Letter from Meg

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After parents spend a couple of days settling their sons and daughters into their new Davidson lives, attending orientation sessions, and a “farewell lunch” on Chambers Lawn, the college shoos them out of town. Or tries to.

Most do leave after the “farewell lunch,” but we ran into one couple who stayed in town for another night or two, not quite ready to leave the vicinity of their Davidson daughter, an only child. We asked how she had found Davidson, and they wereeager to tell us the story.

“She was pretty sure she’d be going to one of those northeastern schools,” said the father, listing the usual suspects. “But at the last minute, her counselor suggested she look at Davidson.” They drove down from Delaware on a rainy September day. Mom and dad thought it would be a washout—gray and wet are not the colors you look for in a prospective college. When they got home, dad asked, so what do you think?

“Oh, that’s where I’m going,” came the announcement. Astonished, the parents asked how she could be so sure. Wait for it. “At those other schools, the students all walked to classes alone, with their heads down. At Davidson, everyone is walking around with a friend or in groups. They’re laughing. They’re happy. I want to go where people are happy.”

She applied early decision, was accepted, and enrolled, happy to come to college where people seemed—happy.

So I asked myself, are Davidson students really happier than students at other schools like ours? I won’t be coy: I have no conclusive answer here. But there are a few indicators.

One is, how many freshmen return for sophomore year? Our most recent statistic for the first-year retention rate is from 2008, when a whopping 97 percent of students headed back to campus for their second year. Then there’s graduation rates, sort of a mega-retention rate, a snapshot typically taken within a six-year period. For students who entered in fall 2003, 91 percent graduated within six years—and most were done in four.

They come, they come back, they graduate. But are they happy? Hard to tell, but they look happy in all the pictures.

We do measure happiness in a way—we call it “alumni satisfaction.” The measuring stick is giving, not how much, but if. And here’s what it tells us. In the Class of 2010, more than 99 percent of the seniors participated in their class gift—a new record. For the bigger picture, we look at all-alumni giving. For years, six out of every 10 alumni have been happy enough with Davidson to make a gift. I am not about to assume that the other four aren’t happy with the college; life is far more complex than that. There’s being busy, having a tight budget, new job, no job, too many babies, a broken heart, a broken back, or even a broken car. Not to mention all the other things that need our support—the catastrophes that hit our brothers and sisters across the world, or the steady flow of need just around the corner.

But this past year, 61 percent of you—more than 10,000—made a gift to keep Davidson humming along, putting our college in a class all by itself. At the very top. Number one. That’s you, folks—first in the nation in happiness.

Of course, these numbers don’t prove that Davidson students or alumni are happier here than at other colleges. We’ll never know for sure. But come see for yourself. Wander into the union; walk the bricks toward Chambers; grab a magazine in the library; visit a favorite professor.

It might make you happy.

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