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An Educational Surprise from Down East: Maine Maritime Academy


Eastport, Maine, which Deb and Jim Fallows have been profiling recently in their American Futures posts – and which Jim is writing an article about for the January issue of the magazine (subscribe here!) – is a tiny town of 1300 people in Washington county, which wraps around Maine’s farthest “down East” stretches.

Washington County calls itself the “Sunrise County” because it’s the easternmost county in the U.S, where the sun first rises on the 48 contiguous states. But it doesn’t boast about being the poorest county in Maine, which it is. Many of the small seaside communities dotting the county’s eastern border survive on small-scale fishing operations, while much of the rest of the county’s economy depends on wild blueberries. This is hardscrabble-life territory. That’s why towns like Eastport are working so strenuously to innovate and find paths to a more prosperous future.

It’s also why a college education leading to a solid career is perhaps even more prized here than in much of the rest of the U.S – why families celebrate when their kids get admitted to their chosen college.

There’s nothing unusual about celebrating your kid’s admission to a preferred college with a party.  But for many families in Maine, that party has a name – a “lottery party,” as in “our kid just won the lottery.” I’m told this is what lots of folks in Maine call such a celebration that follows admission to the Maine Maritime Academy (MMA), graduation from which, they believe, virtually guarantees lifetime earnings equal to a big lottery win.

Deb and Jim Fallows told me they heard people in Eastport sing the praises of MMA, which is several hours southwest of Eastport, in Castine.  Not knowing anything about MMA, I decided to look into it. One of the people in Eastport who championed the MMA as attention-worthy is Captain Bob Peacock (USNR-Ret.), the Eastport harbor pilot Deb mentions here. Peacock is a 1971 graduate of MMA and, it turns out, chairman of its board of trustees. When he heard I was going to Castine to check out MMA, he said he’d meet me there, arrange for me to meet with the president, Bill Brennan, as well as faculty and students – and also give me a personal tour.

What a revelation.

Not least, the place is beautiful. Castine (population 1,366) is one of the oldest towns in Maine. White clapboard houses surround an appealing campus that sits on a hill near Penobscot Bay, overlooking Castine Harbor. (Town and campus in photo above.) Much of the town doesn’t look too different from how it must have looked in 1779, when Paul Revere and other Americans on the Penobscot Expedition were routed by the British here.

But it’s not the charm of the place that is the principal attraction to students who apply here; the career preparation is. And the waterside, small-town tranquility that envelops MMA belies the institution’s high-tech underpinnings, which I’ll touch on below.

This is a college whose student body is largely self-selected. As one professor told me, “dabblers don’t come here.” Highly directed students who know what they want to do are the kind of people who matriculate at MMA. Application numbers are atall-time highs for admission to this public four-year college. This year’s tuition ranges from $9,080 for in-state students to $19,900 for out-of-state students, with students from some other New England states paying $13,620. Financial aidis, of course, available. And as an indicator of the success MMA’s students typically enjoy, Bill Brennan told me, “The default rate on the loans we issue is around 1.5 percent — as opposed to 12 or 13 percent at most institutions.”  Undergraduate enrollment has climbed to nearly 1,000.  According to President Brennan, the place is “bursting at the seams” with students eager for the education obtainable here. “Enrollment is slipping in lots of colleges around the country, but we’re beyond capacity here.”

They come to study to be navigation officers (ultimately, captains and pilots) of huge ocean-going vessels as well as smaller ships. (Did you see Captain Phillips? If so, then you’ve seen the kinds of jobs some of these students train for.) Some come to major in engineering – learning to design, install and operate power-generation, hydraulic, electrical, and other systems on vessels and in shore-based utilities. Still others come to the business school to study global logistics and business operations in international trade.

Increasing numbers of MMA students come to study marine science and marine biology, many doing a dual-degree option in small-vessel operations, which prepares them to work in various fields of ocean science where they may also need the capability to operate small research craft (“small” here means vessels not over 200 gross tons).  That particular combination is very popular and, one professor told me, “golden” in its career prospects.

And that’s the point. Whatever their course of study, young people enroll here because they know their education will prepare them for a career, typically a quite lucrative one. MMA understandably boasts that each year it places more than 90 percent of its graduating class in professional employment or graduate studies within 90 days of graduation, many of those with starting salaries over $100,000. At a recent career fair on campus, 80 companies showed up to recruit MMA students, many of whom already have firm job offers well before they’re seniors.

