Swarthmore students are used to the idea that they attend an exceptionally rigorous school. From the classic “Swarthmore: Anywhere Else, It Would’ve Been an A” t-shirt to the orientation play’s warnings about “misery pokemon,” the idea is an essential part of our self-image.
“This is almost our branding, our identity: all across the country, people recognize this,” said Peace and Conflict Studies professor Sa’ed Atshan ’06, himself a Swarthmore alumnus. “I haven’t seen other institutions where people take pride in the intensity, and that it becomes something to boast about and a way that we define ourselves […] We’re unabashed, we’re shameless in that this is a very intense place.”
This notion of exceptional academic intensity is occasionally validated by third parties: a 2014 Daily Beast article listed Swarthmore as the fourth most rigorous college in the nation, and the college came in third on The Princeton Review’s list of “students who spend the most time studying.”
Other faculty members echoed the assertion that Swarthmore is an especially difficult school. Political science professor Katherine Javian, who has also taught at Temple, Widener, and the University of Pennsylvania, said that her Swarthmore syllabi are the most rigorous of the four.
“There’s definitely a big difference in terms of how challenging the work is and also the amount of work you’re going to assign […] I think it’s true at Swarthmore that students work really hard, and that they expect to work hard,” Javian said.
However, there is little in the way of quantitative, side-by-side comparisons of Swarthmore’s academic intensity to other colleges, leaving the question open: how hard is Swarthmore?
To find out, we gathered course syllabi from a range of colleges and universities and compared the amount of work to similar classes at Swarthmore. Since the easiest variable to quantify is the number of pages students are assigned to write, we compared low-level, writing-based classes that are widespread across many colleges, such as Intro to American or International Politics, Intro to Film Studies, or a survey course in European history.
The data does seem to fit the narrative that Swarthmore is an exceptionally intense place. With an average of 18.6 pages of assigned writing per class, Swarthmore tops the list, exceeding Penn’s average by a narrow 0.8 pages.
On the other hand, it’s clear that the variation between the “elite” schools on the survey was relatively small, especially relative to the two less selective schools. Temple and Drexel, the two universities with acceptance rates higher than 25%, both averaged around 11 pages. In comparison, the averages for other schools were all within the range of 15.3 and 18.6 pages.
However, we should be careful not to base conclusions solely on this survey: the sample size was small (eight courses per school) and biased toward syllabi we could access through Google. Further, we could only compare low-level, writing-based courses, which may or may not be representative of the way the schools compare to each other in general.
Some professors were also hesitant to say that Swarthmore is exceptional in its intensity. Physics Professor Benjamin Geller ’01, who has also taught classes at UC Berkeley and Columbia, cautioned that although Swarthmore is certainly rigorous, it’s not necessarily dramatically more difficult than other schools.
“If by harder you mean that there’s a real sort of expectation of intellectual rigor and not cutting corners, then I think that is one of the things that’s true about Swarthmore. If you just mean more work, I don’t know: I think that varies so much from faculty member to faculty member at every place,” Geller said. “But I do think there’s an expectation that any course you take at Swarthmore will have a certain amount of intellectual rigor, and that you’re going to have to think hard.”
However, the idea that the college is exceptionally intense was supported by professors that teach courses with little or no writing. Russian professor Tsvetelina Yordanova, who has taught language courses at many schools, including Rutgers, Princeton, and Middlebury, explained that the intensity of Swarthmore courses is reflected in the progress students make.
“I can only speak for the language program, but here with first-year Russian we’re going through a textbook that would take about a year and a half at every other college where I’ve taught,” said Yordanova. “The students we have here at second year are pretty much at the level of a lot of my students when I was in grad school in terms of language. So yes, it is a lot more work, but you also get better results, so it is worthwhile, I think.”