A few years ago I was interviewing at a well-known “SLAC” (Small Liberal Arts College) and was asked to do a presentation on why a liberal arts school. The position was for an instructional technology job, and one of the initiatives was to be able to have hybrid classes with students at other institutions. After a few days of really pondering what that meant, I realized it meant connection – the ability to get to know your classmates and your professors. While I truly support the well-thought out usage of technology in classrooms, deciding to push hybrid or remote teaching “just because” was (and is) a bad idea. Now, this was pre-COVID so bear that in mind.
My thinking hasn’t quite changed, though. And that wasn’t why I didn’t get the job (they chose someone with more experience evaluating how the professors were using the technology, something I had only done in theory). Since then I’ve worked at two independent schools, and I’ve had more opportunity to think about the use of technology in schools and why anyone would pay the amounts being charged to attend one… or pay similar amounts to attend a small college. And that answer is still “connection”. A few years ago, a student who was attending a Very Prestigious, much larger school, came back for a visit (he was picking his younger sister up at the end of the day). We talked about his experience in college, and he said that as a freshman he was in really large classes with smaller groups run by TAs, and he missed the connection he’d had with the teachers at school. He was waiting until he got into the more specialized classes, the ones taken by people majoring in those subjects, to have those connections. I felt bad for him.
Yesterday I read this article from the American Enterprise Institute about the Liberal Arts Difference. And once again, connection was the important thing:
Finally, when it comes to faculty making connections with their students, which is what often cements learning and academic growth, the college-university cleavage emerges once again; 72 percent of students at liberal arts schools believe that faculty connect well with their students and this appreciably drops 15 points to 57 percent at universities.
This isn’t to imply that attending a large school is a bad thing. Many people have attended one and loved the experience, making close friends and connections with professors. But as I watch this year’s crop of seniors begin to make those choices, I wonder if they have thought about how close they are to their teachers now and how different it will be if they attend a large school next. I hope they find their group and their place wherever they end up, and that they haven’t chosen “large” over “small” just because it’s different.