Cornell College

Photo: Cornell College campus, aka the Hilltop

Cornell College is located in Mount Vernon, Iowa, on a wooded campus affectionately known as the Hilltop. About 1000 students attend the school, traveling from 45 different states and 20 foreign countries to obtain their liberal arts degree. The curriculum provides practical, hands-on education as well as training in specific skills. Cornell College seeks to give students a strong general  foundation while also preparing them for their professional path of choice. They execute this goal using a curriculum that is described as both intense and incredibly rewarding.

Cornell College stands out from the other hundreds of liberal arts colleges in the U.S. because of its unique One Course At A Time program, which was adopted in 1978. Through this program, students optimize their education by learning from one professor, One Course At A Time. Courses run for 18 days each and offer an immersive experience where students can focus all of their intellectual energy on one subject at a time, tackling eight such courses in the span of an academic year.

One Course At A Time allows students to explore potential career paths; to get hands-on experience via independent study, research and internships; to learn without boundaries through off-campus travel; and to develop deeper connections with faculty members and fellow students. Since courses end at 3pm each day, the schedule also gives students ample time to pursue extracurricular activities, whether it is one of the dozens of students organizations, one of 19 Division III sports, over 40 intramurals, volunteer work, and more. Cornell College seeks to develop well-rounded students and prepare them for the real world by offering curriculum that is fast-paced, project-oriented and collaborative, which is aptly described as “education at the speed of life.”

School History

Photo: Cornell College campus sign

Photo: Cornell College campus sign

Cornell College was founded in 1853 by George Bryant Bowman, a Methodist minister who worked diligently to build an academic facility that offered a liberal arts education to students. Although the College was originally founded as the Iowa Conference Seminary, in 1857 it was renamed to Cornell College in honor William Wesley Cornell. Ironically, William Wesley Cornell’s cousin, Ezra Cornell, also founded a reputable college merely a decade later, which is currently known as Cornell University.

Cornell College has a history of inclusivity, being the first educational institution to give women the same rights as men regarding education in the Mississippi region, and the first college to graduate a woman in 1858. By 1870, the College had dissolved all inequalities, accepting students of all religious, cultural and racial backgrounds without discrimination and prejudice. Just two years later, Cornell College incorporated the science based programs that they are now internationally known for.

In 1978, Cornell College pushed innovation to the next level by starting the One Course At A Time program. Breaking from the traditional semester schedule, the new block plan allowed students to dig into one course only for 18 days before moving on to a new subject in the next block. The program has been embraced by students and faculty alike.

Cornell College is accredited by the North Central Association of Colleges and Secondary Schools, as well as the Iowa State Department of Education. Many of the College’s programs are individually accredited by sources (for example, the American Chemistry Society). The internationally recognized music program offered is also accredited by the National Association of Schools of Music.

Campus Life

Cornell College

Photo: Cornell College students

Cornell College provides students with all essential college amenities as well as the unique benefits of living in a small, tight-knit community. Coursework helps students build skills so they can rise above the competition after graduation, and campus life revolves around the One Course At A Time schedule: intense training combined with the freedom to explore professional careers and extracurricular activities at a deeper level.

At traditional colleges, students are required to take multiple courses during  each semester. This means students must divide their attention across a wide span of subjects, faculty must teach hundreds of students across many classes, the in-class experience often involves lectures and passive learning, and campus life is fragmented since each student and teacher is on a different schedule.

In 1978, Cornell College decided to innovate the college experience by creating the One Course At A Time program. In this model, the semester is divided into four blocks and during each block, students take only one course at a time and faculty teach only one course at a time. The block spans for 18 days, ending on a Wednesday, followed by a four-day block break before a new 18-day immersive adventure begins.

The One Course At A Time program has completely revamped campus life at Cornell College in several ways.

