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The Case for Smaller Schools

Posted in Test Prep on October 17, 2010 by

Applying for college, while exciting, can also be incredibly stressful, tedious, and frustrating. Many students feel an intense pressure to attempt to get into the “best” school that they possibly can and, in the process, begin to miss the point. While all schools are certainly not of equal quality, it’s important to remember: there are no objectively “best” schools. Those schools that are touted as the “best” are, more accurately, the most famous and universally renowned. From the perspective of an incoming undergraduate student this should be a very important distinction, because the fame and renown that the “best” schools enjoy does not always come solely from their undergraduate teaching but from their graduate programs, research, and publishing.

To illustrate this, take a look at US News and World Report’s top colleges ranking. It’s an excellent guide to all the components that make up great schools, and when you dig into the criteria some interesting insights emerge. Look at the “best” universities and liberal arts colleges and then compare them to those with the highest marks specifically for undergraduate teaching and see what differences you notice. The huge universities that dominate the top 5 overall “best,” like Harvard (over 19,000 total undergraduate and graduate students), Yale (over 11,500), Columbia (over 24,000) and Stanford (~18,500) all drop considerably on the best undergraduate teaching list: Yale and Stanford from #2 and 5 respectively to a tie for #10, and Harvard and Columbia from # 1 and 4 respectively to not even making the list.

The exception to this rule, and the only university to make both top 5’s (#2 on both lists), is Princeton, considerably smaller than the other 4 at only 7,592 students. The number one university for undergraduate teaching is Dartmouth, the smallest Ivy League school by far with only 4,196 students. See a pattern?

While nearly all the “best” listed liberal arts schools are small (nearly all under 4,000), it is still interesting to note the discrepancies between the “best” overall and best with regard to undergraduate teaching. While some score high on both lists, like Williams (#1 overall, #4 for teaching), others drop considerably like Amherst (#2 overall, not even on the list for teaching) or jump considerably like my alma mater, Oberlin (#23 overall, #5 for teaching).

Why do smaller schools consistently rank higher in terms of undergraduate teaching? The obvious answer is smaller class sizes and student to teacher ratios, but this is only part of the reason. Another part is the fact that, at large universities, undergraduate courses are largely taught by graduate students; those professors who do teach can be preoccupied with their own research and publishing careers and may consider teaching to be a rather small part of what they do. At a smaller school, not only will the vast majority of your teachers be actual professors but they will actually consider teaching a major part of their overall job. Best of all, they will know who you are. The same goes for your academic adviser. He or she will actually remember your name the second time you go to see them and will have an idea of what you are interested in beyond your declared major and what your strengths and weaknesses are as a student. This is not to say that this sort of experience is impossible to find at a larger school – it’s not. But at a smaller school, it’s almost a given.

The main thing to remember is that you want to find the best possible school for you, not necessarily the most highly-regarded school your grades allow. Big schools with big names may sound good on paper, but that doesn’t mean much if you end up floundering or even failing to graduate due to a lack of support. Instead of relying on vague overall statements about which schools are the “best,” think about what exactly you want out of your college experience, look at student surveys and ratings on specific qualities, and talk to current students at schools that interest you.