Road Trip: Lake Erie College

A horse of a different color

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This article was originally published in the America's Best Colleges 2008 edition.

Lake Erie College was withering on the vine less than a decade ago. The school of several hundred students went coed in the 1980s, but enrollment was lackluster and the college was failing to define itself amid the legion of other small liberal arts schools on the buckle of the rust belt. It was once so elitist that the school, in Painesville, Ohio, had its own yacht, and the women who attended were barred from dating local men, a rule that was axed only in the 1970s. Lake Erie, says President Michael Victor, had lost its sense of institutional mission.

The key to its renaissance has been to capitalize on small class size and specialized fields of study to refashion Lake Erie as a traditional residential college. It has been tough going. Attracting male students isn't easy, although the college did add a football team, and a fraternity wants to seed a chapter on campus.

Nearly a third of the students are in equestrian studies, which are broader than the name implies. The program prepares students for career paths that include stable management, veterinary medicine, therapeutic riding, and competition riding. You thought your term paper was tough? Try birthing a foal. Crowded dorms notwithstanding, few colleges advertise stable space to prospective students-Lake Erie is one of them.

And talk about small classes-Lake Erie averages 15 students per class, but many have six to 10. "That's fine when you want attention or need help, but not good if you want to go unnoticed and skip class one day," says Rebecca Rex, who graduated in May. The school is so small that the president hosts entire classes for formal dinners and students E-mail the entire student body. "You almost never see someone on campus that you don't know," says Seth Baumberger, a junior who plays baseball and represents the college in the community.

The recipient of more than $1 million in grants from nonprofits like the Kauffman Foundation, the college has an entrepreneurship center, which helps students think about business planning. There are also many "niche majors," which the college hopes will draw students and create a distinctive culture in narrow fields like allied health, public history, and forensic psychology. Rather than boasting of faculty who focus on research, Lake Erie prides itself on finding teachers who excel at teaching. And with such a small community, that's key. Paul Gothard, for example, isn't just a professor of music-he also teaches students to fly airplanes.