The college I teach at is fairly small. We broke 1,000 students last year, and should break 1,100 next year. We offer a number of four-year degrees, and many of our students head off to graduate studies after commencement.
And yet, there is a disconnect between the local population and the school, not to mention people who move into the school from larger areas or institutions. They don’t see the academic community that many faculty members try to promote, or more accurately, they scoff at the idea that our college could have one at all.
This is not a problem just at my school, either. Lots of people look down on smaller institutions, including community colleges, as though the academics are subpar, as though the ideas that a smaller school’s faculty have are any less valid than those from a larger, more prestigious university.
The thing is, though, that those people are entirely wrong. And not just that, their mentality has a lot to do with what’s wrong with higher education right now because they place more importance on the professors’ pedigree and publications than they do the students’ education.
When I graduated high school, there were two schools I would not attend. I would not even entertain the notion of going.
I nixed the local community college because I had reports from friends who’d graduated a year earlier and said it was nothing but a glorified high school. I didn’t want to be a part of that anymore.
The other was a university about an hour away, and I determined that because it was in such close proximity to my hometown that it couldn’t be a good school. And you know the irony? That’s the school I chose when I got my Master’s degree, and my education was superb.
But no one—no one!—could have convinced me of that when I was 18. Now, though, I commend my cousins who are going to the same community college I scoffed at because they can get their general requirements out of the way at a fraction of the cost of even state schools.
And what’s more? They’re going to learn a lot while there.
Because one of the biggest myths about small institutions is that the faculty there are subpar. That they don’t have the qualifications of professors at larger schools, or they don’t have the same capabilities.
So let me now say this: hogwash!
My wife is the one who really turned me on to this idea because while I had generally been gravitating toward it myself during my undergrad years, she put it into words. She said that just because someone is at a smaller school doesn’t mean their ideas are any smaller. Ideas are the same anywhere. People in Alabama have access to the same books and articles and resources that professors at Harvard do.
And when she said that, a light bulb went on in my head. Because she was completely and totally right.
In a lot of ways, I’d even say that smaller institutions trump larger schools. Not because their ideas are any better, but because the contact with faculty is so much higher. Because professors who work at small schools don’t do it for prestige or money; they do it because they want contact with students.
Large schools have much more of a disconnect between students and faculty than smaller ones. Sometimes, students don’t even see a non-graduate assistant teacher until the third year of their undergraduate careers. And that works for some people, but it doesn’t for me. Those were the most formative years of my undergrad career, and I learned what I wanted to do because of direct interaction with faculty members. I can’t imagine what interaction is like in online universities, no matter how big or small they are.
And not just faculty members, but faculty members who cared more about making sure that I learned than they did about competing with their colleagues for research grants, funding, or promotion. One of the great things about smaller colleges is that most of them are not part of the Publish or Perish mindset that has dominated academia for years.
I’m all about research and professional development. I’m slowly putting together a couple of conference proposals as well as writing/revising a couple of articles I’d like to see published in journals within a year or two. However, I’m one of the scholars who sees publishing as a side-task within my job, not the primary focus. When research and publishing overcomes a professor’s commitment to his or her students, it’s gone too far. The end is no longer justified by the means.
Which is why smaller schools without harsh research stipulations for tenure and promotion can often have a more nurturing environment for students. The professors are just as smart, and they often attend the same conferences, read the same journals, and use the same textbooks. Their focus is just on the students rather than themselves.
Which is how it should be.
Maybe I’m biased. Actually, I know I am. But that’s okay. Because when I go to work in the morning, I know where I stand. I know where my priorities are.
As I plan my classes, I’ll read the same articles that Harvard professors do, and I’ll browse the same forums, and I’ll even read the same books when I do my research. Heck, I’ll even be using the same textbooks as some of them do in my class. So unless I’m significantly less intelligent than my Ivy League contemporaries, I have to think that my students aren’t missing out on that much.
What do you all think? What do you see as the benefits of larger or smaller educational institutions? Weigh in by posting a comment!