April 20, 2020
Shopping for colleges? Right now, high schoolers are heading down the home stretch of this school year. College-bound seniors are planning what their pre-college summer will look like. Many current juniors, soon to be rising seniors, are thinking about where they will attend college in a year and a half. They're weighing the pros and cons of many selection criteria. One of the more important aspects is “How big or small?"
When it comes to one's college experience, size definitely matters. Today, let's take a look at some of the advantages of small colleges. My college experience was split between a small liberal arts college and a big research university, and from my personal perspective, I enjoyed my time, although limited by circumstances, more on the much smaller campus.
As a freshman, I attended Lycoming College, located in north-central Pennsylvania. Back then, the enrollment was somewhere around 1,000 men and women, maybe a little less. I stepped out at the end of an academically successful first year and spent three years in the US Navy. Things were in upheaval during the mid-1960s, so rather than allow my uncertainty about a future career path manifest in poor grades and a military draft, I took the offensive and joined up.
At the end of my hitch, I transferred from Lycoming's intimacy to Penn State University's “cattle call," as I referred to it. Penn State was about 40 times bigger than Lycoming. Why did I do this? Domestic circumstances. Not long after I returned from the Navy, I got married and my wife's nursing work required that I commute to college. We lived much closer to Penn State than to Lycoming, so the transfer made obvious practical sense.
There are myriad differences between a thousand-student college experience and one of 40 thousand. There are a number of reasons why I preferred the smaller campus, although your mileage may vary, as they say. To advocate my small-college favor, I thought I would append some points from an excellent U.S. News article: 10 Reasons to Go to a Small College, which proclaims, “Smaller schools often offer many advantages over the mega-university" and begins with:
One of the critical decisions to make in choosing a college is between the research university and the small college … [Now] consider what advantages a small (or liberal arts) college has to offer. The typical small college is a school that has an enrollment of less than 5,000 students, doesn't have a graduate school, and has a student-to-faculty ratio of under 10:1 — some are even as low as 5:1.
So, there you have a general specification for a small college. My experience at Lycoming was on the smaller side of small, since U.S. News considers anything of 5,000 or fewer students as “small." However, I agree with the advantages mentioned in the article. Here are five of the 10, along with my observations.
1. You get small classes. Unlike large research universities where you could regularly find yourself in lecture halls with many hundreds of other students, at a small college you'll rarely be in classes of more than 50 students; in most cases two-thirds of your classes will have fewer than 20 students … The small class environment will give you a much greater opportunity to ask questions, participate in discussion, and have a professor who actually knows who you are. It's always nice to be a real person, rather than a nameless spectator in the crowd of a mega-university.
This is a tremendous advantage, in my view. At Lycoming, I got to know some of my professors on a personal level and maintained contact with them many years after I left for the Navy. Our classes were more like group conversations rather than the completely impersonal “cast of thousands" lecture hall situations at Penn State.
The small classes I enjoyed allowed me to get to know almost every student who shared the room and friendships developed. The intimacy of the small classes amplified the impact of the teaching and the conversational atmosphere supported a spirited ambience.
2. All the teaching is done by professors. Since most small colleges only grant undergraduate degrees, they don't have graduate students. And if you don't have graduate students, you don't have to stick graduate students in the classroom to get trained on how to be a professor. This means that you won't have to deal with inexperienced TAs teaching your class. (It doesn't mean that you might not get stuck with inexperienced young professors. But with many colleges "tenured in," and with not much chance for professors to change jobs … there should be fewer beginning professors compared to the steady stream of green graduate students coming into the research university.)
I give two big thumbs-up to this advantage! While not all the professors who taught the eight courses I took during my year at Lycoming (two semesters, each with four courses) became friends of mine, I compare those classes with those at Penn State, where the TAs did all the heavy lifting after the professor dropped in for his or her lecture. In some cases at Penn State, I had multiple TAs in one course. There was no way to develop a relationship with the teaching staff, such as it was.
