Swarthmore College is located in Swarthmore, PA: about half an hour outside of downtown Philadelphia. It is one of the most selective Liberal Arts Colleges in the country. It currently enrolls just over 1,500 students, who had an average SAT score of 1450, and 75% of incoming freshman were in the top decile of their high school class. With the help of generous financial aid awards including grants and work study, students at Swarthmore College pay an average net cost of over $25,000, a fraction of the school’s sticker price.
Bowdoin College is also highly selective, with an acceptance rate of 15%. Located in Brunswick, Maine, Bowdoin is a short drive from the Atlantic coast and is home to nearly 1,800 students. The high selectivity of Bowdoin College is reflected in their students’ average SAT score of 1430 and 76% of the freshman class coming from the top ten percent of their high school. Average net cost for this school (including grants and work study) is over $26,000.
The numbers are nearly identical regarding price, acceptance, and test-taking abilities. So, how would families be able to differentiate between the two schools? Let’s see what the students told us about Bowdoin and Swarthmore in our annual Liberal Arts College Student survey.
When searching for the right school, prospective students have countless factors to consider. Academics may very well be at the top of this list. They are going to college to receive an education, after all. We decided to quantify the difficulty of academics at both Bowdoin and Swarthmore so high school students aren’t misled in any way.
15% of Swarthmore students said that the workload at their school was “Extremely Difficult,” whereas only 4% of Bowdoin students felt the same.
“[Swarthmore] possesses an intensity that at times I do not like, but drives me to accomplish much more than I ever thought possible,” said a Swarthmore freshman.
Nearly half of Swarthmore College students surveyed said they spend five or more hours studying per day, but only a third of Bowdoin respondents study more than four hours each day.
Said one Swarthmore junior, “The workload is just a little bit too intense, such that I think it makes everybody a little unstable. People don’t have time to take care of themselves mentally and physically unless you’re one of those frustrating super-humans who at the very least gives off the illusion of having it all together.”
About 41% of Swarthmore students and 34% of Bowdoin students described their school as “Highly Collaborative.” These results were consistently supported by student comments.
“For me, Bowdoin was exactly what it was advertised to be: a school with a challenging curriculum taught by fantastic professors, fantastic food and housing options, great quality of life, and extensive opportunities to shape community in and out of the classroom,” said a Bowdoin sophomore.
“It is not competitive even though it is extremely challenging. This makes it feel like a community where most people care about their studies and want to talk about them and solve problems together. The faculty are also highly interactive with students and are always open to offering guidance, answering questions, and providing help,” said a Swarthmore sophomore.
More than half of Bowdoin College students will study abroad through over 100 programs during their time in college. At Swarthmore, 40% of students take advantage of study abroad opportunities.
Overall, the academics at Swarthmore are more rigorous, possibly to a fault. At either school, you will most definitely find bright students who are dedicated to their own education as well as helping one another.
With all the hype surrounding the benefit of a small school/liberal arts education, one would expect professors and faculty at these two schools to be exceptional teachers and helpful mentors. And for the most part, this is exactly what we found.
“I get along with both my fellow students and my professors, and from talking to them I can see how everyone is so passionate about what they study or what they teach. They know what they love, and they do their best,” said a Swarthmore freshman.
“Bowdoin is full of really incredible students and faculty, and spending four years surrounded by such curiosity and seriousness of purpose has pushed me to be my best,” said a Bowdoin senior.
Nearly 60% of Swarthmore students said they converse with professors about classroom topics outside of class on at least a weekly basis. However, 9% responded that they “almost never” have this interaction.
About half of the Bowdoin students, on the other hand, revealed they interact with professors outside of class at least once a week, though only 4% answered “almost never.”
Students at Bowdoin were statistically more pleased with guidance they received from their academic advisers, with over three fourths saying they were “satisfied” or “very satisfied” regarding this relationship. Swarthmore students only responded “satisfied” or “very satisfied” 67% of the time, with 9% saying they were “not satisfied” with this guidance.
There is a surprising problem that students at Swarthmore seem to have relating to faculty (not including professors). 84% of Bowdoin students say their “non-teaching staff” is “very friendly and always accessible.”
This number is much smaller on the Swarthmore side, with only about half of the students selecting the most positive response. Half may still seem like a large amount of the student body, though the issue at Swarthmore was brought up again multiple times in the open-ended responses.
Said one Swarthmore sophomore, “The administration is not easy to deal with. Much of the time they are unhelpful in important matters, and continue to repeat the same old rhetoric. They do their best to not get students involved, and try hard to look good to other schools. They ignore present problems in the school. Ignore complaints. Try to make themselves look good.”
“[I would want] an administration that cared about student safety and not about covering their own asses,” said a Swarthmore junior.
At Bowdoin, similar issues with the administration seem nonexistent.
Said a Bowdoin freshman, “[I like the] acknowledgment of reality between administration and students – there is a lot of respect and no unnecessary rules. It creates a safe and welcoming environment throughout campus.”
