The Prevailing Wisdom
Talk to almost anyone in the financial independence community about higher education and you will hear the same theme. Go to a community college, take as many AP tests as you can, only consider large public universities–this is the mainstream wisdom that seldom gets challenged. On the surface, all of this makes perfect sense–the tuition is cheaper at a state university and AP credits and college courses taken while you are in high school get you to graduation faster.
What often gets overlooked is the small, private college that might be a better fit for a certain type of student. The general perception of attending a private college is that it is going to be a lot more expensive, students won't get the opportunities available at large universities, and, in general, just doesn't make sense.
Why Small College Might Be the Right Fit
As someone who has worked in higher education administration for over 15 years, I want to offer a different perspective. Through the years, I have worked, and witnessed the pros and cons, in a large public university, a community college, and a small private liberal arts Catholic college. When you read small private liberal arts Catholic college, it's likely you saw dollar signs and imagined the money in your 529 plan just flying out the window. Private schools are often presented as the villains of higher ed. but, I am going to ask you to give them a chance, at least a consideration.
Is the college my student chooses the right fit? Considering costs and the majors offered is of utmost importance, but there is also a “right fit” for each student that will help the individual thrive and grow. And sometimes, that is the priority.
There is certainly the right college for every college student, it could be a huge state university with 50,000 students or a tiny college with 1500 students. I've been at a small private college in the role of academic advisor for the last 12 years and I've met thousands of students over the years. Some didn't like the small school environment and transferred after a semester. We definitely weren't the right fit for them. Then we have students who transfer in from a large school because they like the intimate campus and the family-like atmosphere of a small private college. They often tell me they felt like a number at their big state school, not an individual.
It is a myth that attending private liberal arts college is a waste of time and money. This myth supposes that you will graduate with $100,000 or more, in student loan debt, get a degree in philosophy or sociology, and end up working as a barista. But because the competition in higher ed is so fierce, and competition is always good for the consumer, small private colleges offer majors in very practical fields like nursing, education, and business.
So what type of student might be the right fit for a small school? Let's look at a few scenarios. These are my observations, based on my experience as an academic advisor.
Small schools are actively recruiting strong athletes and offer them substantial scholarships. A student who might not get any real play time on the team of a large university might become a star athlete at a small school. Collegiate coaches are always on the lookout for potential recruits.
Your high school coaches have a large professional network. Let them know you are interested in attending a small private institution and they will work with their college counterparts to help you find the right school. Does it mean you shouldn't apply to a large state school? Of course not. Work on your craft, be the best athlete you could be, apply, visit, get their offers and see what works best for you.
Student with Learning Differences
All schools, by law, are required to provide accommodations to students with learning disabilities. There are different levels of disability, however, and there are different levels of accommodations. If you require a little more help than what the school has to give you, look at small private colleges with specialized support services. They might have adaptive equipment, tutors, specialists, and academic advisors who work with students and faculty to make sure you are successful. You have the opportunity to get a lot of individualized attention and help. These extra services might have an additional cost, so do the cost benefit analysis and see if that makes sense for your situation.
The Shy Kid
Does the thought of going to freshmen orientation with thousands of other students sound terrifying? And while it's good to get out of your comfort zone once in a while, thousands of people around and lecture halls filled with 300 other students might not be an ideal learning environment for you. At a small school you will have more access to faculty and staff and it's easier to ask for help.
These are just a couple of examples to illustrate the point–there's no one size fits all. So break free from stereotypes and really explore your options.
Other Advantages of Small Private Colleges
If you are interested in a competitive major, such as nursing, small school might be your fastest way to get in. Because nursing is such a hugely popular major right now, schools have to limit the number of students they accept into their nursing programs. In some schools the entry requirements are so onerous and the competition so fierce, even excellent students have to wait a semester or two to get in. So give small schools a chance, see if there is a wait list and how fast you can get in. Some schools even offer direct entry into the nursing program for students who took certain science classes in high school and have high GPA.
At a small college you will have more access to faculty. You don't need to compete with 300 other students in your biology class and go through teaching assistants. There are opportunities to get involved in research and tap faculty's network if you want to go to graduate school or need an internship.
Private colleges accept AP credits, college credits you have taken while still in high school and transfer credits. Transfer policies vary from school to school so find out what will transfer and if there's a credit limit. Competition is a powerful force. No one wants to lose a student to a competitor because another school bills itself as a transfer-friendly institution.
Taking college credits while attending high school, taking AP tests, and maybe attending a community college for a couple of semesters, are all great tools to reduce the cost of college. These are available to students planning to attend public and private colleges.
Because colleges fiercely compete for good students, there might be an opportunity to get the private school to reduce tuition in the form of institutional scholarships (basically give you a huge discount). And of course, you should still explore all outside scholarships.
Another great way to get free or very reduced tuition at a small private college is to go work for one. Employee benefits usually include a tuition discount; not only at the home institution but also at a network of small colleges. For example, the mom might work at College X while her son or daughter attend College Y for free or almost free. This benefit also extends to graduate degrees. You might be able to attend another private school that offers, for example, an MBA degree and pay very little out of pocket.
One sure way to cut on college costs is to stay on track. If you change your major four times, take random courses that don't apply to your major or your general education requirements, or other such detours, it adds up financially. See your academic advisor regularly and stick to your graduation checklist. Sure, taking a ceramics class sounds like great fun, but will it get you one step closer to graduation? Keep focused on your goals and objectives, work with your advisor and stay on track. More time in school means more tuition money and possibly more student loan debt.
I hope I've given you enough reasons to consider different options when the time comes to choose your school. Do not fall victim to stereotypes of private colleges being for the rich kids. Nothing could be further from the truth. Every institution is looking for the best students it can attract so make sure to explore all your options.
Want to read more from Anna? Check out the rest of her articles here.