Deep Springs College—one of the most unusual higher-education institutions in the United States—is nestled in a remote valley in the California desert.
This distinctive, liberal arts college is situated on a cattle ranch/alfalfa farm in the Inyo-White Mountains, just east of the Owens Valley and the Sierra Nevada range, not far from the Nevada state border.
The college includes 50 attractive square miles in Deep Springs Valley, where the climate ranges from Saharan to Arctic.
The school offers an associate’s degree in the liberal arts only, making it a unique alternative to the first two years at a traditional university.
Deep Springs College is technically a junior college; however, its success in placing students at prestigious universities places the school in a category of its own.
L.L. Nunn, an electrical pioneer, established the college in 1917 on the pillars of academics, self-governance, and labor, with the notion of preparing exceptional students to serve humanity. The college operates on the basis of the idea that manual labor and political deliberation are integral parts of a comprehensive liberal arts education.
The school’s lack of glamour is due to the budget, although some students claim it’s also a deliberate style. Living away from the modern world, Deep Springs students often develop tastes out of sync with those of the dominant culture of materialism.
Student Body Profile
Most of the students are suburban, affluent, and white.
The typical Deep Springs College student is thoughtful, studied, exacting, and an intellectual. Many of the students simply don’t have an interest in the broader world during their months at Deep Springs College.
Their interest in politics mostly centers around the college itself. During the Friday night student body meetings, they use parliamentary rules to make all the major decisions which affect their community.
The discussions at these meetings range from the mundane to the essential. The frequent debates have a serious tone. Challenging one another’s ideas is the norm.
Major aims of the college include leadership and enlightened service. Fulfilling the educational mission includes intense contact with work, nature, and ideas. The college expects everyone to follow the guidelines of self-governance, strenuous effort, and selfless service to the community.
The intentional isolation creates a tight living and learning community, helping students focus on the needs of their immediate community.
During the seven-week academic terms, nobody (except the student driver) is allowed in or out of the college. Many of the graduates experience a profound shock upon returning to the outside world and its different social norms.
Most years, the school receives about 200 applicants for about 12 places. Unlike traditional schools, current students actually select the new students.
In Stage One of the admission process, candidates submit essays and SAT or ACT scores. An applicant’s six essays weigh heavily in the enrollment decision. During Stage Two, the initial applications are reviewed and voted on.
The school invites the top applicants to stay at the college for three to four days to experience life at Deep Springs College. They also write more essays and have an interview.
This “interview” process is no vacation! Candidates rise early in the morning to help milk the cows, because the afternoon activities just wouldn’t be a tough enough test. Their level of willingness to participate in chores plays an important role in the selection process.
Deep Springs College welcomes applicants from across the nation and other countries. Admissions selectivity varies from 6% to 15% year-to-year.
Most students attend the college for two years on a full scholarship valued at more than $50,000 per year.
Historically an all-male college, Deep Springs College planned to start accepting applications from women in 2013. This has yet to happen. Four years later, in 2017, at the time of this revision, the eligibility page on the DeepSprings.edu website states “At this time, we cannot consider applicants who do not identify as male.”
Why Students Attend Deep Springs College
Students attend the college for an array of reasons, including a desire for adventure, the isolation, the lack of modern conveniences, the school’s Socratic style of learning, the rigorous education, and the school’s excellent reputation.
Avoiding the distractions of a materialistic society is seen as a major benefit.
Unlike most colleges, students design the curriculum and select the professors. Public speaking and composition are the only two required courses.
The intellectual flavor at the college is governed by an attraction to foundational books, as well as an admiration for the obscure. The central subjects typically include classic texts, American and British literature, and German philosophy.
The curriculum includes introductory courses and specialized courses rarely provided at the freshman and sophomore level at other institutions. Students typically develop their academic interests during one-on-one conversations with their instructors.
Students only take two or three courses per term, allowing for rigor and depth in their education. The intensive courses serve as interactive seminars. Discussions often attain a depth uncommon at the undergraduate level.