When you walk around the MMA campus, you see many students in the khaki or blue uniforms of midshipmen. Approximately 60 percent of MMA students are in the “regiment of midshipmen,” mostly those seeking an unlimited license in the U.S. Merchant Marine. But regimental training – with its uniforms, leadership training, discipline, and additional duties (though no military obligation after graduation) – is open to all students.  The regimented and “traditional” students attend the same classes, participate in the same clubs, Division-III athletic teams, and other activities.

What struck me at MMA was how much hands-on experience these students get. (Video here.) Everybody gets cooperative-learning experience, appropriate to their educational and career goals, either aboard vessels or with companies involved in industrial manufacturing, logistics, engineering, oceanographic research, or marine biology.

And the on-campus training is enriched by impressive high-tech facilities, as I mentioned above.  For example, I was awed by the state-of-the-art, computerizednavigation simulator (seen in photo below), used to train deck officers.  It’s in the campus Center for Advanced Technology, in a large room set up like a ship’s bridge. A semicircle of 55-inch flat-screen monitors provides students with real-life simulations of port approaches and harbors anywhere in the world. The day I was there, the harbor on the simulator’s screens was New York. It was so authentic that I might as well have been looking from the Staten Island Ferry – and so realistic that people have gotten seasick in the room.

The instructor can call up simulations of full darkness, heavy fog, and various untoward incidents (approaching vessel, collision, man overboard, etc.) to challenge student navigators in all sorts of situations.  This simulator also includes controls for Dynamic Positioning (DP) systems, a technology that enables precise maneuverability for offshore oil rigs, tugs, and large passenger ships, thus allowing  students to get training necessary to handle the newest, most advanced marine vessels out there.

Students in certain programs are required to take two training cruises of at least 60 days – one each at the end of their first and third years. These cruises, aboard theState of Maine (large ship pictured below) orient students to a ship’s deck and engineering areas, and provide specific hands-on experience in the students’ areas of major.  And in the summer after the sophomore year, students in some majors are assigned to merchant vessels for several months of additional shipboard experience. Others, like students studying business and logistics, must get a co-operative work experience with a company, lasting a minimum of twelve 40-hour work weeks, at the end of the third year.

So, a large part of the extraordinary success MMA graduates have in getting good jobs right after graduation has to do with the experiential training they get at the academy. As Bob Peacock put it, “these students learn how to do things. We teachhow to make it happen.”

The other part of MMA graduates’ success comes from the fact that they’ve been training for careers where there’s extraordinary demand for employees. The international cargo shipping industry is growing so fast that it’s hard for American flagships to find qualified navigators and engineers. International businesses need people skilled in the kind of sophisticated logistics contemporary world trade demands. And as people around the world look to the oceans as a growing source of food and natural resources, those trained in marine biology and marine science are in high demand.

Here’s what’s important and interesting about all this. The kind of education provided at MMA and America’s six other maritime academies is not familiar to most Americans. Most of us, I would wager, have only the slightest idea what goes on at these institutions. That’s too bad, because what’s going on is some of the most compelling education to be found anywhere.

And in an era when angst about whether the benefits of a college education are outweighed by the staggering costs – and when many critics of American higher education bemoan the banality and uselessness of what happens on college campuses – the Maine Maritime Academy provides an arresting antidote to those negative narratives and to the notion that we’re headed downhill.  This is the kind of place that makes America work. And succeed.


This post originally appeared at


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What Would an Ideal College Curriculum Look Like? A Lot Like This

If you’ve been attentive to the growing series of posts here under the banner of the American Futures project, you know that Deb and Jim Fallows have been examining  small, resilient American cities that are home to intriguing innovations and entrepreneurship. A few days ago, as part of the project’s recent focus on Burlington, Vermont, I took a look at two of the three great colleges there.  Now let’s look in on the third, Champlain College. You’ll see why this one fits the project’s ongoing “American ingenuity” theme.

If you could design your ideal college from scratch, what would it look like? Mine would look something like the following. Students would acquire training that makes them immediately employable. They’d take courses in the liberal arts that would sharpen their skills in writing, analysis, and reasoning. And they’d graduate with some real-life knowledge, such as how to interview for a job. There’d be no tenure for faculty, but instructors would be made to feel they’re valued members of the enterprise. And administrators would constantly ask themselves “how can we prepare students for what the world needs of them?”

While you’re busy designing your version of the ideal, I can take a nap or go fishing, because somebody has already built mine: Champlain College. It is doing everything I’ve described and, in the process, is gaining the attention of the higher-ed world. The words I’ve heard used to describe Champlain include innovative, nimble, adaptable. A professor from nearby St. Michael’s College told me, with unabashed admiration, “Champlain is always asking itself What works?”

