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Top 10 Advantages of a Small College

V. Peter Pitts, M.A.

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All too often, high school seniors “follow the herd” to a large university, with a group of their friends, without even considering other college options.

One often-overlooked category is small residential colleges. By “small,” I mean fewer than 3,000 full-time undergraduate students living on campus, of which there are about 700 in the U.S.

Below are 10 of the qualities that most, if not all, small colleges have in common.

1. Low Cost

If you choose one of the top-ranked (U.S. News, etc.) colleges and have a high Estimated Family Contribution (EFC), no, you will not save any money. On the other hand, if you are open to any of the other 600 or so colleges that have lower rankings (but are still good schools), you can save A LOT of money.

These colleges often offer a scholarship (tuition discount) to students, without regard to income, upon admission. For all families (high, middle and low income combined), 64% of all small colleges cost less than $25,000, on average, for tuition, room, board and fees. In fact, 30% cost less than $20,000 and 6% cost less than $15,000. Many offer full-tuition scholarships for strong academic students.

A college financial advising company can be a great resource for identifying good options for your student and helping your family understand how much you are likely to pay at different institutions.

2. Flexible Admission Criteria

Are you worried about low test scores or GPA? Many small colleges are happy to take a chance on a C or C+ student. A few even have open admission, admitting applicants regardless of GPA.

At almost 50% of small colleges, a quarter of freshman admissions are students with an ACT score of 19 or lower. A quarter of freshman admissions are students who have a 2.99 or lower GPA at more 40% of colleges. And 86% of the 1,079 small- to medium-sized colleges in the nation have some form of “test-optional” admission policy.

Parents reluctant to pay a lot of application fees? There’s no app fee at 39% of small colleges, and 33% are both test-optional AND have no app fee. If a student is not initially admitted, many small colleges also are very much open to appeals, especially if the student has strong seventh and eighth semesters in high school.

3. Flexible/Unique Structures to Choose From

Some small colleges have a non-traditional school year calendar (one course at a time, 4-1-4, 4-4-1, 3-3-3, etc.). Some have active Greek life, some are single-sex, some have a religious affiliation, some are HBCUs (Historically Black Colleges and Universities). Some are in rural locations while others are urban or suburban. Some colleges condense four years of college into three. Some offer 4+1 or 3+2 bachelor’s/master’s degrees. There is something for everyone!

With small classes, faculty can also be more flexible in terms of where class is held and how the classroom is organized. This flexibility has really helped during the COVID-19 pandemic, when classes were held outdoors or inside large spaces (such as an athletic center).

4. Opportunities Galore!

Research opportunities and independent study options are numerous at small colleges. Hands-on work begins from Day One at many small colleges. One small college offers a three-week research opportunity before the first day of freshman classes, much of it original research that is actually publishable.

If a student wants to double major or major/double-minor and still graduate in four years, the attentive advising that occurs at small colleges helps make this a possibility. Some colleges even allow students to create their own majors.

Because these colleges are small, yet often have 100+ clubs and organizations, students can rise to multiple leadership positions. For theatre and music students, the opportunity to perform on stage, on a regular basis, is an invaluable opportunity.

For athletes, the opportunity to continue to play their sport (as opposed to just watching others play at a big NCAA Division I university) is the main motivator to attend a smaller D-III or D-II college. At its 438 D-III schools, according to the NCAA, one of every six students plays intercollegiate sports. At D-I schools, it’s one of every 23. It’s more fun to do than to watch!

5. Attention/Help/Guidance Everywhere

Smaller classes mean that professors can more easily identify who needs extra tutoring, who needs to see a counselor for personal problems, and who needs to be academically “pushed” a little bit more. Fewer students fall through the cracks.

Advising at small colleges is done in a very personal and thorough manner. Students often get career, academic and even personal advice from the same professors they have in the classroom.

