Michigan College Road Trip: Kettering University

Want to know what it's like to attend this school in Flint, Mich.? Read on.

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While a network of tunnels enables students at Kettering University to traverse much of the Flint campus during harsh winter weather, that's not what lures students to Kettering, known until 1982 as the General Motors Institute. About 70 percent of students hail from Michigan and many are drawn to the school because of its long-standing ties to the automotive industry. The relationship has produced the university's co-op program, in which students spend half of their 4½ years in school working full time with one of Kettering's roughly 550 corporate partners.

Junior Victoria Sprague of Cypress, Texas, for instance, spent six months working in the robotics department at Walt Disney World, reverse-engineering animatronic characters, among other tasks—a first step toward her dream job of designing roller coasters. The school's recently retired president, Stan Liberty, says students who don't have clear goals like Sprague should look elsewhere. "If you're thinking of coming to Kettering to try and find yourself," he says, "you aren't going to survive."

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Most undergrads take part in six three-month co-ops (though some may be longer), and spend the remaining time in class. At any given time, perhaps half of the 2,000 enrolled students are on campus. The process starts immediately, so half of the freshmen are thrust into the professional world before they attend a class.

Michael Russell, a senior from Tunkhannock, Pa., spent his co-ops working on alternative energy projects at General Motors. "It's terrifying at first," he says. "You're out of your comfort zone." But students generally settle in quickly and take full opportunity of the chance to gain hands-on work experience.

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A glimpse inside any classroom or lab swiftly reveals the school's roots in technology. In one computer lab, for instance, small robotic vehicles, circuit boards exposed, sit along the edge of the room. Full-size vehicles also play a part in some students' academic lives. In the basement of the school's $42 million crown jewel, the C.S. Mott Engineering and Science Center, is a crash lab that automakers have used to test cars, often with the help of students.

The school, whose total sticker price will run about $36,000 this year, lacks aesthetic charm, which perhaps typifies the industry and the region itself. The 85-acre campus sits at an unassuming intersection minutes away from downtown Flint, where pothole-ridden streets and boarded-up shop windows are stark reminders of the region's economic struggles. But while the dorms aren't eye-catching, they do come with a few perks; the rooms are spacious, divided doubles complete with microwaves and mini-fridges.

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Fraternity and sorority houses dot the neighborhoods surrounding the school where many upperclassmen opt to live, and about 40 percent of students participate in Greek life. Sophomore Thomas Butterick of Fort Worth, Texas, relishes his time at Kettering, but smiling wryly, he notes the school's 83 percent male student body. "I wouldn't mind a little more gender diversity," he says.

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