Founded in 1878 and long known as the Burlington Business College, Champlain assumed its current name in 1958, when it had only 60 students in various associate’s degree programs.  Starting bachelor’s degree programs in 1991, the college now enrolls 2000 undergraduates – an enrollment cap it committed to several years ago in an agreement with the student-rich city of Burlington.  When it launched its bachelor’s programs, this college long known for training secretaries and accountants, began to reinvent itself, earning respect for its enterprising spirit.

The dominant ethos of Champlain – that “what works?” mentality – intensified when David Finney arrived from NYU in 2005 to become president.  Finney quickly instituted what he calls a “three-dimensional education” program, an undergraduate curriculum consisting of interdisciplinary liberal-arts courses, a life-skills program, and training for a career.

Though it’s a career-focused college, Champlain requires its students to take a core curriculum of liberal-arts courses over four years to enhance intellectual discipline and critical thinking. Believing that “American higher education has really lost its way with general-education courses,” Finney told me that when he arrived in his new job, he decided to spend all of his “honeymoon capital” as new president to replace the “hodge-podge of courses” that formed the liberal-arts core. He assembled a faculty task force to design a revised core aiming to build habits of mind students will need “not just as they’re leaving here,” Finney says, “but over their lifetime.“

A painstaking process of reinvention led to new core courses designed to help students develop global awareness and strengthen their analytical and reasoning abilities, critical reading skills, and writing proficiency. These courses have no tests. The work is heavily oriented toward writing. Classes consist mainly of discussion and project teamwork rather than lectures. Students and faculty are active learners together.

A second component of Champlain’s undergraduate education comes through its required “Life Experience and Action Dimension” program, which has two parts: (1) some real-world education, emphasizing financial literacy and sophistication (developing a budget, making sense of credit cards, understanding how employee benefits work and why they’re important, etc.) and job skills (marketing oneself, negotiating business contracts, and developing skills in interviewing, networking, etc.); and (2) a community-service element that puts students to work helping Burlington’s needy and simultaneously broadening cultural awareness and a sense of engaged citizenship.

The third element of a Champlain education, and the part for which the college is probably best known, is its career-oriented training. At Champlain, “professional education” doesn’t just mean traditional majors like marketing or accounting, but an array of innovative concentrations such as computer and digital forensics, computer networking and cybersecurity, computer-game art design and animation, digital and streaming media.

Moreover, Champlain inaugurated an inventive “upside-down curriculum,”allowing first-year students to take up to six classes in their major. Consequently, students get hands-on-learning experiences right off the bat, with theory saved for later. This helps students get internships and early job offers. According to an article in Seven Days – the successful print newspaper in Burlington that Jim profiled last month – Champlain students in majors like cybersecurity (recentlyrecognized as the top such program in the country) “are now so highly sought after that many are being recruited while still in their junior year, and sometimes even earlier.”

Champlain wants to be an economic engine for Vermont and tries to stay in front of the curve, especially on tech-driven career training. Finney explained one of the ways the college does that: “Most of our programs have affiliated advisory boards with people from Vermont businesses. We ask these people ‘what are you going to need?’ Not ‘what do you need now,’ but ‘what are you going to need in the future?’ And we try to meet those needs. So people in companies here have the sense that Champlain is their partner. And we’re very future-oriented.” Little wonder, then, that Champlain has become, as one reporter put it, “a training ground for Vermont software development firms and other high-tech employers” [like the ones Jim described here and here].

Internally, the college seems healthy, too. There’s palpable energy and enthusiasm on this campus. You might expect the faculty to be angry or resentful about the no-tenure policy. They’re not. Several people, including Finney, told me the absence of tenure “has never been an issue,” a claim the Faculty Senate’s President, Laurel Bongiorno, affirms.  Faculty members work under individual, multi-year contracts – a good arrangement most American workers would love to have.

As I walked around campus, talking with students, I was struck by a common theme: many spoke of Champlain’s congeniality, its spirit of collaborative learning, and the absence of barriers separating students from faculty. Addressing that theme, Finney told me, “Yes, our DNA is very unusual. The vast majority of our faculty prefer that students address them by their first name. People see themselves as part of learning teams. It’s an intensely personal place.”

I got one small indicator of Champlain’s specialness when visiting in mid-September.  I went into the beautiful library (photo above) on consecutive afternoons, a Thursday and Friday. If you’re familiar with contemporary college life, you know that on many campuses, students typically treat these like weekend days. Not at Champlain. I was astonished (and I don’t use that word lightly here) to see nearly every seat filled, students working. When I told Finney about this, he chuckled knowingly. “I’ve noticed the same thing. Encouraging, isn’t it?”

