What Size is a Small College?

This week, 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:

My Pet Peeve: Picking Colleges By Size

Research Universities: What You Need to Ask

What’s a Medium-Sized 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 petite. But I believe these misconceptions help explain why only about 3% 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 such as English, history, 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 these schools 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.

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.

Here are some of my other posts on liberal arts colleges:

5 Reasons to Attend a Liberal Arts College

Shaving $98,000 Off the Cost of College

Which is Better: A Liberal Arts College or University?

Gosh, after reading this 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.

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.

Let's Connect

Leave a Reply

  1. Medical technology is one of the worst paying jobs ever. I’ve been working for over thirty years in this field and still make less than $43,000. I love the work and feel it is very important but there isn’t much appreciation for the field from anyone.

  2. In reference to your article on the worst paying college degrees. Don’t paint things too broadly when it comes to your food theme. You may want to look at degrees in food Science offered by many large state universities such as Purdue, Cornell, Iowa State, U of I, Wisconsin, Georgia, Texas A&M ,Ohio State, Virginia Tech, NC State,U of California at Davis, Michigan State, Minnesota, and many other land grant institutions. The food science major is usually located in the School of Agriculture at these universities.

    Both I (retired) , my sister, and my niece (recent grad-December, o9) were food science majors. Starting salaries for recent food science BS grads can go as high as $50,000 to 60,000 and of course, the more internships, direct work experiences. etc. can make a big difference in starting salary. Most graduates are placed upon graduation if they are willing to move. My niece had 2 job offers when she started her final semester and my sister is having a hard time finding people with a food science degree. The only possible dowside is that if you work in the production end of this field, you may be located in a medium to small sized town. Most R&D facilities are however located in larger cities.

    Here again,continuing your theme of math and science, a degree in food science requires more and much higher level math. chemistry, biochemistry, and microbiology than say for instance a degree in culinary arts or nutrition.

    Please look into this degree as the industry needs more of these graduates. Students considering general chemistry, animal science, general biology/microbiology, and many other areas may want to look further into this degree. The opportunities are there. Many of the large land grant institurions have dedicated food science buildings and faculty. And, because we will always need to eat, this field is here to stay and is more recession proof than others.

    As a suggestion, those considering culinary arts may also want to check degrees in restaurant and hotel management in lieu of culinary arts degrees. These grads are placed in large hotels, resorts, restaurant chains etc.

  3. Lynn,

    I agree: small colleges are underrated. During my college search I ignored all the small colleges, because my older brother convinced me it was too similar to ‘high school round 2’ rather than college.

    However, my friends who attended small liberal arts colleges absolutely loved their experience – specifically for the reasons you stated above.

    (1) They had good professors. This equates to the ability educators have for relating with their students (and how much they wish to), which is also directly tied to how research-based they are. (2) They built many personal relationships with people in all facets of campus life. This allowed them to really dig in to the school and become a part of the college community.

    I attended a public research university in New York (Binghamton). It was a great experience for me because it was so hard to ‘make school my own.’ I had to actively seek community involvement, go out of my way to get to know my professors, and I did not know many people on campus due to the sheer size of the university.

    In my opinion – there is a right fit for everyone. Deciding on a school based on size does seem silly to me, there are many better ways to narrow down your decision of school.

  4. Lynn,
    The benefits of a small liberal arts school became apparent to us this summer prior to my daughter even attending her first class. Uncertain if 17 credits was too heavy of a load she sent an e-mail to a biology professor we just happened to meet while touring the biology building at St. Mary’s College of Maryland. She remembered that accidental meeting with my daughter (she spent 45 minutes with us showing us her lab and answering questions). Within a day my daughter received an e-mail four to five paragraphs in length giving her great advice and encouragement. This type of personalized attention makes me feel even better about my daughter’s school choice.