Davidson College has made it to the Final Four -- in Kiplinger’s rankings, that is.
Number four among our liberal-arts colleges, this small school, in Davidson, N.C., went a bit bonkers a year and a half ago when its basketball team, led by phenom Stephen Curry, got as far as the Elite Eight in the NCAA championship tournament. Some people, including Davidson’s president, Tom Ross, just can’t stop talking about it. “The last time Davidson was in the Elite Eight was when I was a freshman here. It happened again in my first year as president. I think I’m the common denominator and deserve all the credit,” he says with a smile.
But Ross would be the first to point out that Davidson has plenty to brag about besides basketball. It was the first liberal-arts college to substitute grants for loans in its financial-aid packages, in 2007, and it offers non-need-based aid to 20% of its students. And Davidson boasts one of the highest four-year graduation rates in our rankings.
Still, a behemoth, Big Ten school this ain’t. Walk the main campus, with its mix of neoclassical buildings, brick walkways and lush shade trees, and you’ll be back where you started in about 15 minutes -- unless you relax in one of the Adirondack chairs on the green. Students say they appreciate the intimate setting, which fosters a strong student-faculty relationship and a sense of camaraderie. “When you’re playing a game, you have friends in the stands supporting you,” says Bryant Barr, a shooting guard on the Wildcats basketball team.
Students also appreciate Davidson’s financial-aid policy, which enables lower-income families to afford its private-school education. “When I was accepted at Davidson, I was like ‘Awesome, excellent,’ and then I started crying because I didn’t want my parents to have to pay for this school,” says Eissabeth Dizon, of Hickory, N.C. With an award offer of grants and work-study, Dizon realized she could go to her top-choice school after all.
The recession has tested Davidson’s finances. Its endowment dropped by 24% over the past year, and applications for need-based aid rose by 10%. Davidson initiated a hiring freeze, delayed filling vacancies, and cut back on faculty travel and workshops. And the Elite Eight afterglow sent T-shirt sales soaring at the campus bookstore, boosting revenues. “It was the Stephen Curry effect,” says Karen Goldstein, vice-president for business and finance.
With these adjustments and successes, Ross figures the school can continue to offer strong academics while sustaining its no-loan policy. “To be able to follow your dreams and passions without being burdened by heavy debt is a challenge I think we can meet,” says Ross, “and it’s the right thing to do.”