Deep springs college: An exclusive all-male college in the middle of a California desert

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One of the most exclusive colleges in the world is located bang in the middle of the remote high California desert. The institution accepts only 12 male students a year, and believe it or not, it consistently tops Harvard’s yield rate!

Deep springs college: An exclusive all-male college in the middle of a California desert

Deep Springs College, founded in 1917, is unusual in every imaginable way. It has a miniscule student body, an alfalfa-farm-and-cattle-ranch campus, and a mandatory 20 hours of manual labor per week. In fact, the college was built on the concepts of self-governance, manual labor, and rigorous academics. So the 24-odd guys up there spend their college years studying hard and, farming even harder.

Located in the Inyo-White Mountains, just east of the Owens Valley and the Sierra Nevada range, the campus spans 50 square miles in Deep Springs Valley. It offers a two-year liberal arts course, technically making it a junior college. But according to Vanity Fair, “Roughly 80 percent go on as juniors to colleges such as Harvard, Yale, Brown, Columbia and Oxford, while the remainder typically embark on a year of service first.” This places Deep Springs college in a category of its own.

The school itself is set up like an interconnected web, bolstering a community spirit and a deep connection with the desert habitat. Some of the buildings on campus are actually positioned in a circle, with outward-facing porches that look out into a vast expanse of land. It is said that L.L.Nunn, who founded Deep Springs, did so on the conviction that “The desert has deep personality; it has a voice. Great leaders in all ages have sought the desert and heard its voice. You can hear it if you listen, but you cannot hear it while in the midst of uproar and strife for material things…”

Legend has it that L.L. Nunn was building power plants in the American West, when he decided to build a place where workers could be educated, and educated people could work. So he bought a ranch in the high California desert, and founded a school that was not just for academic training, not just for ranch life, and not just to learn a trade or profession. His vision was to prepare students for a life of service.

Deep Springs prohibits students from leaving the valley during terms, except for “ranch or college business, religious services, or emergencies.” Drugs and alcohol are also prohibited, although smoking is allowed. Both rules are meant to “preserve the intensity and integrity of a student’s experience at Deep Springs,” and are actually supported by the students themselves. Entry is restricted for visitors as well – each visitor application is evaluated by the students in a long-drawn process. For example, it took the students six week to grant a Guardian reporter permission to visit.

The nearest town is an hour’s drive away, and the internet, on most days, is “slow”. The nearest sign of civilization is a brothel called Cottontail Ranch.

Students pretty much run the school themselves, based on a model of self-governance. They choose their own faculty, and choose which applicants are granted admission. The student body has offbeat elected positions, such as ‘Dragonslayer’ – a student in charge of fire prevention and safety. It’s a rather important role, given all the hay bales lying around and the fact that Deep Springs are 45 minutes from the nearest emergency services. Other positions include ‘Archivist’ and ‘Labor Commissioner’. ‘Gandalf’ and ‘Frodo’ are responsible for radio-telephone and internet, respectively.

The boys are also responsible for the farm’s upkeep. The 20 hours of manual labor are spent on interesting positions, such as butcher, gardener, or librarian. The most popular job is ‘Student Cowboy’ – it’s considered a great honor to be selected, and involves a high level of commitment. The college website declares that the cowboy “must commit to work through the rest of the year and the summer after they graduate. The Mountain Cowboy must also return the following summer as senior cowboy to stay with the herd and train the junior cowboy.” The students cook their own food, milk cows, pitch hay, collect eggs, irrigate the fields, and tend the garden.

The highly eccentric nature of Deep Springs has led people to speculate about it being a cult in disguise. In fact, people from the nearest town of Bishop appear quite convinced about it. As The Guardian reports, “One rumor suggests that it’s a rehabilitation center for homicidal adolescents, others suggest Brokeback Mountain, or a cult.” Their courses have strange names too – Philosophy of Religion is called ‘God and Evil: Theodicies’, while Religion Studies, Literature is termed ‘Catching Spies’. To let off steam, the boys indulge in wild dancing in the desert at an event they call ‘boojies’. They also go on camping trips, hike in the mountains, walk on dunes, and play sports.

Cult or not, Deep Springs seems to provide an invaluable college experience, and yet costs close to nothing. In their own words, “every student accepted to Deep Springs receives a scholarship covering tuition, room, and board valued at over $50,000.” The school receives about 200 applications, of which only 12 are accepted per year. The admissions process takes place in stages, the first of which has candidates submitting their SAT or ACT scores, along with six essays.

These initial applications are reviewed and noted on, and the top applicants are invited to stay at the college for a few days to experience the way of life. During this phase, they write more essays and attend go through a bizarre interview process. They’re asked to rise early to help milk the cows, among various other farm-related tasks. An all-male college since its inception, Deep Springs College voted to accept female students in 2011. However alumni have contested this decision in court, effectively blocking coeducation at least until the 2016-2017 academic year.

Despite the controversy and mystery surrounding it, or maybe precisely because of them, Deep Springs College has the highest yield rate in the United States. Over 90% of applicants who receive an offer of admission, enroll. By comparison, Harvard boasted a yield rate of 81% in 2015.
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