The Power of Small -- In Education and in Medicine

There are remarkable benefits for students who enroll at small colleges. The attention they get is personalized. Faculty and staff know them by name and know many of their strengths and weaknesses.
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The Fall 2013 issue of the Cleveland Clinic's magazine Catalyst is titled "The Power of Small," and addresses the enormous impact nanotechnology has and will continue to have on medical diagnosis and treatment. For some patients, the approach can combine diagnostics and therapies that are personalized -- now termed "theranostics."

Such innovative medical advances in nanotechnology can give those of us in the higher educational arena something to think about especially as it applies to the risks facing small colleges and their possible obsolescence. What can be learned about the power of small that can be applied to the higher education experience, especially for first-generation students?

In the current academic administrative landscape, much of the conversation is about the under-matching of first-generation students who commonly do not progress to four-year colleges, let alone elite colleges. This issue has gained prominence through the recent attention the First Lady is paying to higher education issues. Elite institutions could, in many instances, serve these students ably but the students do not consider applying to and enrolling at these institutions, in part due to information asymmetries.

But, the push for better matching misses several key issues and rests on certain dubious assumptions. For starters, many first-generation students are not academically prepared for, nor would not be accepted by, elite institutions. Second, elite institutions are not fungible. The educational experience and campus culture at Stamford is not the same as that of Swarthmore, although both are outstanding, highly ranked institutions. Students are not fungible either. Third, many vulnerable students need a plethora of academic and psycho-social supports, and elite institutions are not as experienced as non-elite academic institutions at serving this population systemically and systematically.

Forgotten in this whole conversation is the benefit of small colleges and my own state -- Vermont -- contains buckets of them. There are public and private institutions with different missions, different programs, different strengths but one shared characteristic -- they are small by any measure. In the world of IHE enrollment, these colleges qualify as "nano" colleges, with enrollments under 2,000 students and some as small as 125 students.

There are remarkable benefits for students who enroll at small colleges. The attention they get is personalized. Faculty and staff know them by name and know many of their strengths and weaknesses. The classes are small and largely taught by full-time faculty rather than teaching assistants. Support services -- both academic and psycho-social, are accessible, free, welcomed and encouraged. The students are known on campus and absence from class and even events is noticed. The food services personnel know the food preferences and potential allergies of students, and campus safety knows their cars and their travel needs. If they are on athletic teams, they actually get to play. They can garner leadership experiences on campus in organizations and clubs, even in their first or second year on campus.

I understand and appreciate that many of these small colleges have small endowments and struggle to make ends meet. To be sure, wealthier and more elite institutions can provide more resources across the board -- from financial support to facilities. But, small institutions often are financially affordable, with sizable (whether sustainable is another issue) tuition discounts. Many help students who would not be welcomed by elite institutions, and many are engaged in innovative programming and provide quality pedagogy. Many are "career launching" while preserving a liberal arts core. Many provide access to faculty and campus leadership in ways often not experienced until graduate school.

To borrow from the health care arena, these small colleges offer "theranostics." They can identify student needs on an individual basis and then help those students with solutions -- whether that is additional tutoring, counseling, opportunities for on-campus employment or transportation to a desired location or adult mentoring. Yes, diagnosis and therapies have a critical role in higher education for vulnerable students, and small institutions are often in a good position to provide both.

There is power, then, in the small, and small institutions are worthy of recognition as we address under-matching for America's many first-generation students who can and should progress to a bachelor's degree. As one Vermont College put it: Small is Big.

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