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Wednesday, Dec 6, 2023

Popping the Middlebury bubble: What prospective students need to know

With the Early Decision I deadline approaching on Nov. 1, we want to address this editorial to prospective students considering applying to make Middlebury as their home for the next four years. It is both an advantage and a privilege to apply early. Students are more likely to be accepted in the Early Decision rounds than in the Regular Decision round, but the contractual commitment to attend when applying this way often privileges those who can afford to visit campus or pay the $83,880 sticker price.

Logistical factors aside, in deciding whether to apply early to Middlebury, we urge you to keep in mind how the college functions like a bubble: with a small student body in a small town in a rural state, the college’s insularity is both its best quality and a source of frustration. 

Middlebury is a small school in a small town in a small state, and it feels like it. Because living and eating on campus is the norm, you can spend weeks at a time enjoying the same square mile, taking advantage of Middlebury’s state-of-the-art athletic center, student concerts and comedy shows, and the student-run café, among other things. At Middlebury, you won’t have the bustle of a city to distract you; you will be fully immersed in life on campus. 

With under 10,000 residents, the town of Middlebury has everything you need — and nothing more. It has charming shops, a natural foods co-op and a movie theater; it does not have amenities like chain restaurants and stores found in larger college towns. You may have to drive to Burlington to find specialized medical services — if you can even find one there — and it is difficult for all Vermonters to access mental health services. If you are among the 50% of students who do not have a car at Middlebury, your newfound independence in college may feel limited by the need for a vehicle to get beyond the Middlebury bubble. The size, however, makes it easy to feel like part of the community through working jobs at businesses in town, or spending the summer in Middlebury.  

Winters are not easy to get used to, especially if you hail from far away. As beautiful as the famous fall foliage currently is, the Vermont winters also live up to their infamous reputation, with freezing temperatures, constant snowfall and chilling winds that can put a serious damper on campus life from December to March. J-Term is a unique feature of the college to experiment with new, exciting classes for one month, but if you are not already an experienced skier, you may find your social life lacking during those four cold weeks. 

Keep in mind, too, that most of your peers will be from New England — at least that is how it often feels. Over half of respondents to last year’s Zeitgeist survey hailed from New England or the Mideast states. If you’re from the West Coast or the South, people back home may not know what Middlebury is. The lack of easily accessible transportation can make staying on campus over weekends or breaks isolating when your New England friends are driving home in three hours. 

One of the most notable negative aspects of Middlebury is its lack of diversity, in terms of both race and socioeconomic status. As of the fall of 2022, Middlebury's student body was 56% white, 32% "underrepresented minority" and 12% international. These numbers are staggeringly obvious when walking around campus or sitting in on a class. The lack of diversity also applies to socioeconomic status. In 2017, 23% of Middlebury students were from the top 1% of family incomes — a fact which is abundantly clear from the shoes people wear to the places they jet off to over break. Even as the diversity of the student body has increased in recent years, friend groups and social spaces at Middlebury tend to be racially and economically segregated. Life at Middlebury can look and feel at times like four more years at a New England prep school.

Middlebury’s academic reputation is well-earned. You will be challenged, and you will learn a lot. Like other liberal arts colleges, Middlebury boasts small class sizes, and professors emphasize their teaching over their research. What is more, Middlebury doesn’t have a reputation for academic ruthlessness the way that other elite liberal arts colleges might. While smart and engaged in what they are learning, the average Middlebury student is not spending their Saturday night doing homework — Davis Family Library closes at 5 p.m. on Saturdays — or trying to one-up each other with their grades. The “work hard play hard” reputation of Middlebury holds true. Although the party scene does not compare to a big state school, Middlebury students generally are eager to do something fun after putting in the hours studying.

Middlebury has suffered from a severe housing shortage in recent years. The college’s larger than usual post-pandemic student body put a lot of stress on the housing infrastructure, resulting in the college housing upperclassmen at the Marriott Hotel and at the Breadloaf campus in the fall of 2021, purchasing the Inn on the Green in town, and paying students to take a semester off this fall. There are reasons to believe that the housing crisis is improving, however, and by the fall of 2025, freshmen can expect to live in a brand new dorm. Staffing shortages, due to the college’s failure to adequately pay staff and a lack of available workers in small-town Vermont,  have also been a source of frustration in recent years, leading to a lack of library staff and limited hours at dining halls, the student convenience store Midd Xpress, and the Grille restaurant.

You may have heard that NESCACs have a strong reputation for being inundated with athletes, and that the athletes and the non-athletes don’t socialize together. There does exist some level of divide between these two groups, since 27% of Middlebury students are on varsity sports teams that can sometimes look like giant friend groups. However, Middlebury’s slightly larger student body size of 2,500 students relative to similar liberal arts colleges (or more like 2,800 these days due to a recent trend of over-enrollment) is notably larger than other schools like Bowdoin, giving more room for non-athletes to create their own spaces and social groups.

All of these factors in mind, if Middlebury sounds like the place for you, go for it and apply early. We hope to see you here. If you need more time, think it over and submit your application through Regular Decision. No matter your decision, we hope you know that the Middlebury community is a special place where the people genuinely care about and look out for one another. And your ties to Middlebury do not end after you leave the bubble; you would soon join the ranks of Middlebury graduates who are always thrilled to meet and speak with current students. Wearing Middlebury merch in a city will almost guarantee a spontaneous, joyful encounter with a passing-by alum — and we wouldn’t have it any other way.