6. Students Graduate Ready for Employment and Graduate School

At small colleges, faculty encourage (and sometimes require) internships, study abroad, published research and presentations at state or national meetings. Students tend to get involved in several outside activities and develop leadership skills from these experiences. It is not unusual for a student to have all of these types of experiences listed on their resume. And, as you can imagine, the letters of recommendation from faculty that accompany a student’s resume are very detailed and personal. Faculty get to know their students as individuals quite well.

Student cover letters and resumes tend to be well-written. Four years of essay exams and long research papers really pay off when it is time for placement.

Interviews with prospective employers and graduate schools also go smoothly. Four years of talking in front of others and talking with persons in authority turn a stressful situation such as an interview into a comfortable one!

High percentages of graduates from small colleges choose to go to graduate school. The close relationships that students have developed with their advisors and professors also help students find what kind of graduate program and school might be the best fit. The result is that students don’t apply to graduate programs for which they might not be a strong candidate.

7. High Placement Rates

Most placement rates (within six months of graduation) at small colleges are in the 90–99% range. This is significantly higher than overall placement at major universities (which is 80–89%).

Why is this?

The primary reason involves the robust resumes (internships, study abroad, leadership positions, etc.), but never underestimate the power of networking! Fellow students, advisors, informal advisors, career center advisors, faculty and alumni all work together in networks that help students find that all-important first job and/or admission to graduate schools.

Since professors can move more quickly through material in small classes, some students at the junior and senior level complete graduate-level work. This makes their transition to graduate school much easier.

8. Strong Skill Development

Professors teaching small classes have the luxury and time to offer essay tests to supplement their true/false, multiple choice or fill-in-the-blank exams. Graduating from college with strong writing skills helps greatly in the job search process.

It is also essential for students in these small classes to develop verbal skills. Professors encourage (and some actually require) active classroom participation. Even the most quiet and shy student coming into a small college will graduate with more confidence when asked to speak.

Obviously, this helps in both the job search and in advancement within a company. Employers recognize and applaud the many soft skills (communication, leadership, teamwork, adaptability, organization, etc.) that these students have developed by attending (and living on campus at) small colleges.

9. Undecided Students Prosper

Students who are undecided about majors (and/or students who change majors) enjoy the flexibility and guidance they are given at small colleges. Four-year graduation rates are high. The undecided student probably benefits the most from a small college, getting good advice from all sides.

Faculty have a welcoming attitude toward undeclared students. They love students who have an open mind about career direction and help them in any way they can to make good choices and decisions. It is also easy, at small colleges, to change majors. Sometimes changing majors is as easy as bringing a piece of paper from one side of the hall to the other for some signatures. There is less red tape and bureaucracy. Students get less of a runaround. Faculty work hard to help a “major-changer” graduate in four years if at all possible, even allowing for independent study to make it happen.

10. Professors are Accessible

Small colleges usually have an average class size between 15 and 22. This is great for students who want a lot of attention and who are anxious to get all of their questions answered. Even freshman classes (as small as 10–20 students) are not taught by TAs (teaching assistants). They are taught by professors, most of whom have PhDs.

The accessibility of professors outside of class is one of the more powerful reasons for choosing a small college. Most professors at smaller colleges enjoy being available at times that go well beyond their posted office hours. Faculty at small colleges are hired based on their teaching skills as opposed to their research and publishing skills. They do research and publish, but their main focus is teaching students.

In the end, the important thing is for students to find an environment where they feel at home. Some get that feeling at a large university, some get that feeling at a mid-size school, and some get that feeling at a small college. The only way for students to know which is best for them is to visit. The college visit is the most crucial piece of the puzzle.

I hope that students will at least consider and explore the small college option. It truly is life-changing!

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V. Peter Pitts, M.A., is an advisor with My College Planning Team based in the Chicago area. He retired after 42 years in the college admission business, most recently spending 27 years at Monmouth College. Peter holds a master’s degree in sociology from the University of Iowa and a bachelor’s from Wartburg College.
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