Road Trip: Mills College

We toured some of California's top schools and found out what it's like to attend them.

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The first impression of this small women's college is one of quiet elegance. Undergrads, dwarfed by eucalyptus trees, quietly gather and chat at a campus crêperie. Inside the massive Victorian mansion that serves as Mills College's administrative heart, display cases show off unusual teapots. But talk to students and staff, and Mills also turns out to be a hotbed of boisterous freethinkers. 

Giulietta Aquino gleefully recalls that as a Mills undergrad in 1990, she helped occupy the administration building to protest a plan to admit males. "Twenty years ago, I was sleeping outside this office. It is surreal that I am now the dean of admissions," she says with a laugh. 

In part because of the budget crises facing California's public colleges, applications to Mills jumped about 40 percent in 2010; it kept its admittance rate a little below 60 percent. (It has almost 1,000 undergrads.) The Oakland school lures applicants with perks like big single rooms for freshwomen and advanced chemistry labs with, often, just four students. 

But there are challenges. About one quarter of Mills's freshwomen leave within a year. And though Mills gives grants averaging more than $20,000 apiece to about 90 percent of students, it can't afford enough aid for all who need help with its $54,000-plus price tag. Mills has responded by providing emergency loans, adding social activities, and arranging for students to take courses at the University of California-Berkeley and other nearby colleges. 

Rebecca Williams, a newly minted grad, says the school's size means professors are accessible. She admits some Mills students fit a stereotype of "tree-hugging, clove-smoking, green tea-drinking lesbians." But, she adds, "the same women who are drinking tea and eating crêpes are also going to a 'Take Back the Night' protest or doing something crazy" on one of the elegant greens. 

More About Mills College:

Plus Factor: Oakland school is one of the few colleges to offer courses in bookbinding as well as a minor in the book arts.

Undergrad enrollment, 2009: 969

Est. annual cost, 2010-2011: $54,947

California Road Trip:

• University of California—Berkeley
• Stanford University
• San Francisco State University

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