In 1843 eleven Congregational ministers, all of whom trained at Andover Theological Seminary in Massachusetts, set out to proselytize on the frontier. Each man pledged to gather a church and together the group or band would seek to establish a college. When the group arrived in Iowa later that year, each selected a different town in which to establish a congregation. In 1846 they collectively established Iowa College in Davenport. A few months later, Iowa joined the Union.
The first 25 years of Grinnell's history saw a change in name and location. Iowa College moved farther west from Davenport, Iowa, to the town of Grinnell and unofficially adopted the name of its new benefactor: an abolitionist minister, Josiah Bushnell Grinnell. The name of the corporation "The Trustees of Iowa College" remained, but in 1909 the name "Grinnell College" was adopted by the trustees for the institution itself.
In its early years, the College experienced setbacks. Although two students received bachelor of arts degrees in 1854 (the first to be granted by a college west of the Mississippi River), within 10 years the Civil War had claimed most of Grinnell's students and professors. In the decade following the war, growth resumed: women were officially admitted as candidates for degrees, and the curriculum was enlarged to include then-new areas of academic studies, such as natural sciences with laboratory work.
In 1882, Grinnell College was struck by a tornado — then called a cyclone, after which the college yearbook was named. The storm devastated the campus and destroyed both College buildings. Rebuilding began immediately, and the determination to expand wasn't limited to architecture: the curriculum was again extended to include departments in political science (the first in the United States) and modern languages.
Grinnell became known as the center of the Social Gospel reform movement, as Robert Handy writes, "The movement centered on the campus of Iowa (now Grinnell) College. Its leading figures were Professor George D. Herron and President George A. Gates". Other firsts pointed to the lighter side of college life: the first intercollegiate football and baseball games west of the Mississippi were played in Grinnell, and the home teams won.
As the 20th century began, Grinnell established a Phi Beta Kappa chapter, introduced the departmental "major" system of study, began Grinnell-in-China (an educational mission that lasted until the Japanese invasion and resumed in 1987), and built a women's residence hall system that became a national model. The social consciousness fostered at Grinnell during these years became evident during Franklin D. Roosevelt's presidency, when Grinnell graduates Harry Hopkins '12, Chester Davis '11, Paul Appleby '13, Hallie Flanagan '11, and Florence Kerr '12 became influential New Deal administrators.
Concern with social issues, educational innovation, and individual expression continue to shape Grinnell. As an example, the school’s "5th year travel-service program," preceded the establishment of the Peace Corps by many years. Other recent innovations include first-year tutorials, cooperative pre-professional programs, and programs in quantitative studies and the societal impacts of technology.
The Princeton Review gives Grinnell College its highest possible academic rating of 99, on a scale of 60-99, reflecting how hard students work and how much they get back for their efforts. This rating is calculated from student survey results and statistical information reported by administrators. Factors weighed include how many hours students study and the quality of students the school attracts.
Grinnell ranked 44th in a 2004 Wall Street Journal survey of the top "feeder schools" to the fifteen most prestigious business, law, and medical schools in the country.
Recent data place Grinnell at number nine among all U.S. undergraduate institutions in the proportion of graduates who go on to earn Ph.D. degrees and 15th for graduating female Ph.D. earners.
Grinnell is ranked 14th in the Washington Monthly rankings, which focus on key outputs such as research, dollar value of scientific grants won and certain types of public service.
Grinnell College graduates enjoy a high acceptance rate to law schools; over 46% of all applications submitted by students have been accepted by law schools.
In July 2006, The New York Times included Grinnell in its profile of the 20 colleges and universities of "established or rising scholarship" which are fast becoming viable alternatives to Ivy League institutions.
A Grinnell education is anchored in active learning that occurs in one-on-one interactions between faculty members and students. Grinnell's open curriculum encourages students to take initiative and assume responsibility for their own courses of study, developed under the guidance of a faculty adviser. Outside of the First-Year Tutorial (a one-semester special topics seminar that stresses methods of inquiry, critical analysis, and writing skills), there are no core requirements. To graduate, students are expected to complete at least 32 credits in a major field and a total of 124 credits of academic work, with no more than 48 credits in one department and no more than 92 credits in one division. In the humanities, arts, and social and natural sciences at Grinnell, students have opportunities to conduct original research and undertake advanced study through independent and interdisciplinary projects that foster intellectual discovery.
