College Cousins: George Washington University and Boston University

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Few American cities are as steeped in history as Washington and Boston. Each locale boasts a rich political and cultural context that spans more than two centuries, so it’s impossible not to be impressed with the surroundings of the two institutions we highlight in this issue.

George Washington University is named for our first president—not only to honor his legacy but also to honor his wishes for an institution for higher learning in the country’s capital city, a city that also bears his name. The university was chartered in 1821 but began life as Columbian College. That name, popular in its day, was a form of “Columbia” which paid homage to Columbus and, as such, symbolized the New World and new beginnings. The university didn’t become George Washington University until 1904.

Boston University’s history also started with some zigs and zags. It began in Vermont, then moved for a brief stint in New Hampshire before relocating to Boston, and it may surprise some to know that its origins are as a Methodist theological institution. It was chartered as a university in 1869.

Today’s robust and internationally known institutions bear little resemblance to those starter colleges. BU is the larger of these two and has an undergraduate population of 16,000. Students can select from 250 fields of study, organized amongst 10 schools and colleges. One of those colleges is the College of General Studies, a two-year team-teaching program built around the liberal arts and sciences. Students admitted to this program earn their pre-requisite and general education credits before moving into one of BU’s other schools or colleges. It’s designed to provide a transitional route for students who would benefit from a smaller setting and more coordinated sequence of preliminary courses.

GW has 11,000 undergrads, 10 schools and colleges, over 100 programs of study, and 100 research centers, many on its Virginia Science and Technology Campus. The location of the main campus, merely a handful of blocks respectively from the White House, the National Mall, and the State Department, not only invites interest from prospective students around the world but enriches student life by virtue of visiting dignitaries who appear with great regularity. DC area residents may also be familiar with GW’s range of programs for non-matriculated students. It offers summer classes for high school students and also allows visiting college students to take classes for credit. It’s a tremendous resource for the community and a way for students, depending on their individual situation, to get a jump on college credits, do some catch-up or take-over work, or just take classes to expand their intellectual horizons.

Every college and university wants to optimize the experience of its student body, but universities that are located in urban settings face a unique challenge. They don’t have nationally ranked sports teams and their buildings rub elbows (so to speak) with retail, professional, and even residential edifices. In a way, these institutions are in competition with their locations, and the more popular the locations are, the more challenging it can be. Certainly, that holds true for BU and GW. Their respective cities are a draw for admissions, and the universities take it from there, working hard to provide a collegiate experience for its students that encompasses not only academics, but a wide range of extra-curricular options too. Both are successful in this too as both offer more than 450 student organizations that provide opportunities for engagement, personal development, and service.

Neither of these universities can be put in a pigeon hole but both have earned academic respect, a wide reach, and enduring popularity. That can lead to competitive admission rates, but in this case, happily, their size allows them to be more generous in accepting applicants. BU’s rate of admission last year was 25%, and GW’s hit 40%. One difference to note though is that GW is test optional.

If you attend, you’ll have a great experience and, upon graduation, join an impressive rank of alumni and faculty. For BU, that includes such luminaries as Alexander Graham Bell and, more recently, Dr. Martin Luther King. For GW, that means adding your name to a list that includes Colin Powell, J. Edgar Hoover, and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis.

Students attending today, however, could be characterized as bold, ready to create an urban campus experience and eager to spread their wings. They have chosen to attend college in vibrant institutions and bustling cities where history is not only being studied but still being made today.

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