02/17/2015 05:49 pm ET Updated Apr 19, 2015

Standing Tall When Small: What Small Colleges Can Contribute to Higher Education

Cathy Yeulet via Getty Images

I am short in height -- 5' 2" on a good day. I wear size 6 clothing; size 6 shoes. My ring size is 6. In a family of relative giants, I stood beneath them. Physical size does, unfortunately, affect how we are viewed -- bigger is better in America. It is not a coincidence that our recent presidents and many presidential candidates are 6' or more (Obama; Clinton (Bill); Bush (all three); Romney; Kerry). Tall usually wins although that may change with women candidates.

In America, we laud "big." Big apartments and even bigger houses; big lot stores; big cars; big investments; big personalities; big stars of the screen; big lights in Times Square; big (mega) churches; big voices, big food portions (think of the movie Supersize Me) and the list goes on. In higher education, big generally seems to trump small too. Big endowments, big tuition (the Chivas Regal effect); big enrollments; big capital campaigns (ever hear of one under $1 million?); big time athletics; big alumni networks; big research budgets; big grants; big named faculty. Need I go on?

To be sure, there has been recent pushback surrounding the value of big -- some deploying the phrase "small is the new big." Check out Seth Godin's book. Small is gaining momentum in architecture too; consider micro-hotels and micro-apartments. Think about microsurgery and the impact of robotics in improving medical recovery times. Small airlines are beating out some of the larger carriers. Small niche businesses, including in high tech, have newfound appeal and success. Doctors are pushing back when parents of healthy children seek growth hormones to increase their child's height. In K-12 education, the value of small has been acknowledged and has led to changes in school structure like the creation of smaller high schools.

In the higher education environment, small classes, personalized attention from faculty and staff, and a warm and intimate atmosphere are all prized virtues heralded by small colleges. Getting to know people around you, a family-like feel - these are all characteristics of small colleges and they contribute to student success. You can't get lost; you can only get found. But, I think there are other critical features of small colleges that merit attention and deserve equal if not more attention.

Does anyone remember Muggsy Bogues who played for four NBA teams including the Charlotte Hornets? He is 5' 3". That is not a typo. He grew up in the Baltimore projects amidst family violence and went on to attend and play at Wake Forest. He was my favorite player during his multi-year career. Watching him play was a delight.

He was like a gnat -- always there, always around your ankles, always pivoting away and finding holes, stealing balls and then dribbling under his competition -- literally. He could turn on a dime. He moved quickly, low and close to the floor. He was fiercely competitive. He was creative. He did not back down, even against the league's best players. He was not embarrassed about his height, which he showcased as a benefit. He was funny too, and he smiled. He was so popular in his prime that little kids would knock on the door of his home and ask his wife if he wanted to come out to play. He gave new, positive meaning to being small and succeeding.

Want to smile? Look at the photo of Muggsy with Yao Ming (one of the tallest players ever in the NBA).

Smaller educational institutions can "be like Muggsy." They can have humble roots. They can achieve without being arrogant. They can be nimble; they can respond fast; they can change course; they can be creative; they can see and then seize opportunities. They can believe in themselves and their students.

In a changing world with increasing diversity in higher education, different levels of collegiate preparation, financial challenges in paying for college, and career readiness hurdles, it is an asset to "be like Muggsy." Think of how scientists work in their labs -- they try things out first on a small scale and then they ramp up. Small educational institutions can do that too -- they can be beta testing sites for innovative bold ideas. And they can be tenacious.

The problem: these smaller places need to be recognized -- like Muggsy was. Folks need to see value in these small institutions and their capacities. When the Washington Bullets drafted Muggsy, people were deeply critical -- why waste a high draft choice on someone so small? Little did they know.

When asked about his success, Muggsy observed, rightly, that the ball is usually on the floor not in the air and he was closer to the floor than his opponents. Small colleges and their leaders are close to the ground too -- meaning they can see what is occurring on campuses with their students on a personal and individual level and can make change happen. Think about the impact of that -- small colleges lending their talents to change higher education. It's no more a pipedream than a 5' 3" player succeeding in the NBA.