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My Seek for a Completely different Kind of College

November 22, 2023
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I’m a parent of a high school senior. So naturally, for the last year or so, my mailbox has been littered with letters, brochures and postcards from universities, each trying to make the case for why its institution is the finest fit for my student. Parents and students alike already know the reputations of many wish-list schools. (If you need a refresher, just watch any high-school rom-com where the characters seem incapable of imagining life anywhere other than Harvard or Stanford.)

We see various lists and rankings, most notably from US News & World Report, where the Ivy League schools—and their cousins—jockey for position each year. And the Fiske Guide to Colleges provides helpful data for what seems most crucial to know: price comparisons and acceptance rates. 

We are looking for a college that is kind. (Photo credit Lisa Maxbauer )

I want to know if the colleges we are looking at are kind

But all these important metrics don’t tell the anxious mother in me what I really want to know: Which colleges are kind? Which universities naturally attract and foster students who exhibit kindness?

Sure, we rank the financial value of colleges, but what I ache to see is a ranking of colleges with values. Schools tout their amenities, but are their students amenable? For just a moment I’d like to forget about ‘reach’ schools and ‘safety’ schools. I’d like to hear which ones will make my kid feel safe, and reach for him if he needs help. 

Because look around: the world is an increasingly harsh and inhospitable place. Students today are stressed—following a generation of school shootings, a global pandemic and increasing climate disasters. 

I do believe students today are more accepting of differences, whether neurodivergence, sexual preferences, gender identities, physical or otherwise, than any class to claim diplomas before them. But while seniors prepare to march through ceremonies to the cadence of “Pomp and Circumstance,” the circumstances around them continue to be ones of political name calling, war and anonymous digital bullying.

I’m not trying to be a helicopter parent

I’m not scanning the horizon to shield my child from the challenges he’ll encounter in adulthood. Those are part of real life. If ever I were a helicopter parent, it’s time to cut the engine. Unlike many decisions I’ve made for my child, the college decision is out of my hands. It is for my kid—and the almighty air traffic controllers in admissions offices—to make. 

So, on the eve of this monumental choice, I did what I’ve done every time my child was facing a crossroads, stretching back to whether he should enter kindergarten at age 5 or be red-shirted for a year: I crowdsourced for information. I took informal polls everywhere I went: Moms a year ahead of me in the journey, dads a generation older, strangers at the grocery store, parents at parties.            

I want to find where kindness ruled in collegiate America

I wanted to know which campuses are populated with students known to take early action when kindness is concerned. I’m not talking about kindness simply to use as fodder in an admissions essay. Something more than a motto on a coffee mug or a Harry Styles song to “Treat people with kindness.” I mean real, put-into-action stuff. 

Over coffee one morning I broached the topic with a writer friend, Heather Shumaker, who had a 2-year head start from me in the sending-a-child-to-college race. Heather is a fastidious researcher and a parent I admire—author of books with titles like It’s Ok To Go Up the Slide. Plus, she values education. She’d been a national merit scholar a generation ago and graduated from Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania. Heather and her son had toured a half dozen campuses, all types and sizes in various states. 

So I asked Heather her thoughts on the topic that weighed on my mind. “Brown University,” she responded. She explained, it was where she most noticed students laughing and smiling while walking to class. She also recalled seeing groups with racial diversity comfortably mingling together on campus rather than just co-existing. “That tells me something.” (She considered Bowdoin College in Maine as runner-up.)

I asked the president of my local college which college was most kind

A few nights later, over dinner, I posed my kindness question to my neighbor. Nick Nissley serves as President of Northwestern Michigan College, the community college in my hometown. I knew his opinion would mean something. A former employee once described Nick as “so nice, it would be suspicious if it weren’t so genuine.” 

After thinking for a moment, Nick’s vote went to Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT), which shares a campus with the National Technical Institute of the Deaf. He thought, perhaps a college population that is keenly aware of sensory differences might be more welcoming and inclusive of other differences, too. A place where both kids and compassion could thrive. 

I kept asking people what colleges were kind

 Later in the summer, at a family reunion, I served up the question to my uncle Tom Plough, a retired college president of both a large state university and a small, private college. Again, without any baiting he brought up RIT. Then he wisely added, “People get focused on top-tier schools but there are so many small schools under the radar that are really special.”

 The following week, over pizza, I cornered my jet-lagged brother-in-law to ask where might education and empathy entwine like DNA’s double helix. He’s a science professor at a Big 10 university. And speaking of kindness, he’s the type of person who recognized the needs of people in rural Kenya, where he’s been doing research for 20 years, and started a school for children orphaned by the HIV crisis there.