Grinnell has twenty-six major departments and ten interdisciplinary concentrations. Popular majors include Psychology, Economics, Biology, History, English, and Political Science. Over half of the student body studies abroad for at least one semester during their tenure. Grinnell has a campus in London, Grinnell-in-London, as well as Grinnell-in-Washington D.C.
Grinnell’s commitment to the importance of off-campus study reflects the school’s emphasis on social and political awareness and the international nature of its campus. Approximately 60 percent of all Grinnell students participate in more than seventy off-campus programs, including the Grinnell-in-London program and study tours of China, France, Greece, and Russia. These study programs in Europe (including Russia), Africa, the Near East, and Asia, as well as nine programs in Central and South America, provide the opportunity for research in many disciplines, from archaeology to education to mathematics. In addition to off-campus programs, Grinnell offers internship programs in such areas as urban studies, art, and marine biology for students interested in field-based learning and experience in professional settings. Second- and third-year students may apply for summer internship grants and receive credit for the experience. Semester programs in the United States include those at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Newberry Library, National Theatre Institute, and Grinnell-in-Washington, D.C.
Intensive teaching, active learning, residence in a community of cultural and global diversity, and the institution's commitment to self-governance in both social and academic life--these elements come together to form a distinctive experience of liberal education.
Despite the growing trend of U.S. students taking five or more years to finish an undergraduate degree, Grinnell College is strongly oriented towards students being enrolled full time in exactly eight consecutive semesters at the college, although exceptions are available for medical issues and other emergencies. To avoid being suspended from the college, students must make "normal progress towards graduation." This generally means that the student must take at least 12 credits of classes in each individual semester, with grades of a C or better. A student who is not making normal progress towards graduation is placed on academic probation and may be dismissed from the college.
Grinnell College is a highly selective liberal arts college. Historically, it has generally offered admission to less than half of applicants, and approximately one-third of accepted students typically enrolled in the fall. In the spring of 2008, 33.5% of applicants were accepted.
Two-thirds of admitted students were in the top 10% of their high school class. One in five students is a National Merit Finalist, National Merit Scholar, or National Merit Commended Student. One in seven is an Advanced Placement Scholar.
Due to the high SAT and ACT scores achieved by its students and their class rankings, U.S. News and World Reports considers Grinnell College to be one of the "most selective" schools. For the class of 2012, the median combined SAT score is 1332, and the median ACT composite score is 30.1.
Grinnell College's admissions selectivity rank according to The Princeton Review is a 95 out of 99. This ranking is determined by several institutionally-reported factors, including: the class rank, average standardized test scores, and average high school GPA of entering freshmen; the percentage of students who hail from out-of-state; and the percentage of applicants accepted..
The primary factor in evaluating applicants is the quality of the education they have received, as shown by their transcript. Additional factors include standardized test scores, student writing skills, recommendations, and extracurricular activities.
Early decision opportunities are offered to students in the fall; most students apply in January of their final year in high school. Admissions letters are usually received by April 1 of each year. All students begin classes in August.
For American students, the students' expectation of needing financial assistance does not affect the admission process. International students whose needs can be met with the limited financial aid available to them are given an edge in the admissions process.
A few students are admitted before they graduate from high school; these students have typically taken all of the academic classes offered at their school.
Grinnell College is one of a few dozen US colleges that maintain need-blind admissions and meets the full demonstrated financial need of all U.S. residents who are admitted to the college.
With the first-year students enrolled in the 2006-2007 school year, Grinnell has ended its need-blind admissions policy for international applicants. Under the old policy, students from countries outside the U.S. were admitted without any consideration of their ability to afford four years of study at the college. However, financial aid offers to these students were limited to half the cost of tuition. International students frequently carried very high workloads in an effort to pay the bills, and their academic performance often suffered. Under the new "need-sensitive" or "need-aware" policy, international students whose demonstrated financial needs can be met are given a slight admissions edge over applicants who can't. The twin hopes are that the enrolled international students will be able to dedicate more energy to their schoolwork, and also that this will ultimately allow the college to provide higher tuition grants to international students.
Additionally, several extremely competitive "special scholarships" were set up to meet the full demonstrated financial needs for students from the following countries or regions: Africa, Eastern and Central Europe, Latin America, Middle East and Asia, Nepal, the People's Republic of China, as well as for native speakers of Russian regardless of citizenship, available every other year.
