Small Schools, Huge Possibilities

I grew up in a small town in the middle of Wyoming, the least populated state in the country.  I loved it there but I was sure that after high school, I would head off to college “back east.”  I had great grades in AP classes and my mail box was flooded with view books and marketing materials from colleges all over the country, and my college search suddenly became filled with new possibilities.

As I researched my options, I started to take things into account that I hadn’t considered before. Factors like faculty to student ratios, statistics on classes taught by graduate students vs. professors, flexibility in scheduling, and, of course, finances.  I had always known I would have to take out loans, but the reality of the debt I would accumulate attending a school that didn’t offer merit scholarships, soon dashed my Ivy League hopes. In the meantime, I was getting calls from smaller private liberal arts colleges.  Places like Willamette in Oregon, Whitman College and The University of Puget Sound in Washington, and a tiny little college called College of Idaho (formally Albertson College). As I explored these smaller, closer-to-home options, I realized that “liberal arts colleges” did not mean I couldn’t get a degree in biology or that my diploma would say that I had studied “liberal arts.” Instead, they were institutions that required each student pursue a truly well rounded course of study with graduation requirements in a variety of fields.  I was certain I wanted to double major in biology and theater, so a curriculum that emphasized the importance of diversity was attractive to me, as was the idea of attending a college that was sure to attract like-minded individuals – science majors who were also painters and music majors who loved physics.

After a few campus visits, I also realized that packed lecture halls and city buses were not my thing. I fell in love with the smaller, more residential campuses where students were often required to live on campus for two full years.  There was a palpable feeling of community at these smaller colleges. Professors played Frisbee on the lawns, and knew their undergraduates on a first name basis. I eventually narrowed down my choices. I was accepted to both The University of Puget Sound and Albertson College of Idaho, but when the admissions representative from the College of Idaho came to my house to meet with us personally, and tailored a financial aid package full of scholarships and grants to reduce my loans, the decision was made. I figured that kind of personal attention was a great indicator of even better things to come. I was right. However, that also meant I was staying in the west, and going to tiny school in a tiny town in Idaho.  That part didn’t thrill me. But from the minute I set foot on campus it ceased to matter.

It was a small campus, but it felt like living in a park. Even after the required two years, no one moved more than a few blocks away. Professors indeed played Frisbee with their students on the quad, and class sizes were so small that if you ever slept in, you had to hideout for the rest of the day, because your professors were sure to notice you on the way to the dining hall and inquire about your absence.  After my sophomore year, I never had a class bigger than nine people. (My biggest class ever was only 35.) It was incredibly academically rigorous. With such small classes, professors had time to grade homework, and there was never any hope of just showing up for the tests and receiving a passing grade.  With only 800 students, everyone made friends outside of their own majors, and the incredible diversity of friendships I formed with students in other disciplines was as big a part of my education as my classes themselves.  I even added a creative writing major to theater and biology, which made scheduling my classes a nightmare. But my advisor blocked time for me every semester, I set up personal meetings with the registrar, and I managed to complete three majors in four years. I also auditioned for every play, wrote and performed in a sketch comedy troupe, wrote and edited for the student newspaper, and even spent six weeks with two professors and twelve other students in a lodge in the mountains, taking advanced writing, environmental science, and learning to backcountry ski (a PE credit).

My four years of undergraduate study was a fabulous caffeine-fueled total immersion in everything my small college had to offer. Looking back, I am still amazed at the amount of different things I was able to study, participate in, and accomplish in those four years, and I have no doubt that my experience was entirely due to my decision to attend a small liberal arts college. The incredible flexibility of the curriculum, and the immense amount of one-on-one attention from both faculty and administration allowed me to graduate in four years. The small number of students meant that there was less competition to participate in extracurriculars, and most students could easily pursue everything that interested them. The absence of graduate programs put the focus of the entire community on undergraduate education, which meant undergrads in science got to research with full professors and acting students performed in lead roles on the theater’s main stage. The small class sizes made attendance and class preparation absolutely mandatory, and turned out to be great preparation for graduate school (where class sizes are small and professors are increasingly demanding). Every single one of my professors knew me on a first name basis, they signed me into higher level classes when pre-requisites were full and worked with my advisors to smooth out my schedule, with none of the complicated bureaucracy and endless paperwork of larger institutions.

Though large research institutions often get a lot of attention, I’ve found that big research budgets and large departments tend to be more beneficial on a graduate level. Meanwhile, small liberal arts schools that focus primarily on undergraduate education, are graduating well-rounded students who are more-than prepared to move on to large graduate institutions, as well as nimble-minded critical thinkers who thrive in the professional arena.  Liberal arts schools are an especially good fit for students who want to double major, or who are undecided about their exact career path. The flexibility of curriculum and one-on-one attention provides ample opportunity to explore across disciplines without sacrificing the ability to graduate in four years.  And, if you’re willing to forgo the hustle and bustle of a more urban campus, a residential setting provides the support of a close knit community that is often vital in the first couple years away from home.

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