This story was first published in our Paying for College 101 Facebook community. It’s been edited for clarity and flow.
During my work in college admissions I’ve heard many versions of the statements below from parents and students about choosing a college.
Full disclosure: I am a champion of small colleges, but that does not mean I automatically am anti-big university, or anti-community college.
If an institution fits a student, then that is the place for them. I just don’t want parents and students to arbitrarily exclude small private colleges from their search based on these common assumptions.
Helping a Student Choose a College?
My advice is simple: Avoid the “therefores.”
1. “We don’t have a lot of money…therefore, small private colleges will be too expensive.”
Eighty to ninety percent of small private colleges use the money they raise from alumni and other donors to make college affordable. In many cases, parents will spend the same or even less at a small college as they would at the big state universities.
2. “My child is brilliant…therefore, they really need to go to an Ivy.”
A brilliant student does not have to attend an Ivy or any highly selective college.
Many times, at small private colleges that are a bit less selective, the 4.6 GPA/35 ACT (1590 SAT) student is given research, publishing, and presentation opportunities (even as a freshman or sophomore) which help build their resume and enable them to get into the same graduate programs as the Ivy League students.
3. “I’m undecided about a major…therefore, I should go to community college to get my Gen Eds out of the way.”
Small private colleges are great for the undecided student. Class sizes tend to be smaller and advising is usually done by a member of the faculty. Professors put teaching and mentoring students above all else.
Also, General Education classes are NOT something to be “gotten out of the way” (like pushing peas and carrots to the edge of your plate). They are the very foundation of your entire educational experience.
4. “My daughter wants to be an engineer…therefore, she needs a university with a big engineering school.”
Despite what the rankings say, there is no “best college for X major.” Assuming that a particular college is THE place for engineering or business or any other major makes your search too narrow.
5. “I want to be a lawyer…therefore, I need to major in political science.”
Law schools (and med schools) admit students from many different majors.
I always tell pre-law students to major in whatever they would do with their life if they should decide to not be a lawyer.
6.“My student had a C/C+ average…therefore, they need to go to community college to get their grades up before applying to a four-year college.”
Small classes at certain private colleges often provide the individual attention needed to help the C student become an A/B student.
7. “I go to a large high school…therefore, I need to go to a college bigger than my high school.”
Comparing the size of a high school to the size of a college is like comparing a ping pong ball to a bowling ball. Other than the fact that both have people, food and classes, high schools and colleges are not at all alike.
8. “I’m not religious…therefore, I won’t consider colleges with a religious affiliation.”
Religious affiliations at small private colleges vary greatly, from those that require chapel or a statement of faith, to those that only require a couple religion/philosophy classes, to those whose affiliation is mostly historical and have no required religious “anything.” Ask questions, but don’t dismiss an entire class of colleges from your search.
9. “I’m a very social person…therefore, I want to attend a big university where there are a lot of people.”
Having 40,000 close friends is impossible. After working at six different small colleges, I have a theory, purely from observation, that friendship groups tend to be bigger at small colleges than at large universities.
10. “Our family has a lot of resources…therefore, colleges will not give us any financial aid.”
More than 500 colleges automatically discount the cost for ALL students immediately upon admission, regardless of income. Many schools offer merit aid to their top applicants regardless of a family’s income level.
11. “I want Greek life…therefore, I need a big university.”
Fraternity and sorority life is vibrant at a lot of small private colleges. Based on a number of criteria (GPA, lack of hazing incidents, level of community service and philanthropy), Best College Reviews ranks smaller colleges highly for their quality of Greek life.
12. “I want to major in computer science…therefore, liberal arts colleges are out of the question.”
Programs in math, computer science, engineering and other STEM disciplines are very strong at many liberal arts colleges. In fact, companies recruit heavily from small private colleges because their graduates have also learned valuable soft skills such as leadership, communication, teamwork, creativity, time management and more.
This Is Not a One-Size-Fits-All World
Once again, my advice to parents is simple: Don’t follow the herd. Research carefully. Visit. Give small colleges a chance. Use your head and your heart, and encourage your student to do the same.
Parents Respond to Author’s Advice
Here’s what some of the parents in our group had to say about Peter’s advice. (We think he changed some minds, by the way, or at the least, got parents considering another perspective.)
Wholehearted agree with #5. I’m an attorney and I previously worked in higher ed positions where I was giving the same advice to students. Poly Sci doesn’t give you an edge. Find something you want to do if you don’t finish law school or decide you don’t want to practice. And as an English major, I can say my reading/writing background was very beneficial! – Annie L.
Great advice! When I was choosing my college (many moons ago), I went to a big high school and was worried about a small school. My high school had 2,000 students and my college only had 1,200 students. I loved it at my college! I wouldn’t trade that experience for anything. Plus, with scholarships, the cost was the same as state schools. – Corrie C.
This was very helpful, Peter. Thank you! We had just automatically ruled out private universities due to cost but your post has made me start to think about reconsidering that and doing some private college/university visits with my daughter.– Angie D.
Bravo! I’m new to this and I’ve drawn many of the same conclusions because I adamantly believe you match the school to the student and to hell with what anyone else thinks. – Stacie D.
I have always wondered: Are there pitfalls or things to be aware of in regards to the medium school (6 to 10k)? Like U Richmond and Elon and others of that size? We have a tendency to think it is the best of both worlds. But is it really, or are they trying to be too many things to too many people and therefore they offer a more watered-down, in-between experience? (For example, class size goes from 15 to 35 and you lose the ability to try lots of classes because they have separate colleges, etc.) Kind of like a restaurant that has too many items on the menu and is mediocre at cooking each of them. – Kelli T.
Author responds: Probably depends on the colleges. I have always attended and worked for schools with between 200 and 1200 students, so I don’t have any direct experience with the mid-size. I think all sizes try to pack too many programs into their curriculum sometimes, but at really small colleges that just translates to really small class sizes. I would say if the mid-size college adds faculty proportional to their growth and keeps class sizes small (without using TAs), then they should be fine.
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