So while both schools will provide excellent teaching staff, there is a clear winner when it comes to administration: Bowdoin comes out on top.
Since more than 90% of students live on campus at each of these colleges, it is vital that the environment keep students happy during their four years.
Regarding their housing situation, Swarthmore students were “very satisfied” 39% of the time, and “satisfied” 41% of the time. The mixed reactions were reflected in the student comments as well.
Student opinions vary from “I love my dorm and the people in it” (Swarthmore senior) to “[the dorms are] very loud, people are awake at all hours, and it is dirty” (Swarthmore sophomore). So it seems to be luck of the draw with the Swarthmore dorms, though the overall reaction is mostly a positive one.
At Bowdoin, 75% of students reported that they were “very satisfied” with their housing situation. Even the freshman were extremely happy with their dorms.
Sororities returned to Swarthmore in 2012, 80 years after students voted to ban them due to racial and religious discrimination. The return caused controversy among students, though the sorority was ultimately brought back to join the two fraternities on campus (which have a reputation of being racially and socioeconomically diverse).
Bowdoin, on the other hand, has no Greek life whatsoever.
Both campuses report a strong sense of community, with 67% of Swarthmore respondents rating it as “strong” to “very strong.” 74% of Bowdoin students selected these same answers.
Not one student from either school answered that their college has a “very weak” sense of community, which is more than can be said for other larger institutions; perhaps the small size of these schools contributes to a tight-knit community on campus. Bowdoin has the slight advantage here: more than a third of its students said the sense of community is “very strong.”
Involvement with the surrounding community can be very important for such small schools like Bowdoin and Swarthmore. 78% of Bowdoin students reported a “close” to “very close” relationship with the local community. This once again trumps Swarthmore’s 41% in these responses.
The food was a consistent highlight for our Bowdoin respondents, whereas Swarthmore’s dining options were the source of a few complaints.
Climate at Bowdoin and Swarthmore is definitely something prospective students want to consider (especially if they reside in a warmer climate), though it may not be as important as the academic environment.
Bowdoin, although most would imagine Maine to be unpleasantly cold, actually has a relatively mild climate due to its coastal location. Average annual snowfall is 72 inches, and average low temperature in January is 12 degrees Fahrenheit.
This is the largest difference in climate compared to Swarthmore, which has an average annual snowfall of only 20 inches and average low temperature of 25 degrees Fahrenheit. Otherwise, these two climates are surprisingly similar. The number of sunny days, amount of rainfall, and even elevation are all very close in Brunswick and Swarthmore.
Both schools have a social scene that was overwhelmingly reported as centered “mostly on-campus,” though Bowdoin students reported more opportunities to socialize off-campus. Swarthmore on-campus activities, perhaps as a result of the campus-centered social life, are more well-attended than Bowdoin college planned events (according to students).
The role of alcohol in a college’s social life is a valid concern of any prospective student or their parent. 85% of Bowdoin students said that alcohol is “somewhat important” to the social life. At Swarthmore, there was almost an equal balance between “somewhat important” and “somewhat unimportant,” indicating that alcohol is more prevalent at Bowdoin than at Swarthmore in the social scene. Perhaps this is proof that Greek life does not automatically result in gigantic keggers held every weekend.
Student happiness is extremely subjective and difficult to calculate, so we were very straightforward with our question. “Overall, how satisfied are you with your college experience and why?” With an open-ended response section also available, the responses to this question provided juicy details.
Swarthmore students reported they were “very satisfied” 46% of the time. That number seems impressive, but it shys in comparison to Bowdoin students’ responses: 72% were “very satisfied.”
It’s possible that the remarkably challenging academics take away from students’ overall experiences.
Said one Swarthmore junior, “What makes this school most rewarding are the people, and without them, the experience would probably be unlivable unless academic masochism makes you happy.”
But then again, the intense workload may bring the students closer to one another.
“Often times the amount of work that is assigned is so difficult to manage that we will prioritize our academics and sacrifice the opportunity to develop meaningful interpersonal relationships. But it’s always a balancing act, and you will never be faced by a lack of opportunity to forge those friendships and mentor/mentee relationships if you decide it is crucial to your time at Swarthmore,” said a Swarthmore sophomore.
Bowdoin students were consistently happy with both their education and overall experience.
“Going to Bowdoin helped me grow as a person. I wasn’t boxed into one subject but had the chance to explore many disciplines and ways to thinking. I became curious about subjects instead of just memorizing facts for tests, and now I find myself thinking critically in daily life,” said a Bowdoin sophomore.
The bottom line can be drawn with our final question of the survey: “Would you recommend this school to other students?”
66% of Swarthmore respondents said they would “definitely recommend” it. But once again, Bowdoin prevails. An overwhelming 90% of the students responded that they would “definitely recommend” Bowdoin to others.