At 44, The Evergreen State College has settled into a comfortable middle age after its raucous early years, but it still takes an alternative approach to college learning.

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When Sara Fiksdal told friends at her Auburn high school that she was going to The Evergreen State College after graduation, none of them had ever heard of it — although the Olympia school was only 40 miles away.

Even those who know about Evergreen often mistake the state’s smallest and youngest four-year college for a private school. (It’s not.) Or, they write it off as a hippie school with no structure, no rigor.

Administrators joke that Evergreen’s reputation seems to improve as you go East. In fact, Fiksdal, who worked at a summer camp in Pennsylvania one year, found that parents and students there knew a lot about the school.

Now, as President Les Purce prepares to retire after 15 years, successor George Bridges hopes to make Evergreen a household name among the college-bound.

Founded during the turbulent ’60s, Evergreen has long championed an alternative approach to higher education. It famously does not give grades, nor does it have departments or a hierarchy of professors (all the faculty members are just, simply, “faculty”).

Most students take a single class for an entire quarter, or even the entire year. Many classes are team-taught and blend several different subjects, an interdisciplinary approach that’s found favor of late at more traditional schools.

For students who are self-directed, this college can be the perfect fit. But about 30 percent of freshmen don’t return after the first year.

Bridges wants to find more students for whom this kind of learning is exactly what they are seeking. And he wants to promote Evergreen’s strengths, including its emphasis on structuring courses around issues and problems, rather than rigid content domains.

Fiksdal is one of those kids who found her place at Evergreen. She’s studying theater, with an emphasis on music theater, and is thinking of teaching middle school after graduation. Evergreen has been both challenging intellectually and flexible enough to allow her to pursue education on her own terms, she said.

“From the first quarter, you’re taking in information, learning how it’s going to apply in the world — not how it applies on a test,” Fiksdal said.

Last year, she used the college’s independent study program to construct her own learning plan for a quarter in London, studying contemporary theater and Shakespeare.

“A bumpy start”

Driving onto the Evergreen campus is like arriving at a fastidiously maintained state campground. The college campus covers 1,000 acres — the second-largest in the state, after Washington State University — and most of the land is robed in second-growth forest. It includes 3,000 feet of beachfront on a Puget Sound inlet. The damp air smells like cedar and freshly cut grass.

In the 1960s, when the state Legislature began planning to fund a new college for Washington, cities around the region competed to be its home. Olympia won the jackpot. But when Evergreen began to take form, the city fathers weren’t sure what they’d gotten themselves into, said President Purce.

No grades? No departments? No professors? No football?

Who goes to Evergreen

Enrollment: 4,300 students.

Acceptance rate: 97 percent in 2014

Demographics: 66 percent white, 8 percent Hispanic, 7 percent multiracial, 5 percent black, 3 percent Asian or Pacific Islander, 3 percent Native American, 8 percent unknown.

Nearly 60 percent of students are transfers from other institutions, mostly community colleges.

About 19 percent of students identify as LGBTQ. Five percent of students are military veterans.

Cost: At $8,500 per year for tuition and fees for in-state students, Evergreen is one of the least expensive four-year schools in the state.

Source: The Evergreen State College

“It was a bumpy start from the beginning,” said Purce, who came to Evergreen in 1989 as vice president for college advancement, and was named president in 2000. “It was the end of the ’60s. Kids were showing up with microbuses and long hair.”

Evergreen picked the geoduck as its mascot, penned a fight song that Time magazine in 2009 described as “aggressively weird,” and created a pseudo-Latin motto, “omnia extares.” Translation: “Let it all hang out.”

Matt Groening, one of Evergreen’s early graduates, was once quoted saying that his alma mater “drew every creative weirdo in the Northwest.” (Groening, originally from Portland, would go on to create “The Simpsons” television show.)

The Legislature was so alarmed that some lawmakers threatened to close the school, said trustee and alumna Anne Proffitt. The hubbub died down when former Gov. Dan Evans, who helped create the school, became its president in 1977, serving until 1983.

