Pacific Northwest College Road Trip: Reed College

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

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Reed College's Hauser Memorial Library stores every senior thesis ever written by its graduates, but Reedies find other reasons to visit the building they alternatively call the Hauser Fun Dome. Visitors can grab multicolored jump-ropes to exercise away their stress and eat food provided free by other students during exam weeks, when Survivor's "Eye of the Tiger" is also replayed hourly for inspiration. At Reed, academic rigor and goofy good humor coexist throughout the campus. (The student union boasts a well-used couch mounted on a mammoth pink and teal seesaw.)

Though there are older schools in the Pacific Northwest, 100-year-old Reed in Portland, Ore., stands out for its classics-infused curriculum. Every first year student is required to take Humanities 110, a comprehensive survey of ancient Greek, Roman, and Mediterranean literature. Lectures covering many disciplines are interspersed with smaller-group seminars called "conferences" and one-on-one meetings with instructors.

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"Imagine an entire campus where everyone's read Aristotle," says classics professor Ellen Millender, who teaches the course. Students and professors tend to agree that this shared immersion in the classics helps level the academic playing field among students who arrive on campus with different degrees of preparation.

As a complement to Humanities 110, students can sample offerings that cut across 35 major programs in the arts, humanities, physical sciences, and social sciences. As at Whitman College, the curriculum does not currently include majors in career-track fields like business, journalism, or education.

Another curricular quirk at Reed is the de-emphasis on grades. Professors don't present their students with marks or course grades but instead return assignments with thorough written comments (sometimes longer than the essays themselves). Students say this approach helps them focus more on what they are actually learning, rather than on finding shortcuts to higher grades.

Reedies can always ask to see their grades and transcripts if they wish, however, and about half of them do. Despite this unconventional approach to grading, Reed typically ranks near the top of all U.S. schools in the percentage of graduates who go on to earn Ph.D.'s, in fields ranging from the humanities to the physical sciences.

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The school doesn't offer varsity sports, but intramural and club sports are popular. Since Reed is located in a wooded neighborhood of southeast Portland, students can reach the downtown in 25 minutes by city bus. Those who stay on campus often participate in events like Eighties-themed dance parties.

The undergrads also tend to embrace a nonconformist dress code—a Reedie might stroll through campus wearing a bathrobe or a tie-dyed bodysuit. "Everybody's in their heads so much, they don't really think about it," says Devin Judge-Lord of New Hope, Wis., a 2010 graduate who stayed in the area but is headed next to grad school at Yale University.

The workload is heavy, and Reed's small size (roughly 1,500 undergraduates) can make it feel like a fishbowl to some. And the price tag isn't cheap: tuition, fees, room, and board run about $54,000. But it's the mix of academic rigor and quirky atmosphere that attracts many to the school.

Celia Oney, a 2011 graduate from Northfield, Minn., became a licensed operator of Reed's washing machine-sized nuclear research reactor, the only one of its kind run primarily by students at an American liberal arts college. She now hopes to go into nuclear research, though her major was in the classics.

The two disciplines may seem widely divergent, but Oney thinks her academic experience can only help her and says she is happy she had the chance to pursue "learning for the sake of learning."

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