My college education, as well as graduate school, took place at big public universities. Although I did get into some private schools when I was pursuing advanced degrees, I went with the publics. They were the financially feasible option at the time. I never gave the small liberal arts colleges a thought, though I wound up earning my bachelors degree in a liberal arts major (Political Science).
Larger universities are divided into schools, each of which often has latitude in deciding on general education requirements. While it’s true that every student in every college has some requirements in common, deans and other senior administrators may choose, for example, which math or science class fill their requirement. Get too far into the curriculum in, say, the school of business or the college of engineering, and you may be forced to back-track into lower-level classes if you decide to change schools. This is why so many degree programs at large schools that are designed to be finished in four years often take five or six. However, the general education requirements for every student at a liberal arts college are the same. You’re less likely to be set back a year or two.
It’s very hard to be shy at a big school. I know, I was one of those people. You’re afraid to ask for help as you hang tightly to the rail on a crowded campus bus or in a long line at the dining hall. Customer service staff, librarians seem more hassled and overwhelmed. I have generally found the students to be friendlier at smaller schools. They’re more likely to know their way around campus. It’s also more interesting when you hear explanations as to why a student chose a school that do not revolve around watching sports or a pre-professional major.
At the larger schools faculty are hired for their research portfolio as well as the potential that they will produce and publish ground-breaking work as well as raise money for their departments. Graduate students receive far more attention than undergraduates. Teaching assistants who have no teaching experience teach the introductory courses. Not so at a small liberal arts college. The faculty are hired for their ability to teach; research and fundraising come second. Undergraduates receive the mentoring and research opportunities typically reserved for graduate students at the larger school.
The educational models of most liberal arts colleges are based around all students living on campus, whether it be in traditional residence halls, suites, Greek life, theme-based houses or apartments. You may not always get the housing you want but you’re more likely to be guaranteed to have a place to live for four years. At larger schools you’ll find that the majority of the undergraduates do not live on campus after the freshman or sophomore year. There is not enough room for everyone; most students want to get away from the supervised residence hall life pretty quickly either to pledge Greek organizations or move into apartments for a more “real world” experience.
I’ve become quite concerned that politicians are calling for more colleges to offer “job-related” majors. True, there are some majors such as accounting, education, engineering, health science and information systems programs that require students to successfully complete core courses before they can accept employment and/or take a professional exam. But more entry-level jobs do not. Critical thinking, communications and data analysis skills at a basic level usually suffice. Interest in the products and/or mission of an organization is also important.
Liberal arts colleges do not have the numbers to offer large on-campus recruitment programs or big job fairs on their own. The smartest join forces to share job postings or run career events together. This connects more students in liberal arts majors to entry-level full-time jobs and internships than they’re likely to see at much larger schools.
During my freshman year at Rutgers, outside of English Composition, my smallest class had 30 people. Everything else was a large lecture. Even my second-semester math class had more than 50 students. At most small liberal arts colleges you’re unlikely to have more than one class with over 30 students.
Some might say that small liberal arts colleges do more “hand-holding” than much larger schools. In some cases that’s true. The professors are more likely to take attendance care when you do not show up for class. They’re more likely to check on your academic progress. It’s fair to say that they’re more likely to try to help you through academic difficulties. But’s that part of being a more welcoming community. You don’t want people to leave.
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