Forty-four years after it opened its doors, Evergreen has matured into comfortable middle age. Purce says the college and the community coexist peacefully now, and Evergreen’s particular brand of interdisciplinary education that blends several academic subjects into one course has proved to be a success.

Students of science

Evergreen’s most well-known alumni work in the arts — Groening, hip-hop artist Macklemore, comedian and guitarist Carrie Brownstein of “Portlandia” and Sleater-Kinney. But the college also has a growing computer-science department, and nearly a third of all students enrolled study the sciences.

One day last month, students taking a class called “Proteins, plastics and pandemics” used a type of protein-detection test to figure out if certain cells in a sample had been infected with a virus. The lab was part of a larger discussion about the usefulness of screening and diagnostic tests.

Over the quarter, this course focuses on a trio of controversial subjects — genetically modified organisms, vaccines and endocrine disrupters — and meets for 20 hours a week. The faculty member — Carolyn Prouty — says she feels a little like she’s teaching in a one-room schoolhouse, making sure the work is challenging for top students without leaving anyone behind.

At a more traditional college, students might need to take four or five classes — in epidemiology, physiology, molecular biology and public health — to cover all the subjects taught in this one course.

The beauty of the Evergreen approach, Prouty said, is that all these subjects are taught in context, and students can see how they are linked.

Evergreen students, she said, spend a lot of time “looking at how we’re learning, thinking about our learning together.” That’s important, she said, because the class can only cover a “teeny slice” of subjects like molecular biology and epidemiology. Learning how to learn means these students will be able to expand their knowledge outside the classroom.

Jim Hutcheon, a visiting faculty member who is team-teaching with Prouty, says he thinks people “would be surprised at the rigor and depth of the labs.”

“This is comparable to what you’d get at a pretty top-flight school,” he said.

Outside reviewers have often come to the same conclusion. U.S. News & World Report ranks Evergreen a “Top College for Learning Communities.” It is one of the “Colleges That Change Lives,” the name of a book — and later a nonprofit — that identified colleges that help students develop a lifelong love of learning. The Fiske Guide lists Evergreen as a best buy.

“For those who want to spend four years in an atmosphere of pure learning, this is the school,” wrote authors Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus, in their 2010 book “Higher Education? How Colleges are Wasting Our Money and Failing Our Kids.” (Evergreen was one of a dozen schools Hacker and Dreifus mentioned in the chapter “Schools We Like.”)

Critical thinking

Fans of Evergreen’s approach say the 40-year-old experiment in alternative learning is more relevant than ever for today’s job market.

People don’t keep the same job their whole lives, and new careers are being invented all the time, said Lynda Weinman, a 1976 Evergreen grad who went on to found the online training company, recently sold to LinkedIn for $1.5 billion.

“Isn’t learning how to learn (in college) more important than the specific discipline that you learn?” she asked. “Getting more comfortable with unknowns is a really important skill.”

Proffitt, the Evergreen trustee and a former Microsoft employee, said Evergreen teaches the kinds of skills employees look for: the ability to collaborate, to work with diverse teams, to use critical-thinking skills, to think across topics or disciplines.

That approach attracted Bridges, who had planned to go back to teaching after stepping down as the president of Whitman College in Eastern Washington, but changed his mind when the Evergreen’s top post became available. “What excited me was that learning occurs around issues or problems, not content domains,” Bridges said. “Honestly, that’s the most powerful way of learning.”

Instead of grades, faculty members write each student a narrative evaluation that bears a resemblance to employee performance reviews.

Departing President Purce says that allows faculty “to see progress from the time they (students) enter to the time they leave.” Students also evaluate their instructors — and themselves. When Purce reads a student’s evaluation, “I can see how they write, how they think.”

Like other state colleges and universities, Evergreen has lost state funding because of the recession. It received a high of $64 million from the Legislature in 2007-09, but in the last biennium received only $41 million. Board of Trustees chair Keith Kessler said the board wants to raise money privately to give the faculty a raise, boost contributions for scholarships and expand student programs.

Raising money will be the biggest challenges for Bridges when he starts this fall.

But so, too, will be raising its reputation. “I want Evergreen to be better known,” he said.