In the world of admissions, we have reached the point of the year when students are slowly, yet surely, beginning to announce their destinations for college. As financial aid packages start to roll in and additional campus visits are taken, seniors are coming to realize the respective locations they will call home for the next four years.
This is an exciting time for students and parents alike. However, before students are able to make any definite decisions, they must first themselves some personal value questions. These are the sort of questions to which no right or wrong answers exist, yet are extraordinarily important in the overall scheme of college selection. Questions along these lines include, “Would I prefer to attend school in a small town or big city? “Would I like to attend school close to or far away from home?” And perhaps most significantly, “Do I prefer to attend a small school or a big school?”
As a society, we’re constantly taught that bigger is always better. A person is supposed to want the bigger house, bigger car, bigger meal, bigger TV, and so on. I would posit that the premise is not always true in undergraduate education. Here is the reality: large, state research universities do a lot of things really well. Small, liberal arts colleges also do lots of things really well. The two types of schools offer radically different experiences and tend to excel in strikingly contrasting areas.
Large research universities will always have the most expansive, most up to date libraries.
They will, in many cases, have the advantage in terms of sheer number of faculty members, academic facilities, and major programs. They will have more places to eat on campus.
Small, liberal arts college can offer a much more personalized academic experience, in which faculty actually interact with undergraduate students. People in various offices across the campus (e.g. student activities, career development, and academic services), while unquestionably having fewer total resources at their disposal than their large school counterparts, have the ability to invest quality time in each and every student. Ultimately, students at these small universities matter more.
As I look back on my own college search, I can plainly recall originally being torn about which experience I wanted to invest in. At some point, in almost imperceptible manner, I came to realize that people at schools like Gardner-Webb were much more personally invested in my success. As I came for prospective student visits, I noticed that I actually met with university faculty while visiting GWU. It resonated with me that I, even as a prospective student, could have access to such brilliant minds while students at larger schools often never develop any sort of personal rapport with their professors, even throughout their college years.
Along these lines, I also think it is important to note that the teaching at small, liberal arts colleges is done by PhD-holding faculty members. These professors are teaching at places like Gardner-Webb, not because they weren’t sought after by larger schools, but because they have acknowledged the refreshingly human reality that they actually enjoy working with undergraduate students. Professors which matriculate to larger schools often do so in order to focus on their research. This is why the bulk of the teaching load at such schools is delegated to teaching assistants in their 20’s, who are working their respective ways through graduate study. The question I encourage students to ask themselves is this: would I rather be taught by someone all of seven years older than me, or would I prefer to be taught someone who has already arrived in the world of academia? For me, the answer was obvious.
Additionally, small schools encourage the development of personal relationships in ways that are often lost in the shuffle at generic state school X. This is why Greek life has become such a paramount piece of socializing at large schools- if a student is not part of an athletic team or part of a fraternity/sorority, it becomes painfully easy to become lost in a sea of disinterested individuals.
I feel completely comfortable promising prospective students at Gardner-Webb that if they will come to GWU, buy into what we’re doing and get involved on campus, they will make friends for life. Lots of colleges talk about the quality of their flashy buildings (although we have our fair share of these as well). Gardner-Webb faculty and staff like to spend
time bragging on our best commodity: the uncanny collection of quality people that gravitate to our campus year after year. This reality is why I chose to become part of the Gardner-Webb family in 2007 and why I have been proud to continue to be a part of this family ever since.
Please take these candid thoughts to heart as you consider our original question: “Would I prefer a big school or a small school?”