionally selective but deliver an education that offers their students the same benefits and results as they might receive from a more selective or more noted brand.

There are more than 40 Colleges That Change Lives. The chosen colleges have been fairly consistent, though four schools that appeared in the early editions of the book: Bard College (NY), Franklin & Marshall College (PA), Grinnell College (IA), and St. Andrews University (NC) do not appear in the current one.

All of the current schools are National Liberal Arts Colleges with the exceptions of Clark University (National Research University), St. Mary’s College of California (Regional University-West), Evergreen State College (Regional University-West) and Lynchburg College (Regional University-South). These schools have been profiled in four editions of a globally-circulated book. The colleges have also collaborated over the past ten years to form a non-profit association that raises funds for scholarships and hosts admissions fairs across the United States.

Loren Pope, the author of the first three editions of the book, believed that small liberal arts colleges offered the best undergraduate educational experience. He added that 2,000 students was the ideal limit for the size of the undergraduate student body. However, 11 of the Colleges That Change Lives have more than 2,000 undergraduates (some also grant graduate degrees) while three have more than 3,000.

Pope’s reporting was not heavily based on the “performance” of these colleges by the numbers or their “value for the money,” but rather on his thoughts gathered by visiting each school and speaking with administrators, faculty and students. This is also true of the latest version of The Colleges That Change Lives, written by journalist Hilary Masell Oswald. Pope passed away in 2008.

But when costs and numbers come into play, are these schools “good colleges” or “good values for the money”? Some are. But some are not what some might hope after spending the time to read The Colleges That Change Lives. It is quite easy to laud a college based on anecdotes. But good colleges, which also promote and manage services performed by people, have to deliver those services well. For instance:

* Has the college successfully prepared a freshman class that decided to remain for their sophomore year? This is the mark not only of a successful admissions effort but also a sound first-year experience.

* Can it successfully graduate a freshman class on time, within four years? Unless the students are interested in accelerated programs that lead to an advanced degree, it should graduate most of the students it successfully retains within four years.

* Has it done a better job at graduating a class than the larger public colleges that its students were most likely to consider? There are varied opinions among admissions advisors and professionals. Mine is that a small private college should do a better job of graduating its students than the flagship state university in its home state. My benchmark is 70 percent or higher.

* Is the college capable of assisting students who have significant financial need, so that they do not graduate with excessive debt? The affordability issue is consistently raised among those who are considering private liberal arts colleges. Quite frankly, several Colleges That Change Lives do this very well, but several do not.

* Has it been able to graduate students in the sciences and mathematics?  This is a reflection of teaching quality. Faculty in the sciences and mathematics are perhaps the only liberal arts doctorates (aside from Economics or Psychology) who are likely to find competition for employment from private industry as well as academia. Retaining good teachers in these fields who do a very good job to motivate students to pursue study in these fields is one mark of a strong faculty.

Given these measures, I would give the following Colleges That Change Lives an ‘A’ grade and consider them to be “excellent” schools by these measures:

Centre College (KY)

Clark University (MA)

College of Wooster (OH)

Denison University (OH)

Kalamazoo College (MI)

Reed College (OR)

Rhodes College (TN)

St. Olaf College (MN)

Wheaton College (IL)

Whitman College (WA)

Willamette University (OR)

This is a quarter of the Colleges That Change Lives. Five of these schools have become more selective. Denison, Reed, Rhodes, St. Olaf and Whitman offered admission to less than half of the students who applied to join their freshman class in 2015.

There were some “very good” schools that came close, falling slightly short in one measure that also deserve mention. These 10 ‘B+’ schools include:

Allegheny College (PA)

Austin College (TX)

Beloit College (WI)

Birmingham-Southern College (AL)

Cornell College (IA)

Earlham College (IN)

Hampshire College (MA)

Hillsdale College (MI)

Knox College (IL)

Ursinus College (PA)

All these schools accepted at least half of the applicants they enticed to apply to join their 2015 freshman class.

Truly half of the Colleges That Change Lives are either excellent or very good by these basic measures. They also have the advantage of being promoted in a very well circulated book. But these are not the only liberal arts colleges in America that surely “change lives.” There are others that perform just as well for their students. That’s where a good college advisor can help.


* As founder of Educated Quest, Stuart Nachbar provides personalized college, transfer and graduate/professional school admissions advisory services to help students and parents make the best-informed decisions their future education. Having worked around higher education for over three decades as an admissions advisor, author, urban economic development professional and senior-level software marketing executive, he knows the “inside baseball” about how colleges do business. Stuart holds a BA and MBA from Rutgers University, a Master of Urban Planning for the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and a Certificate in College Admissions Counseling (with Distinction) from UCLA. He and his wife, Carol, live in Central New Jersey.

**For more “inside baseball” to help you learn more about The Colleges That Change Lives and other schools in your search, please contact Stuart at