Office hours were a joke. There were so many students vying for the professors' time that getting an audience during the highly limited time slots was futile. At Lycoming, sometimes a casual after-class question could lead to an out-of-class meeting, once in a while at the professor's home. Never at Penn State.
4. Your work will be evaluated more carefully. In larger schools, professors, TAs, and/or graders have to rush through huge stacks of papers and exams to grade (that is, when they haven't relegated the grading to a computer), so they don't have much time to offer feedback and suggestions on individual pieces of work. At small schools, the professor will have more time to read your work and offer detailed comments. While to some this might seem intimidating, it's one of the best ways to learn and grow intellectually — if you actually pay attention to the comments, that is.
Amen to this advantage! I recall one particular course at Lycoming (an elective: The History of Western Music) where I wrote a paper stating my contention that Beethoven used certain of his compositional themes and motifs multiple times across his lifetime. One specific example I cited was the main melody from the Andante Cantabile from his piano sonata Op. 13.
I showed how Beethoven also used this melodic structure as the basis for the main theme of the great Adagio of his Ninth Symphony, Op. 125. My professor was so intrigued by this theory that he asked me to explain it in greater detail, with more examples, after class, which I did. That was the start of our friendship. I never had an encounter like that at Penn State.
9. You'll face less bureaucracy. At small colleges you will be spared the endless lines at registration, the hand-to-hand combat to get into closed classes, and the sprinting between innumerable offices to try to get your simplest questions answered. Sounds like a good deal, doesn't it?
As a high schooler, you've not yet experienced the red tape that can drive you to distraction with higher education bureaucracy. At Lycoming, I was able to register for my classes calmly, while consulting with my academic adviser, who also acted as a kind of psychologist, lowering my stress level and giving me plenty of Q&A time so that I could plan an efficient semester load.
At Penn State, to register for classes, I had to wade into a huge mob on the basketball court of Recreation Hall and move from table to table where the various class enrollment computer cards were handed out. I needed some advice on what to choose but things were so frantic that I was lucky to get enough cards to complete my schedule for that term. The Penn State process reminded me of meal time at Navy boot camp when the drill instructor would walk by our tables and bang his nightstick, yelling, “Eat up and get out!" Penn State at times was like being in the Navy, without all the water.
10. You get the feeling that you count. Large universities can be very alienating places. There it's easy to feel that no one cares about you and whether you learn anything. At most small colleges, they have room to care. Group hug, anyone?
Penn State for me was like working at a large industrial complex. I would punch in and punch out, feeling as though what I was doing, let alone learning, was making little or no difference, other than dutifully completing the requirements for my degree. At Lycoming, by contrast, I would find myself anticipating my classes and going the extra mile so that I could “make a difference" in class.
There's a factor known as the love of learning. I loved to learn at Lycoming. My professors were interesting, even compelling, personalities that truly loved their respective disciplines. That's why classes were so captivating for me. I couldn't wait to sit under their teaching and, believe it or not, I looked forward to showing how much I had absorbed from them when it came to exam time. While I did have a few inspiring professors at Penn State, the one word that best describes my relationship with them would be “distance."
As I think back across my college days and the contrast between Lycoming College and Penn State University, two prominent images in my memory stand out. First, at Lycoming, I recall the passionate interactions, both in and out of class, that I had with a number of my professors. It was all about the joy of learning. My Penn State image is of sitting halfway up a massive Forum Building lecture hall straining to see the graphics projected on the big screen while bumping elbows with the two students wedged in beside me. There were better seats available at Beaver Stadium where, at least, you could watch an exciting Nittany Lion football game.
Don't get me wrong. I did learn and profit from my three years at Penn State. However, my one year at Lycoming gave me more pure learning impact and enjoyment, by far. So, put me in the Advantage: Small Colleges category. I often think about how much more fondly I remember that single year than I do those other three. For me, it's a simple matter of quality versus quantity.
I encourage you to read the remaining five small-college advantages in the U.S. News article. You may prefer a big research university. That's fine, but at least consider a few small colleges during your search. You'll be glad that you did!