Finney’s right about Champlain’s unusual DNA. American higher education would be better off if more colleges tried to replicate what’s going on here.


This article originally appeared at

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Choosing a College

I have mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, choosing a college is a really big deal. The choice has so many consequences. On the other hand, it doesn’t matter at all: Most people will be happy at whatever college they choose and, if they try, they’ll get a perfectly fine education wherever they go.

06BRUNI-articleLargeBut here is a great primer on the subject by Frank Bruni of the New York Times. Prospective college students should take his advice to heart, especially his closing: “College can shrink your universe, or college can expand it. I recommend the latter.” He’s right: choose a college that will expand your universe. Whatever else it’s all about, that’s the most important thing.

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Tips for Surviving Freshman Year of College

Over the last few years, I've discovered that the single most frequently read post on this blog (FAR outnumbering any other post or topic) is this item from June of 2008 that contained advice for college freshmen, offered a couple years earlier by Ben Jones, an assistant director of admissions at MIT, to the incoming class of 2010 there.  I think the post was picked up by sites like StumbleUpon, because it gets dozens of hits a day.

Recently, I received an email from a woman who came across that post in the course of doing some research for a piece she was editing, which she wanted to call to readers' attention.  It offers tips for surviving freshman year of college. You can find it here.  It's commonplace fare, not as interesting or fresh as the advice from Ben Jones.  But I offer it to you for what it's worth.  Cheers. And good luck. 

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Beating the College Bookstore

Among the marketplaces in America long known for ripping people off, college bookstores rank right up there near the top. Traditionally, there's no competition and no easy way for students to get their hands on needed books from alternate sources.  But that's slowly begun to change in the past few years, and here's a new development that should quicken the rate of change: a textbook price-comparison web app for college students.  Check out this price comparison tool that is the result of a partnership between the 20 Million Minds Foundation (20MM) and  (Screenshot of web app below.)




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Scourge of the Deanlets

ImagesThis morning’s Wall Street Journal carries a review of a new book about the problem of administrative bloat in American colleges and universities. The author of The Fall of the Faculty is Benjamin Ginsberg, a distinguished political scientist at Johns Hopkins University.  

From the review:

In his lacerating “The Fall of the Faculty,” Mr. Ginsberg argues that universities have degenerated into poorly managed pseudo-corporations controlled by bureaucrats so far removed from research and teaching that they have barely any idea what these activities involve. He attacks virtually everyone—from overpaid presidents and provosts down through development officers, communications specialists and human-resource staffers—but he reserves his most bitter scorn for the midlevel “associate deans” and “assistant deans” who often have the most direct control over the faculty. Mr. Ginsberg refers to them as “deanlets,” but at my institution they are often called “ass. deans.”

From 1975 to 2005, the costs of attending an American university tripled. During that period, faculty-to-student ratios stayed relatively constant, but administrator-to-student ratios ballooned. The number of administrators increased by 85%, and the number of staffers rose by 240%. Administrative salaries shot up as well. Today, 81 university presidents are paid more than half a million dollars a year, and 12 earn more than a million.

Ginsberg has put his finger on a serious problem in American colleges and universities. 

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The Great College Collapse

A month or so ago, I pointed to new evidence that America’s colleges and college students are heading downward in various ways.  Two new books make the same argument. Craig Brandon’s The Five-Year Party describes America’s “alcohol-soaked, sex-saturated, drug-infested campuses” as education-free zones. [See a review in today’s Wall Street Journal.]  That ought to give pause to the hundreds of thousands of families writing big tuition checks this month.  Brandon’s book takes a fairly sensationalistic approach, although his critique surely has merit. 

A more measured, scholarly approach to the problem of American colleges and universities can be found in a new book by Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus, entitled Higher Education?   The book’s subtitle is more informative about its contents: How Colleges Are Wasting Our Money and Failing Our Kids — And What We Can Do About It. A review in last Monday’s WSJ summarized the authors’ case: “[C]olleges and universities serve the people who work there more than the parents and taxpayers who pay for ‘higher education’ or the students who so desperately need it.”  Hacker and Dreifus argue that parents ought to steer kids away from high-cost colleges and universities that seem to offer status and prestige but often produce graduates burdened by debt.  They conclude: “A debt-free beginning is worth far more than a name-brand imprimatur.”    Amen.