But the scientist was stumped by my warm-fuzzy question. He surmised a small school would have a better chance of having a uniformly kind student body, but added, “I’d suspect it would change from year to year as the students changed.” 

I needed to get some boots-on-the-ground insight

So, as I accompanied my son on college visits, I looked less at ivy climbing the walls and more for kindness growing at the grassroots. During a very rainy tour of the University of Chicago, I learned the dining halls designate tables for every dorm just in case a student might be better at astrophysics than introducing herself to a group of strangers for lunch. That way, everyone always had a welcoming place to park at mealtime. The simple concept reminded me of the ‘Friendship Bench’ on the playground at my son’s elementary school. (Don’t have anyone to play with? Sit here so another student can intercept you and invite you to join their game…) 

More research showed that certain schools have tried to code kindness into the curricula

At the University of British Columbia Okanagan, students were asked to conduct a series of small acts of kindness as part of their regular coursework. The results of the experiment were published in the Journal of Further and Higher Education. The big reveal: Those students who completed the most kind acts reported deeper self-satisfaction, hinting at kindness boosting well-being.  

Additionally, Harvard is known to have instituted an initiative—now adopted by all the Ivies as well as Stanford, MIT, Michigan and others—called “Making Caring Common.” The goal is to try to focus the admission process on students who possess character traits that enhance campus life. 

I peeked at admission essay prompts for another indication of the welcome mat schools lay at their front door. The University of Notre Dame, for example, aims to admit people who foster service in their communities and act as changemakers for good in the world. 

I also liked that Western Michigan University created an Autism Center of Excellence to assist students with Autism Spectrum Disorder in and out of the classroom.

Still, I wondered where kindness was happening altruistically, without being a mandate from the top

I was looking for something more than “kind in name only” or a nascent office devoted to diversity, equity and inclusion. I was seeking students driven less by DEI and more by a DIY sense of caring.

I found a student-run group at Northwestern called The Happiness Club, which hands out candy and high fives around exam week to boost peers’ spirits. Hmmm, do happy students equal kind kids? If so, the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia tops the list of happiest colleges in the country. And it just so happens to be home to The Random Acts of Kindness Club. 

I fondly recall kindness in action at my alma mater, Saint Mary’s College in Indiana. There, students covered the mirrors and stall doors of public bathrooms with sticky notes scrawled with positive sayings, like “You’re beautiful” and “You are strong.” The feel-good graffiti—call it goodffiti—offered strangers in need a mental pick-me-up. Just maybe the all-women population made it easier to look out for one another. More camaraderie, more kindness.

I reverse engineered my question, looking at it from the college graduate’s point of view, rather than the incoming freshman’s 

If kindness enhances the entire school experience, then Dartmouth ranks #1 for boasting the most content alumni (measured by those willing to give back financially to the institution), according to Forbes. And while no institution is perfect, this campus was home to former professor Theodore Geisel, better known as Dr. Seuss. He gave us the mysteriously kind character of the Lorax, who said, “Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.”

And if I’m going down that rabbit hole on a sleepless night, then I should consider Carnegie Melon. It’s situated in Pittsburgh in the very same neighborhood that was home to “Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood,” the TV show that taught a generation exactly how to be neighborly with one another. 

As for a ranking of what colleges do for their country—in terms of public service or putting other’s needs before one’s own—Stanford tops the list. Harvey Mudd College and Pomona College, both in California, also rank high. 

My research was not exhaustive

Did I miss some strong contenders? Absolutely. Did some people tell me that higher education is obsolete and we can learn everything we need to know—including kindness—from free podcasts and YouTube videos? Possibly. 

But before long I had to wrap up my search on common kindness because the Common App went live. It was finally time for my son to apply to schools he loved and wait to hear if they loved him in return. As for me? I’d have to kindly wait to learn exactly where he’d have a chance to contribute his own dose of kindness to a campus culture. Because at the end of the day, college, much like kindness, is a personal choice.

Until then, I’m just a mom, standing in front of my children’s senior year, asking his future school to be…kind.

More Great Reading:

7 Mistakes Smart Parents Make in the College Search Process

Lisa Maxbauer is a senior writer at First for Women magazine and the author of the award-winning, independent children’s book Squash Boom Beet. She’s been writing professionally for national audiences for 25 years, inlcuding as a guest blogger for The New York Times Motherlode. She lives with her husband and three sons in Northern Michigan. She can be found on X, Instagram, Facebook and LinkedIn.

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