What is a Small College?

What Is a small college?
In recent posts, I’ve been looking at the size of colleges and explaining why size matters.
It drives me nuts that students routinely pick schools by size without understanding the educational ramifications of their choices.
Here are my three previous posts on this subject:

What’s a Medium-Sized University?

What is a Research University?

Do You Know the Difference Between a College and University?

Today, I’m going to tackle small schools.
I’d argue that small colleges are the most misunderstood of them all. I suspect that many parents and students believe that these schools are small simply because they offer a mediocre education.  Kids are lusting for schools that are the educational equivalent of the New York Yankees not the Kansas City Royals.  What’s more, small colleges are often the size of many high schools and teenagers sure don’t want a repeat of their last four years. They are trying to escape that scene.
Of course, all these beliefs about small colleges are misguided. Many of the finest schools in the country are pint sized. But I believe these misconceptions help explain why only about 2% of students (I think I got this figure right) attend liberal arts colleges.

What’s a Liberal Arts  College?

The small colleges that garner the most attention are liberal arts colleges. As the name suggests, they offer bachelor’s degrees in the liberal arts and sciences such as English, history, philosophy, biology, mathematics and chemistry. These schools avoid vocational type degrees such as journalism, nursing, engineering, forestry and allied health majors. While it’s not a liberal art, many of these colleges decided to cheat and offer a business major or some kind of entrepreneurial degree for competitive reasons since so many students sadly think they need a business degree to succeed in life.
Most liberal arts colleges are private, but there some public liberal arts colleges too. You can find a list of public liberal arts colleges at the website of The Council of Public Liberal Arts Colleges. Enrollment at private liberal arts colleges is typically under 2,300 students. Public liberal arts colleges often have enrollments under 5,000.
The other main type of small school  is the baccalaureate college. These small schools offer the liberal arts line-up, as well as more practical majors. In general baccalaureate colleges aren’t as highly rated as their better known liberal arts peers, but there certainly are exceptions such as Cooper Union and the Air Force Academy.

List of Liberal Arts Colleges and Baccalaureate Colleges

Here is a list of the nation’s liberal arts colleges from US News & World Report and here is the lineup of  baccalaureate colleges. (I’d suggest ignoring the actual rankings!)
Why I Like Liberal Arts Colleges
If you’ve spent any time hanging around my college blog, you know that my favorite learning environment for students is the liberal arts college. Both of my children attend liberal arts colleges.
I think liberal arts college represent an ideal way to educate students. While there is going to be tremendous change in the higher-ed world as more undergrad classes at state universities move online because it’s cheaper and more efficient, there will always be parents and students (albeit a relatively small number) who value the kind of personal eduction that you can receive at a small school.
Here are four characteristics of a liberal arts college:

Student focused.

The rap against universities is that too many professors are more interested in research than their students. At liberal arts colleges, professors aren’t distracted by graduate students because there usually aren’t any. The focus of professors  is teaching undergrads.

Small class sizes.

Students who attend liberal arts schools aren’t going to be stuck in large lecture halls. These classes are small enough that the professors will get to know all their students.

Liberal arts colleges are where professors send their children.

Professors, the ultimate higher-ed insiders send their teenagers to liberal arts colleges by a far greater percentage than other parents. Here is a post that I wrote about this phenomenon:

Where Professors Send Their Children to College

Employers value liberal arts.

One of the missions of liberal arts colleges is to teach kids how to think, talk and write. Don’t all schools do that? Not necessarily. You can graduate from plenty of universities without writing essays or research papers. Who, after all, is going to grade 500 essays? In small class settings, liberal art students are more likely to be required to write papers, give class presentations and collaborate with their classmates and professors.

Excellent preparation for grad school.

These small schools can prepare students well for grad school. That makes sense since students have so many opportunities to work closely with their professors.  On a per capita basis, liberal arts colleges produce twice as many students who earn a PhD in science than other institutions.
I wrote a recent post about the schools that produce the most undergraduates who go on the earn science PhD. Forty seven of the top 50 schools, according to the National Science Foundation, were private institutions and the majority were liberal arts colleges. Here is the post:

Top 50 Schools That Produce Science PhDs

After reading this post you might assume that everybody should attend a liberal arts college. I’m certainly not suggesting this, but I think far more students should put these schools on their radar.

Learn More About Liberal Arts Colleges:

5 Reasons to Attend a Liberal Arts College

Shaving $98,000 Off the Cost of College

Lynn O’Shaughnessy is the author of The College Solution, an Amazon bestseller, and she also write a college blog for CBSMoneyWatch and US News. Follow her on Twitter.

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  1. I’m going to disagree in part with you that employers value liberal arts.
    I work for a small chemical manufacturing company. Our customer base consists mainly of pharmaceutical, medical diagnostic, nanotech, and biotech companies and quite a few academic researchers. We both manufacture specialized reagents for our customers and research and develop new reagents that they will find useful (most of the time our predictions have been “spot on” in that regard) I have been closely involved in the hiring process over the years.
    Our experience with chemists (Bacholor’s level and Master’s level) who graduated with chemistry degrees from liberal arts colleges or from research universities with a strong liberal arts component to their education has been disappointing. These chemists have been unsuccessful in our fast-paced, intellectually demanding manufacturing and research environment. They come in with an arrogance about what they know, but they fail to produce. Moreover, they lack the requisite work ethic and motivation that a small company needs from its workers if that company is going to survive and grow.
    Our best experience so far has been with chemists who have trained in more technically-oriented schools as chemists. They have a liberal arts background, but their major focus has been the technical aspects of chemistry. They think like chemists. They work hard (and more importantly, they work efficiently). They have been a success for us.
    I’m sure that there are many employers who value liberal arts educations, but in our fast-paced, demanding, highly technical manufacturing environment, we are skeptical of liberal arts graduates.