Best Kept College Secrets

Colleges for Real People

Cornell College – Mount Vernon, Iowa


Cornell’s entire campus is included in the National Register of Historical Places and is set squarely in the midst of Mount Vernon, Iowa, a charming small town, recently cited as on of America’s Coolest Small Towns. That designation came as a writer for Budget Magazine wrote, “Every now and then you stumble on a town that’s got everything right – great coffee, food with character, shop owners with a purpose.”     The town’s population is small, about four thousand, and the college is a significant part of the town’s culture. Cornell is located in wooded, hilly country within a half hour of Cedar Rapids and equally close to Iowa City and all the fun and frolic of the University of Iowa.


Cornell College is often confused with the larger Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. This very much smaller Cornell is one of very few colleges operating on the “One Course At A Time” educational model known more widely as the Block Plan, but when that plan is mentioned, attention usually goes to Colorado College. Make no mistake, however, this Cornell has more than enough to offer on its own. In fact, this smaller Cornell offers a strong sense of community, tradition, an uncommonly effective teaching faculty, a great location, engaging students, and the One Course At A Time academic calendar.


Since Cornell is the only college in this guide that presents course work in blocks, it makes sense to start by describing how a block plan works. The plan offers some great advantages, but I am sure any reader wants reassurance that the student does not miss out on course work that might be done in a conventional program. In fact, the number of course hours matches almost exactly the hours logged in a semester. Instead of juggling four or five courses, working on four or five sets of assignments, contending with four or five professors, a Cornell student works on one course, prepares one set of assignments, and works with one professor. In addition to the advantages concentration might bring, the students in the course share a common schedule, allowing friendships to develop. Each one is part of a small cohort working with a professor who gets to know the student very well. It’s easy to identify concerns and to get extra consultation and help. Projects and class trips are easy to schedule. And, as a final enticement, the eighteen day block is followed by a four day “Block Break”; a student finishes a block on Wednesday and is free until the following Monday. In effect, the block plan allows the college to offer a “semester break” every month.

The complete article is presented in the Third Edition of America’s Best Kept College Secrets

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