Pros: Well-rounded education with challenging academic programs, easy access to profs, safe and friendly community
Cons: Limited student activities, conservative town, hypocrisy of "dry campus", very expensive
It's been two years now since I graduated from Earlham, and I'm almost done with a master's degree. I don't have any of the traditional kind of nostalgia, in the sense of wanting to be back there; I can't imagine myself being one of those strange folks who graduate and continue to hang around Richmond, Indiana. But I consider myself extremely luck to have gone to Earlham for my college education.
Nuts and Bolts
Earlham is very, very expensive. Yearly tuition, with room and board (all incoming students are required to live in dorms and purchase a meal plan), comes to well over $20,000. Many students receive financial aid; unfortunately, for some, most of the aid takes the form of loans. I have friends who graduated with me and will be paying back the equivalent of a mortgage on a small house for the next ten years or more.
Earlham is a small college, with majors and minors in a limited selection of hard sciences, social sciences, and humanities. Unlike at a large university, where you might major in "International Economics, with an emphasis on Development," here you would simply major in "Economics."
Most students live in the dorms, and eat in the cafeteria. The dorms vary in quality; by your second or third year, you will be able to choose between the "party dorm", the "study dorm," the "wellness halls", and other options. Each has good things and bad that can be said about it. Ask students who live there what the dorms are like.
The cafeteria is known as "Saga," after a company that once ran it. Currently, it is run by Sodexho Marriot. The bad news is that Sodexho treats their workers cruelly, and is linked to such ugly industries as private prisons. The good news is that the cafeteria is actually pretty good, by institutional food standards. There is a large salad bar, pasta and stir-fry options, good ol' hamburgers and hot dogs, and other options so that you can always find or make something edible. One does tire of eating there every day after a while; by my senior year, I was more than ready to abandon Saga and start cooking for myself. It would be nice if the meal plan were an option, rather than being mandatory for most students.
Upperclassmen who don't want to live in dorms have other options. There are 10 or 12 off-campus, college-owned houses, once again with varying environments, in which students who live there have the most influence over how things are run. Some students also live in their own houses and apartments. I stayed in the dorms throughout my time at EC (other than my semester spent off-campus) in order to take advantage of the high-speed internet connection they offer.
One advantage you won't find at most schools is the wooded area known as "back campus". Behind Earlham's campus, there are several hundred acres of woods, trails, streams, and precariously high sewage pipes. Exploring back campus, and going to parties back there for some, is an important part of the experience. It's a great place to go when you have papers due; once you're back campus, you can put a relaxing mile or two between yourself and that pile of books on your desk.
Earlham counts among its strongest programs Biology, Japanese, Psychology, English, Philosophy, various fine arts, and "SOAN" or Sociology/Anthropology. Its weaker ones include several departments in which the school just doesn't seem willing to invest, such as Computer Science; despite a significant number of students who are interested in CS, the department has yet to hire a single full-time professor (as of my graduation in 2000, at least). The prof who heads the department does it only as a part-time job, and devotes much of his time to farming (no joke) and running an ISP.
Although I may have had a personality conflict with one or two profs, I was very happy with the psychology program, which made up my major. Classes on social and developmental psych, serious mental illness, and counseling and psychotherapy were all excellent. We learned the facts and theory in these areas, explored ethical and logical questions, and worked our asses off.
I was also able to take some great classes in music, philosophy, Japanese (although I only stuck with it for my first year), and astronomy. Not every prof suited my preferences, but one thing they all have in common is that they come to Earlham to teach. There is not the hierarchy of grad students and ivory-tower-bound professors that one finds at a large university; Earlham professors go by their first names, and you can talk to them as equals who happen to have PhD's and are there to impart something to their students.
Looking back, I have to categorize Earlham's social environment as "not that bad." You will have a chance to talk to students from many different countries (Earlham has dozens of students from Japan and Palestine, among others), Quakers (a liberal, pacifist breed of Christianity that contributes around 15% of the students), different parts of the U.S., different academic interests and social backgrounds, etc. You will make friends in your dorm, in classes, and in student activities.
The bad news is that as a Quaker school, Earlham subscribes to the "dry campus" principle. Quaker beliefs forbid the use of alcohol and other drugs, and Earlham claims not to tolerate such things on campus. In real life, however, a majority of students drink, at least once in a while, and quite a few smoke pot, with a smaller number using other substances. This seems to create a social division between "dry" students and those who like to get buzzed. There is unpleasant stereotyping in both directions, with those who drink and smoke pot seeing those who don't as "straitlaced" or "politically correct," while those who don't often moralize about those who do. I had friends on both sides of the aisle, and often wished that they could just get along. If Earlham were to give up on trying to create a dry campus, it would be a meaningful first step.
Earlham does not have as many student organizations as one might like. As a graduate student at a large university, I have explored far more interests than I have time to continue with. At Earlham, there are only a handful of activist clubs and hobby groups, as well as a couple of academic clubs and religious/ethnic groups. When you only have 1,000 students, it inevitably seems to limit the variety of clubs and activities you can offer.
I highly recommend that anyone who chooses to attend Earlham spend at least a semester off campus. Students can choose to spend a semester, or in some cases a year, in Japan, France, England, Mexico, Palestine, Northern Ireland, Spain, and other destinations. I spent a semester in England (a location I chose mainly because I hadn't mastered any foreign languages) and had a great time. I took classes from British profs and writers, lived in a British home, and had plenty of spare time to explore the city. Living in a foreign country for a few months is an exciting experience, and a great way to avoid spending all four years on Earlham's small, insular campus.
Earlham's campus job situation is not the greatest. When I was there, most campus jobs paid minimum wage, no matter how tiring or skilled they were. It was especially hard to get a job if you weren't on work-study, a form of financial aid. I would consider this to be fair if work-study dollars actually went toward tuition, but most people I knew cashed there work-study checks and spent the money themselves. Pay worked out to be even less than minimum wage for some jobs; I had a job at one time at which I was paid for only 3 hours each week, but worked for as many as 5. I didn't desperately need the money, but it didn't strike me as a fair arrangement.
Politically conservative folks have commented at times that they feel out of place at Earlham. While they are in the minority, I think it is far from impossible for them to safely express their views. Their comments are often seen in Earlham's paper, The Word, and other sources. Earlham is a safe environment for vigorous exchange of ideas, and that is an aspect of it that I liked very much.