A preview of college visits to Bowdoin, Bates and Colby

Just a four-hour drive east from Charlotte is Portland, Maine. This Old Port waterfront begins the summer college road trips to the Maine Big 3 — Bowdoin, Bates and Colby. These three “Little Ivies” are proud members of the Division-III New England Small College Athletic Conference.

All three schools tout the Outing Club as one of the most popular clubs. Students love experiencing the outdoors with Maine’s four seasons of coastline, lakes, trails and mountains. Although these small and highly selective liberal arts colleges are similar in size with around 2,000 students, each college has its own personality and opportunities.

Starting with Bowdoin College, it is just a half-hour northeast from Portland and 20 minutes to Freeport, home of L.L. Bean. Bowdoin is in the coastal town of Brunswick. It is also the alma mater of Evan Gershkovich (class of 2014), the Wall Street Journal reporter, who has been jailed in Russia on false accusations of espionage. He wrote for the school newspaper, political journal and was a radio DJ.

Bowdoin was founded in 1794 with beautiful green paths and athletic fields. Massachusetts Hall, built in 1802, is a federal-style building on south campus. There is a range of American architecture, including federal revival, Greek revival and modern.

Bowdoin prides itself on being “cooperative, not competitive” with discussion-based learning, small class size of nine to one and nearly 40 majors. Top declared majors are biology, biochemistry, computer science, economics and English. Nearly half of students have double majors or an interdisciplinary major, and more than half study abroad. For three years in a row Bowdoin has ranked first among all undergraduate institutions for Fulbright award recipients.

Although Bowdoin does not have an engineering school, they offer a 3-2 program in attending Bowdoin for three years to receive a Bachelor of Arts degree and then two years to receive an engineering Bachelor of Science degree with Columbia, Caltech or the University of Maine. Also, Bowdoin offers a junior year at Dartmouth for engineering.

Next is Bates College, a half-hour northeast from Bowdoin. Bates is in Lewiston and founded in 1855 by abolitionists with a focus on social justice and egalitarianism. The campus has primarily red-brick buildings, synonymous with its garnet and black school colors. Hawthorn Hall is the oldest built in 1857 and the Bonney Science Center is the newest built in 2021.

Bates has 35 majors, and students are encouraged to take a minor, second minor or general education concentrations. The top majors are research/experimental psychology, economics/quantitative economics, political science/government, environmental studies and biology.

Bates is focused on immersive learning. Freshmen are required to take a year-long intensive writing seminar and nearly all students write a senior thesis. Nearly 60 percent of students study abroad. Also, in late April through May, Bates offers Short Term, where students take only one class or do internships or fieldwork.

Bates has a connected relationship with Lewiston in offering community-engaged classes. Bates has the Harward Center for Community Partnerships and hosts the Center for Purposeful Work for career development.

Finally, Colby College in Waterville is nearly an hour drive northeast from Bates. It was founded in 1813 along the Kennebec River Valley. Its blue and white college colors symbolize its connection to the water and environment. Colby has both a traditional hilltop campus and an upperclassman residential complex in the town of Waterville.

Freshmen orientation begins with Colby Outdoor Orientation Trips, an outdoor orientation program with hiking, biking and community service. Colby is a dedicated green campus with its food systems, physical facilities and student clubs. Also, Colby is the only Big 3 college with “underground” Greek life (not sanctioned).

Colby has four academic categories: natural sciences, social sciences, humanities and interdisciplinary studies. The most popular programs are biology, chemistry, economics, psychology and environmental science. Nearly 70 percent of students study abroad.

In 2013, Colby College was one of the first colleges in the U.S. to achieve carbon neutrality. Colby has the Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences to study climate change and marine science, 7 Lakes Alliance for non-profit research and freshwater ecosystems and the Lunder Institute for American Art. Colby is committed to fostering interdisciplinary learning with the natural and local environment.

Summer road trips are a relaxed opportunity to explore the Maine campuses. Comparing the different communities may ignite the desire to become a future Bowdoin Polar Bear, Bates Bobcat or Colby Mule.

(Margo Bartsch founded College Essay Coach, a full-service college admission business, and has been an adjunct professor in business at Champlain College and at Middlebury College.)