The school's varsity sports teams are named the Pioneers. They participate in eighteen intercollegiate sports at the NCAA Division III level and in the Midwest Conference. In addition, Grinnell has several club sports teams that compete in non-varsity sports such as Water Polo, Ultimate and Rugby Union The Water Polo club team, the Wild Turkeys, went runners-up in the 2007 Division III Collegiate National Club Championships organized by the CWPA in Lindenwood College, St. Louis. The Men's Ultimate team, nicknamed the Grinnellephants, qualified in 2008 for its first Division III National Championship in Versailles, Ohio.
Nearly one-third of recent Grinnell graduates participated in at least one of 20 varsity sports while attending the college and the college has led the Midwest Conference in the total number of Academic All-Conference honorees in last six years.
In February 2005, Grinnell became the first Division III school featured in a regular season basketball game by the ESPN network family in 30 years, when it faced off against the Beloit Buccaneers on ESPN 2. Grinnell was narrowly defeated 86 to 85. Grinnell College's basketball team attracted ESPN due to the team's unique style of playing basketball, known simply as "The System." Coach David Arseneault's "system" incorporates a continual full-court press, a fast-paced offense, an emphasis on offensive rebounding, a barrage of three-point shots and substitutions of five players at a time every 35 to 40 seconds. This allows a higher average playing time for more players than the "starters" and suits the Division III goals of scholar-athletes. "The System" has been criticized for not teaching the principles of defense. However, under "The System," Grinnell has won three conference championships over the past ten years and have regularly placed in the top half of the conference. Coach Arseneault's teams have set numerous NCAA scoring records and several individuals on the Grinnell team have led the nation in scoring or assists.
Grinnell College is located in the town of Grinnell, Iowa, halfway between Des Moines and Iowa City. The campus contains sixty-three buildings ranging in architectural style from Collegiate Gothic to Bauhaus. The residential part of campus is divided into three sections: North Campus, East Campus, and South Campus. Each campus's dormitories, modeled explicitly after the residential colleges of Oxford and Cambridge, are connected by a loggia, an architectural signature of the college.
The college maintains a environmental research area called the Conard Environmental Research Area (CERA). The U.S. Green Building Council awarded CERA's Environmental Education Center a gold certification. The building is the first in Iowa to receive the designation.
Many building projects have been undertaken in recent years at the College including a new athletics center, the Bucksbaum Center for the Arts, the renovation of the Robert Noyce '49 Science Center and the Joe Rosenfield '25 Student Center. Noted architect César Pelli designed the athletics center, the Joe Rosenfield '25 Student Center, and the Bucksbaum Center for the Arts.
Founded in 2004, the student run Student Endowment Investing Group (SEIG), actively invests over $100,000 of Grinnell College's endowment in the stock market. The group's mission is to provide interested students with valuable experience for future careers in finance.
Service organizations are popular. The Alternative Break ("AltBreak") program takes students to pursue service initiatives during school holidays, and as of 2005, Grinnell had more alumni per capita serving in the Peace Corps than any other college in the nation. The college also runs its own post-graduation service program known as Grinnell Corps in Grinnell, China, Namibia, Lesotho, Greece, Macau, Nepal, and New Orleans though the Nepal program is currently suspended for safety reasons.
In April 2007, Grinnell college students founded the Social Entrepreneurs of Grinnell, a student operated microfinance lending institution. The group collects donations for the purpose of making small loans at zero interest to business owners and artisans in developing nations. It is affiliated with kiva.org.
Grinnell also has an entirely student-run textbook lending library on campus. Aimed at the economically disadvantaged yet open to all, it allows students to check out books for the semester for free, defraying the high cost of college textbooks. The library has no funding, relying solely on books donated. Since its founding in 2005, the collection has grown to thousands of books due to the generosity of the campus community. The library has expanded to include caps and gowns, which are lent out to graduating seniors every spring.
Since joining the board in 1968, Warren Buffett has played a visible role in growing the endowment at Grinnell, where he serves as a life trustee.
A campaign is currently under way to create more transparency and social responsibility in the endowment's investments.
In 2003, the college administration ordered that GrinnellPlans not be hosted on college servers because of the college's concerns regarding possible illegal content on the system and related liability. GrinnellPlans moved to an off-campus host, www.grinnellplans.com. The community is supported by its users and is not affiliated with Grinnell College.