What is a College Consortium?

When you attend college, you expect to take all your classes from the same school, join clubs and organizations within that school, and have a community defined entirely by your college. There is, however, another approach. College consortiums are collections of colleges that allow students to freely take classes at other member schools in the consortium, though their home college is still the base of their academic and social lives.

Consortiums give students much greater flexibility in which classes they can take, and what academic and social resources are available to them. Most high school students have not heard of consortiums however, so we will explain them in this article. We will cover what consortiums are and how they function, the benefits of attending, the most prestigious consortiums, and finally some notes on applying to a consortium.

How College Consortiums Work

Colleges within a consortium have a binding academic agreement, and share funding for some services. They also have joint budgetary agreements. Students live at, receive degrees from, and must meet the graduation requirements of, their home college. They are permitted to take classes from colleges throughout the consortiums, though each school has their own set of core requirements students must fulfill.

Some college consortiums have a strong shared culture, while others are more distinct. There is also variance in how much student organizations overlap between schools. Some consortiums are loose collectives; each school operating more or less separately apart from academics, while others strive to create a unified identity as a consortium.

Even consortiums which try to create a joint identity still have very distinct traditions and cultures at member institutions. Each is unique, with their own quirks and traditions. While there may be a common cultural thread due to consortium membership, each school remains proud of their individuality.

Consortiums are traditionally in geographically close areas, either within the smae or neighboring communities; else students would not be able to travel between campuses easily. In this more digital age, however, some cross-country consortiums are being founded, since online learning is becoming increasingly widespread and viable.

Benefits of Attending College Consortiums

There are several benefits for students who attend consortiums. The primary benefit is expanded access to academic resources: classes, library collections, professors, and laboratories. While a single school is limited in the resources it can provide, a collection of schools is better able to cover multiple bases.

As an example of this, the five colleges consortium (discussed in more depth below), offers more than 60 languages across its member institutions. These are small liberal arts colleges, most of which cannot support the faculty required for such linguistic diversity. Through the consortium, however, different schools can offer different languages, and students benefit from the variety of choice, from Yiddish to Tagalog.

The other major benefit from attending a consortium is the ability to take classes from a more prestigious or rigorous institution. While this is not the case in all college consortiums, some have a disparity in admissions difficulty across institutions, meaning students may be able to take classes at a more prestigious university, without having to go through the stress of gaining acceptance. 

This is not to say that gaining acceptance to a consortium is easy, merely that all member institutions may not have the same difficulty of entry, and that some may be more prestigious than others.

Notable College Consortiums

Five College Consortium

Located in Western Massachusetts, this consortium consists of 4 liberal arts colleges: Amherst, Smith, Mount Holyoke, Hampshire, and UMass Amherst. While Amherst is usually considered the most prestigious of these schools, they are all generally well regarded. This is the oldest college consortium in the United States. Each member institution has its own flavor and identity, and while there is some shared identity and traditions, the schools are very distinct.

Claremont Colleges

These are five linked colleges (with an additional two graduate institutions) located in Southern California, in the town of Claremont. The colleges are Scripps, Claremont-McKenna, Harvey Mudd, Pomona, and Pitzer. All of these colleges are very difficult to get into, with 4 of them in the top five most competitive liberal arts colleges. Scripps is one of the most competitive women-only institutions.

The colleges all have their own traditions and their own culture. This consortium is notable due to Harvey Mudd being incredibly focused on STEM, while the other schools are more traditional liberal arts colleges. This gives students a wide array of course options.

Tri-College/Quaker Consortium

This is two nested consortiums; the tri-college consortium is composed of the liberal arts colleges Haverford, Swarthmore, and Bryn Mawr; these three schools and the University of Pennsylvania create the Quaker consortium. This consortium is located in the greater Philadelphia area, in Pennsylvania. 

Students from the three liberal arts colleges are much more likely to take advantage of the consortium than UPenn students, due to the relative size and prestige of the schools. There is more of a consortium community among the three liberal arts schools than between them and UPenn.

Applying to College Consortiums

When applying to a consortium, remember that you are applying to the individual member college first, and the consortium second. Your focus should be on how you are a good fit for that college in particular. You can mention the consortium as a reason for wanting to attend, but taking classes at another member institution should not be the primary reason.

If the primary reason you wish to attend Bryn Mawr is to take courses at UPenn, then admissions officers will ask themselves why you don’t simply apply to UPenn instead. The ability to take courses at other schools is a perk, and should not be the central plank of your application. 

It is fine to have taking classes at a more prestigious or selective school than you could otherwise get into as motivation for joining a consortium, but you should focus on the other factors that intrigue you in your application.

Final Thoughts

While college consortiums are not the right choice for all students, they can offer expanded opportunities and possibilities. If you want to attend a small liberal arts college without sacrificing the research opportunities and course options of a larger university, then a college consortium may provide the best of both worlds.
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