One of the critical decisions to make in choosing a college is between the research university and the small college. In the spring, we looked at the case for the research university. This week, we 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.
[Find student-faculty ratio via U.S. News's Liberal Arts Colleges rankings.]
Here are some of the pluses of choosing a small college:
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. (Again, the U.S. News Best Colleges rankings include the percentage of classes under 20 at each school.) 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.
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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 TA's 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 in this ultra-tight economy, there should be fewer beginning professors compared to the steady stream of green graduate students coming into the research university.)
[Read 10 Warning Signs of a Bad Professor.]
3. Your professors will be more committed to teaching. At many research universities, "publish or perish" is still the phrase of the day. As a result, professors there who seek tenure and promotion have to make research their No. 1 priority and teaching, at best, No. 2. At small colleges, on the other hand, teaching is often the main criterion for advancement, so the professors will put more effort into preparing their classes and, often, into developing new classes.
4. Your work will be evaluated more carefully. In larger schools, professors, TA's, 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.
5. You'll have a chance to write more papers. Grading papers is quite time consuming and papers are one of the first things to go when an instructor is faced with a large class. The limited size of classes at small colleges, though, makes it possible for professors to assign more written work (or other sorts of projects). This is important because the more you write, the better you get at writing. And with the rise of the Internet, communication skills are becoming more and more important compared to just memorizing lots of facts. It's also likely that you'll have more of a change to do bigger projects, such as junior papers and senior theses, usually with one-or-one supervision by a real expert.
6. You'll have more opportunity for one-on-one contact with your professor. At the big universities, your professor may just be a speck in the distance, someone you would never dare approach. But at small colleges, you will get to know your professors and they will get to know you as well. You often will get better advising than you would at a larger university and this professor will actually know you when the time comes for getting a letter of recommendation for graduate school or for an employer.
7. You'll have more freedom in the curriculum. Often smaller colleges are more flexible about requirements and give you more leeway to construct programs that meet your individual interests. Some even allow you to design your own majors or don't have majors at all. What's good about this is that you can take only the courses that you want, rather than sitting in on endless classes that the "college" or the "department" thinks all students should take.
8. You'll have more opportunities to collaborate with a professor. At larger schools, the are endless hordes of graduate students waiting in line to partner with a professor in his or her research program. At smaller schools, it's the undergraduates who are called upon to look up the sources, help conduct the experiments, and often even write up—or present at a conference—the findings with the professor. And it not just a work-saving move for the professor; part of the teaching mission at many small schools is to engage the students in the research of the faculty—sort of a shared experience rather than a one-way communication of information.
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?
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?
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