Bennington College listed as a turnaround institution in Forbes

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BENNINGTON — After three years under new leadership, Bennington College has been featured as a turnaround college in Forbes magazine, next to Drexel University in Pennsylvania.

In "Turnaround U: Here Are Tomorrow's Hot Colleges," writer Matt Schifrin lays out President Mariko Silver's resume and the challenges the institution has faced, but has since ameliorated. Known for its unconventional education, Bennington has seen declined enrollment, a 65 percent acceptance rate and an 83 percent retention rate. As of last June, Silver increased the college's operating surplus to $2.2 million from a $6.9 million deficit, decreased its discount rate to 43 percent from 58 percent, and has focused on recruiting high school students more effectively, according to the Forbes article.

Additionally, students have strengthened ties with surrounding communities by volunteering with local and regional organizations, collaborating with the Bennington Museum and incorporating the PFOA (perfluorooctanoic) water crisis into the institution's "pop-up" classes.

"[The article] really is focused on the management of the college, but for us it's about the core of the education that we provide," Silver told the Banner on Wednesday, "the emphasis of the work in the world."

For the first time in 20 years, Silver managed to get the acceptance rate to fall below 60 percent and mark up 13 percent of students from international backgrounds. Next month, recruits will travel to China, along with Stanford and Johns Hopkins representatives, at Beijing's Peninsula Hotel. Silver will deliver the keynote address on "The Importance of Innovation and Creativity in Higher Education," according to the Forbes article.

Silver's previous work included serving as the senior advisor to the Arizona State University president, a project manager and tech policy specialist at Columbia University, and a strategist in the Obama administration.

The college's 10th president plans to bring "a team orientation, a collaborative approach and an experience with building on strong cultures in ways that are inclusive and bring people together around a shared vision" to the management of the college.

She said she wants the students in "create mode" all the time, which relates to the "pop-up" classes: "The Semiotics of Trump," "Gravitational Waves: Observing Spacetime for the First Time," and current events such as the Ferguson, Miss., shooting and protests, the Nepal earthquake and the Charlie Hebdo murders. These are introduced halfway through a traditional course and run for about five classes.

"What's different from other small liberal arts schools is that we do really engage students and support them and ask them to create and hone their skills and capabilities to make things in the world much early than other educations do," Silver said. "[Students] also have to be willing to listen and receive."

Bennington College was established in 1932 as an all girls school and turned coed in 1969. The private, nonprofit is accredited by the New England Association of Schools and Colleges (NEASC) and currently enrolls 704 undergraduate and 97 graduate students, according to its website. It also is the only college to require an annual internship since its inception.

The conventional learning vision is based on the idea that "students develop ideas in the classroom, and then test those ideas where it counts," as well as map out their own education through graduate-style academic advising.

In a traditional undergraduate math class, one would have to learn about geometry, trigonometry or calculus, but at Bennington, the first introductory class to mathematics is how to think mathematically, said faculty member Katie Montovan. She was hired at the same time Silver was and graduated from and worked at Cornell University before going to Bennington.

"[Pop-up classes] show the flexibility we have here in how we define what education means and the pop-up courses are the answers to how we respond dynamically for education in certain areas," Montovan said. "I haven't seen other schools respond that dynamically."

In her classroom, students are doing the thinking and talking, she said. They're given the problem and must figure out a structure to solve it themselves.

"We have a much more diverse sort of interest than upper level courses draw and that's really exciting and fun to teach," she said. "Students are really self driven. We worked really hard to teach them how to develop themselves and shape the education. The faculty is qualified to lead on current events and what goes into it. [There's also] flexibility from the administration in how we implement courses, which really makes it possible."

Bennington also appeared in Forbes' 2015 "Startup Schools: America's Most Entrepreneurial Colleges" as No. 4 for the annual internships. Colorado College, Middlebury College and Cooper Union stepped in front.

The Forbes article can be found online until the print edition comes out later in August.

— Makayla-Courtney McGeeney can be reached at (802)-447-7567, ext. 118.


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