The benefits of studying at a college consortium



When I first began the exploration into my college prospects, I made a list of my non-negotiables: small class sizes and student-to-faculty ratios, robust and well-funded research and internship opportunities, an expansive curriculum that encouraged diverse interests, and appetizing dining hall food.

I wanted the opportunity to broaden my perspectives through an active and well-defined study abroad program, and I needed a flexible curriculum that would allow me to meander through different, interesting courses. As someone from the Sunshine State, it also didn’t hurt to continue having mild winters and to never have to learn to shovel muddy snow.

My requirements for an undergraduate institution were robust, cultivated through countless informational videos by current students, virtual campus tours, and deep dives into extensive school websites. However, in all of my considerations for my dream school, I never thought that I would be able to attend five colleges at the same time. I’m a better student for having done so.

What is a college consortium?

A consortium describes the relationship between a dedicated group of colleges who formally share academic and social resources. This means that students can take classes at other schools, declare majors through another institution, and participate in many events and activities that are resourced by all of the participating colleges. Consortia greatly benefit both students and institutions because they allow for students to access a broader range of social and academic resources.

One of the oldest consortia in the United States is the Five Colleges Consortium, a formation of Amherst College, University of Massachusetts-Amherst, Smith College, Hampshire College, and Mount Holyoke College. Consortia can be smaller, like the Tri-College Consortium in Pennsylvania, composed of Bryn Mawr, Haverford, and Swarthmore, or they can be larger, like the Baltimore Collegetown consortium, which has thirteen member colleges including Johns Hopkins University and Towson University.

My alma mater is Pomona College, a private liberal arts college (LAC) in Claremont, California, less than 40 miles from Los Angeles. Pomona is the founding member of the Claremont Colleges, a consortium of five undergraduate institutions and two graduate schools.

The author with their graduation stole from the Office of Black Student Affairs. May 2020.


My experience in a five-college consortium

At Pomona, I majored in Africana Studies, which is a discipline that examines the histories, cultures and cultural production, philosophies, economics, political formations, and literature of Black people, as descendants from the continent of Africa. We also look at African diasporas, including but not limited to the Transatlantic Slave Trade, and other massive intercontinental and transcontinental movements of Black people throughout the world.

As you might already notice, Africana/Black Studies is incredibly vast, which made it hard for me to decide on a disciplinary focus: I loved political theory and examining the effects of global events on economic systems and nations; I spent a lot of my time looking at art films by Black cultural workers/artists like Julie Dash, Beyoncé, and Kasi Lemmons; and I was impacted by many Black thinkers in Francophone Africa and the Caribbean, like Aimé Césaire and Franz Fanon. There was still the issue of finding different instructors who suited my disciplinary fascinations through their own scholarly specialties.

Attending a college consortium made it possible for me to combine and deepen all of my interests in one place. In my first year, alongside my introductory seminars in Africana Studies, I was fortunate enough to be one of the few first-years to get a spot in a Scripps upper-division English seminar that focused on the literary luminary and political activist James Baldwin. The course combined documentaries, feature films, music theory, and literary analysis to survey his extensive body of work, which includes novels like Go Tell It on the Mountain, now my favorite novel, and Giovanni’s Room, as well as essays, plays, and raps.

The experience of learning through a scholar of his work solidified my decision to pursue literature as my formal concentration, allowing me to understand that all of my academic interests could cleanly fit into my course of study with a little maneuvering and perseverance. That pursuit was especially possible with five institutions at my disposal, each with its own disciplinary strengths and faculty.

Spurred by the Baldwin essay topics that introduced me to comparative literature and film analyses, I took a Media Studies class at Harvey Mudd that allowed me to explore the idea of exilic film, or film created in or with the idea of social and political exile by auteurs from regions like the Congo, Argentina, France, China, and Vietnam.

When I studied abroad at the University of Cape Town, I was delighted to find my professor’s name atop one of our assigned articles in my Film in Africa course. Had Claremont not allowed me to explore beyond my campus, accessing one of the 2,000 courses available to all Claremont undergraduates, I wouldn’t have been able to make such prismatic connections.

The author with their graduation stole from the Office of Black Student Affairs. May 2020.


Why you should consider it too

Students who attend college consortia enjoy the intellectual and social amenities of every school. My classes were full of students primarily from Pomona, Pitzer, and Scripps, who all imparted their wisdom and lived experiences on our subjects. I miss lunches spent listening to speakers, artists, and political activists from the Scripps Presents series; I think often on the insightful lectures at Harvey Mudd’s Shanahan Center on race, gender, and public health. It would be remiss of me to elide the major benefit that was having eight dining halls at my disposal: the most taxing part of my gastronomic decisions was in deciding if I wanted to walk to Claremont McKenna for their taqueria night, or if I should bike up to Harvey Mudd for what is still one of the best build-your-own pizzas I’ve ever had.

I wanted a smaller, quieter campus to be my refuge for four years of intense academic study. While I always had the option to stay internal and on my campus, many of my courses and extracurricular engagements, like volunteering and social action, encouraged me to relate and work more with other students in the 5Cs. The ability to take space on my campus when I needed it, and to engage with a wider social network when I wanted, was indispensable.

The 5Cs propelled me to be more collaborative and interdisciplinary — if that was the very design of the campuses, why shouldn’t I be? As you venture into your own college application processes, consider how duality can be an integral feature of your college career.

Consortia expand the limits on what is possible: you can have both a small and a large school; be an agent of change across multiple campuses; and, most remarkably, you can see dinner not as a singular menu, but as eight dessert options vying for your attention.


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