On a recent visit to Antioch College, his alma mater, Michael Brower shared a car ride with a student preparing for graduation. When he asked the young woman about her future plans, she listed as possibilities the Peace Corps, nursing school and a humanitarian trip to Africa.
Her ambitions sounded like those of an Antioch student from any era, Brower said. A 1955 graduate who serves on the alumni board of directors, Brower applied exclusively to the liberal arts college in southwest Ohio because of its reputation for approachable faculty, small classes and socially aware students.
“We were idealistic then. We felt we had a mission in life,” Brower said. “Today that is still true. That’s one thing that hasn’t changed.”
What has changed is the structure of the Antioch education, which remains predicated on a mix of classroom learning and real-world work experience. Curricular adjustments have come gradually over the years, with a major program facelift debuting last fall -- one that focuses on team teaching, group learning and academic autonomy.
Enrollment at Antioch College, which peaked at more than 2,000 students during the 1950s and 60s, has dropped to between 500 and 600 students. Facing the financial troubles that come with a dwindling student body, the Board of Trustees of Antioch University (the parent of Antioch College) decided it was time to revisit aspects of the college’s program.
A "renewal" commission  made up of Antioch administrators and outside higher education experts took the 2003-4 academic year to create a blueprint that college administrators used to make changes.
Richard Jurasek, executive vice president of Antioch College, said the institution had to face a few realities. No. 1: “Young persons are more interested in certainty than previous generations," he said. And No. 2: “The niche that we had in the market place, with experiential learning, had become commonplace.” In other words, Antioch's co-op learning model, traditionally its distinguishing trait, was no longer so distinctive.
In the fall, 63 freshmen were introduced to the new-look program. They were placed into freshman learning communities -- groups that spend the year taking a range of interdisciplinary courses team-taught by Antioch professors.
The students also found a few rule changes, designed to put them on a four-year graduation course and allow them to ease into their first year without being thrown into a work situation before some might be ready. In the current program, freshmen can no longer elect to do a work semester during their first year, and they can take off their first summer in college.
Their first work experience will come in the fall of their sophomore year, where they can choose from one of three co-op communities -- either Washington, D.C., New Mexico or Ohio. In each area, a co-op community coordinator is stationed. They provide students with a list of work options -- many in political, human services or arts management. In the old system, students would come to advisors with their own work semester locations and ideas.
Another change is that students now take for-credit classes while on their work semester. The class is taught by the community coordinator, and anywhere from 20 to 30 students working in the region discuss their experiences in the community.
“This way, students learn to more effectively contribute to the communities they are in,” said Kathleen Scheltens, an associate professor of cooperative education at Antioch. “That's hard to do if there’s one person out there in the middle of nowhere.”
Added Jurasek: “We’ve adjusted the educational philosophy, which had been in place for 80-plus years, so that in addition to solo learning, there’s also incredible power in ensemble learning.”
The college also has reduced the requirement of work semesters from five to three (though some students enter with work credit), making it easier for students to graduate in four years. Previously, taking five years was normal.
“That was more about perceptions in the market place,” Jurasek said. “If we came to be perceived as one of America's few remaining five-year baccalaureate experiences, we would continue to have students who transferred or who stayed away in the first place.”
Students are also now expected to design their own majors, instead of choosing from what Jurasek refers to as “off-the-shelf” majors. Jurasek said college officials decided that they couldn’t build entire departments of sociology, psychology and chemistry because of the size of the faculty. Instead, they deemed it best to allow professors to cross department lines and team teach.
Brower said the freshmen he has spoken to have responded positively to their first year. Upperclass students, though, have expressed some concern. “I’m having trouble getting time with my adviser because all of his or her time is taken up with the new program" is a common complaint, he said.
Marjorie Jensen, a fourth-year student and summer editor of the student newspaper, The Antioch Record, said student response has been mixed. She said the new co-op design favors students who haven't spent time in the real world and need more structure, but that it's a hindrance for nontraditional first-year students who already have experience working and studying on their own. Jensen also said that sophomores and juniors, who last year were not integrated into the new program, complained that they had a difficult time coming up with work sites, because less information was provided by the college.
Brower said as a student he would have benefited from the new-look program. And he said he is glad to see certain elements of Antioch's program remain the same -- such as classes that are graded with “narrative evaluations” instead of grades, and a joint faculty and student community government charged with decision-making responsibilities.
This coming fall, sophomores, juniors and seniors will see changes to their academic experience, as well. There will be more team-taught classes and more focus on interdisciplinary learning, Jurasek said.
And already, there appears to be increased interest in the college: About 140 students are expected to enroll next fall, more than twice the number from this year.