  • Students can immerse themselves in one subject at a time, digging into subject matter at a deeper level. Essentially, students don’t just study the subject, they live it. Blocks can be used to take courses required for the more than 40 majors and pre-professional programs, or can be used for internships and study abroad experiences. Along the way, students can become a chemist for a block, a psychologist for a block, and so on, transferring their knowledge to new courses as they progress and honing in on their passions.
  • Professors have more freedom to design a course that goes beyond traditional lectures and exams. Classes are discussion-oriented and collaborative, aimed at providing active learning and enriching real-life experiences, such as faculty/student research and off-campus trips.
  • The average class size is 16 and all classes are capped at 25 students. This means students and professors can build meaningful relationships, and students gain strong mentors and recommendations.
  • The ‘classroom’ is flexible and can be adapted as required. Those who need it can enjoy a dedicated space (for example, students in the sciences can keep their experiments intact without having to pack up to make room for the next group of students). However, the ‘classroom’ is also not bound by four walls; it expands out into the real world as students gain hands-on experience in the local community and beyond.
  • All students are on the same schedule. Most courses meet for 3-5 hours per day, Monday through Friday. They typically run from 9-11am, followed by a 2 hour lunch period, then additional study from 1-3pm.
  • Finishing classwork by 3pm each day allows students to develop social and leadership skills and friendships by participating in extracurricular activities. Cornell College offers dozens of student organizations, opportunities in performance arts, Division III sports for men and women, intramurals, volunteer activities, and more.

Photo: Cornell College, One Course At A Time

As a result, students at Cornell College experience a deep sense of community. 93 percent live on campus where they can study and live alongside each other. Civic engagement is highly encouraged both on and off-campus through the various outreach programs organized by the student operated clubs and groups. Proud of the diverse community,  Cornell College students are encouraged to remain involved in with their peers and community in unique, hands-on and resourceful ways.

The Berry Career Institute provides students with strong support for their journey after college. There students can explore careers, find research and internship opportunities, and polish their resume or graduate school application. Statistics for the Class of 2016 show that 94 percent are either employed or pursuing further education.

Financial Aid

Photo: Cornell College 2017 Graduation

Cornell College is dedicated to offering financial aid assistance to students in order to make their college experience affordable. In fact, 99 percent of students receive some form of financial assistance. All students are encouraged to apply for FAFSA and to explore other financial aid options that are based on need, achievements and program development.

For example, Cornell College offers several merit-based scholarships for first year or transfer students, aid that automatically renews each year, provided the student maintains satisfactory academic progress. This includes the full tuition King Scholarships as well as other high-value awards like the Trustee, Presidential and Dean’s Scholarships. Meanwhile, by filling out the FAFSA application, students can qualify for federal grants and loans, and Cornell College also offers institutional loans and work-study opportunities.

What Students Say

Photo: Cornell College

“I never thought I’d have the chance to do research as a first-year student, but I’m getting to do amazing work in Art History at Cornell. I’m already finding success in my field, and I know my material well enough to contribute to academic discussion.” – Jessica, ‘19

“Every block, I can completely devote myself to the subject I am studying. One month, I can feel like a computer science major; the next, I can become a creative writing major. I get a chance to try everything, and to devote myself to it fully.” – Laura, ’16

“One Course At A Time gave me the perfect balance of structure and flexibility. It expanded my mind and gave me a much better work ethic.” – Sara, ‘16

“Cornell College is the ideal place to become a better global citizen. I’m a geologist, but I don’t just focus on geology—I focus on all of the other subjects and how they pertain to humans. We learn about global problems that everyone is facing and how we can do our part to help the world and have an impact.” – Thomas, ‘16

“Prior to arriving at Cornell, I was worried that the campus would not be as diverse as I hoped it would be. As I settled in, I found students from all around the world and from all different states. The campus is filled with many unique and beautiful cultures and it definitely complements the liberal arts education I received on the Hilltop.” – Michelle, ‘16

“My course in mobile app development provided the skills I needed for my internship at John Deere. I was tasked with a very ambitious project. Because of the self-discipline provided by the One Course At A Time, I was not only able to deliver, I managed to land a job nine months ahead of graduation.” – Kent, ‘16

“Because of One Course, my art classes went on day trips to museums in Madison, Chicago, Des Moines, and Iowa City. I also traveled a lot and lived in Chicago, Guatemala, Puerto Rico, and Italy for a block or two. I still graduated in four years.” – Kristal, ‘16


2017 College Rankings

Best Colleges - Collaborative Environment


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