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Keith Wade

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Why a Smaller Private University Might Be Right for You (and a Few Reasons Why It Might Not)

Posted: 06/18/2012 2:35 pm

As new high school graduates finalize their college choices and some college students whose choices did not work out as well as they had hoped look for new homes, for some, an oft overlooked option, smaller private colleges and universities are just the place. And, for others, it's most assuredly not the right fit.

It is important, I think, to always disclose one's biases. I run a small, private, 115-year-old not-for-profit SACS accredited university (www.Webber.edu and www.SAPC.edu). And, while I don't speak for them, I hold leadership positions in three organizations composed mainly, though not exclusively, of small, private, not-for-profit colleges and universities: The Independent Colleges and Universities of Florida (www.icuf.org), The Sun Conference athletics conference (www.TheSunConference.com), and The National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (www.NAIA.org). And, more importantly, I did my undergraduate work at a small, private, not-for-profit college and think it did me far more good than a larger school would have. But, most assuredly, small and private are not for everyone.

There are exceptions to every rule, of course, but here are a few of the top things smaller private schools have going for them:

1) Most are focused. I think of the two schools making up our university as "boutique" colleges. In our Florida school, we're laser-focused on turning out business leaders. In our North Carolina school, the priority is on producing graduates who, while they're well trained in whatever they majored in, are some of the best critical thinkers in the world. Other schools are equally focused on turning out master chefs, sculptors or engineers. Once you make the concession that you can't be good at everything, it frees you to become the best in the world at something.

2) Faculty teach. Some of my best faculty learned a lot under the "GA's teach; faculty research" models, so there's no disputing that it works. But it does not work for everyone. I walked into my fair share of professors' offices uninvited and without an appointment and said, "can you elaborate on this" or "I don't quite get that." A few of my undergraduate professors are now my colleagues and a few of those are now my friends.

3) Classes are usually small. Again, there's no disputing that some folks learn just fine in a room of 600 people. But there's also no disputing that that is just not an appropriate learning model for many students. Some students need the give and take, and feedback, only possible in small settings.

4) The administration is close to the action. They've usually got a pretty good idea what's going on. They can make decisions rapidly, and based on the facts of the matter at hand.
5) It's likely not as expensive as you think it is. Value is a tricky proposition... a school which better prepares you for the life you want to lead might be worth a few dollars more than one which doesn't. But raw cost is easier to wrap one's hands around, and the fact is that private colleges and universities can be less expensive -- especially for out of state students -- than public schools. Fact is, a lot of folks go to private schools for no more than they would have spent at public schools.

But, of course, smaller private schools are simply not for everyone.

1) Most are focused. Sure, we bring home the occasional national championship and have the occasional student drafted into the major leagues. And perhaps the occasional party gets loud enough for the neighbors to call the police. But by and large, we stick to the knitting and the academics more than the extracurriculars. And even a school with a bunch of majors isn't going to have every major.

2) Faculty teach. Some do research, of course. And some do big time research with big time budgets for assistants. But with a teaching rather than grant focus, the opportunity for students to do research is, by and large, going to be limited.

3) Classes are usually small. It becomes challenging to nap in the back of the room. And, while faculty will bend over backwards to help, it's also tough to pull one over on them.

4) The administration is close to the action. They've usually got a pretty good idea what's going on. We have more students who would like to attend than we have spaces for them. So if you're slacking rather than making progress towards a degree, or your shenanigans are making life miserable for other students, your days with us are likely numbered.

5) "Not as expensive as you think it is" usually doesn't mean "free" or even "cheapest education you can get." There are a handful of schools with tuition in the stratosphere. And there are a handful that don't charge tuition at all (though in return they usually want on-campus work or a post-graduation commitment). But at most schools, students investing in their own future through tuition is part of the business model.

Most weeks I run into perhaps a dozen or two prospective students and their parents on campus visits. And here's what I tell them: you've looked around; you've talked to faculty; you've met with staff; the coach has shown you the locker room and the resident assistant has shown you the room. You love it here or you hate it here, and that's going to be the most important factor.

 

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