Students devote a substantial amount of time and energy to their assignments. Classes typically have eight students. All students are expected to come to class prepared to contribute to the discussion.
Life at Deep Springs College
Students typically rise before the sun. They usually attend classes during weekday mornings between breakfast and lunch. Students typically attend one or two 90-minute classes each school day.
Students play a large role in operating the ranch. Students work as cooks, butchers, and cowboys. They milk cows at dawn and dusk, pitch hay, collect eggs from the hen house, irrigate the alfalfa fields, tend the garden, cook, clean, take care of office tasks, and serve as handymen. They may have to move an irrigation line before dinner.
Students work in an array of positions at the college/ranch. The labor serves as a source of legitimacy. Most graduates see the labor as a positive experience, not a chore. They also feel their labor is meaningful to the community.
Students work at least 20 hours per week. Students have a specific job every term. The activities regarded as work to most people are part of the students’ overall educational program.
Deep Springs College isn’t a party school. Students must abstain from drugs and alcohol while school is in session.
Many graduates report that their two years at Deep Springs left a deep mark on them. Some of the students have compared leaving the college to ending an intense romantic relationship.
Many students report being emotionally stimulated by the breathtaking natural beauty of the desert valley.
Students also have fun and adventure, when they’re not studying or taking care of chores. They go on camping trips, hike in the mountains, take a walk on the dunes, and play soccer and other sports.
Students are prohibited from having a Facebook account, believing that Facebook is a frivolous part of the outside world and infringes on the purity of Deep Springs College.
Professors at Deep Springs College
The college employs three long-term professors: One in social sciences, one in the natural sciences and mathematics, and one in the humanities. The college also has three visiting scholars or artists who teach each semester, providing new ideas and courses.
Since Deep Springs College is outside the traditional channels of academia, it often attracts scholars at the beginning or end of their careers.
Classes are sometimes held in a professor’s home or in the irrigation ditch. The college encourages the professors to take an active role in the community. They labor with students, teach them practical skills, hold impromptu poetry readings, and organize chess and Ping-Pong tournaments.
The staff members and faculty are part of the community along with the students. They work with the students on the farm. The faculty live very close to the dorm. The professors and students often have close academic and personal bonds, which often last after the students graduate.
According to his biographer, Nunn chose Deep Springs Valley for his college to control a social condition using natural barriers—a social condition which other institutions all over the country control with regulations.
Barely over five feet tall, L.L. Nunn had a shrill voice and an energetic manner. A lifelong bachelor, he became rich from hydroelectric power after he worked with George Westinghouse conducting experiments with alternating-current electricity.
Although Nunn didn’t graduate from college, he devoted the last two decades of his life to his unique form of education. Nunn believed schools should be laboratories of democracy. He wanted the students to form and grow their own ideal society at Deep Springs College, a project he believed required their total attention.
Nunn believed colleges shouldn’t focus mostly on intellectual development. He believed they should also emphasize character, physical and spiritual growth, and responsibility.
Nunn believed that providing students more than a traditional classroom experience would help to shape their character. He also believed that practical learning lays the foundation for intellectual and worldly accomplishment, and that students acquire a sense of duty only if they’re given responsibility.
Deep Springs College has a history of graduates’ attending some of the most prestigious schools in the United States. Students transfer to Yale, Brown, Cornell, Columbia, Stanford, the University of Chicago, and other top schools.
Graduates usually attend four-year institutions providing similar academic freedoms with significantly more resources. Deep Springs College graduates tend to be especially resourceful and resilient.
More than two-thirds of the graduates earn a graduate degree and about 50% obtain a doctorate. Graduates of Deep Springs College have received Rhodes and Truman Scholarships. Two graduates received MacArthur “genius grants.”
The untraditional Deep Springs College has high expectations of its students. The college believes those who receive an education at Deep Springs incur a lifelong obligation to improve the human condition.
At Deep Springs College, academic and social idealism meet.
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Deep Springs College has recently been ranked the #1 liberal arts college in the nation by TheBestSchools.org.