Take a Second Look at Small Colleges

(The following was originally published in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, October 20, 2008)

I appreciated Maureen Downey’s observations about the rising costs of college tuition in a recent column. I have four children, two of whom will head off to college next fall and two already having been through this trial and tribulation; I am very familiar with the angst associated with choosing the “right” college. For thousands of students every year, the University of Georgia and other public institutions are a great choice. Yet, for many, the opportunity to attend a smaller, private college is a better choice. But what about cost? Downey paints all private institutions with the same broad brush and assumes tuition to be beyond the reach of all but the wealthy. That’s just not true. While full-price tuition at Oglethorpe is $25,000 a year, more than 90 percent of our students receive aid. On average, an Oglethorpe student pays about $12,000 for his or her annual education. Not inexpensive, but considering what one receives, it might be one of the best bargains around.

At Oglethorpe, for example, first-year students find themselves in a class with a dozen other students, not 300, taught by an extraordinary faculty committed to teaching, not research. These young students become leaders in organizations before their first semester ends. They meet faculty and staff while walking on campus or in the dining hall and a casual conversation begins. I hear every day from students and parents how important this personal touch is. As highlighted in the 2008-2009 edition of Colleges of Distinction, we successfully transform young men and women into fully engaged students through our innovative curriculum, one-on-one interaction with faculty, and hands-on experience through internships and service learning.

So, what choices have my children made? My older son, now a public school teacher, attended a reasonably priced, large, out-of-state flagship public university. He received a quality education, at least after he settled down some. But, it took him almost three years to really engage with his education and he and I both regret the missed opportunities.

My older daughter is in her final year at one of those name-brand places. She spent her junior year studying in Central America and now plans to apply for a fellowship so that she can return there to study and work. I sincerely doubt she will ever earn a lot of money; she seems to have little interest in how much she earns, but is focused on the value of what she does. That’s more than fine with me. She might have become who she is today if she had attended another school, but I am certain the education she received was an extraordinary one and has shaped her future in important ways. In any event, that was the choice she and I made and we are both grateful for that. That leaves my two at home and neither is likely to attend one of the best-known, name-brand schools. The point is that each of our children is different and each deserves the opportunity to think broadly about college choice. For some, the larger public institution is just what they need. Others need the smaller, more intimate environment the small college provides in order to blossom and achieve their potential. Evaluating college experience and college outcomes on the basis of cost only, diminishes what higher education is designed to achieve —- students who can think, write, speak and reason, and who are equipped to contribute in meaningful ways to their families and their communities. Yes, I agree that a small college experience is not for everyone, but I promise you, it’s worth taking a second look.