In my life, I have attended three institutions and worked in three as a graduate student and intern. My undergraduate institution, Southern Methodist University (SMU), is a mid-sized private university. My two graduate institutions, Colorado State University and Oregon State University, have both been large, research, land grant, universities. Currently, I am interning at Western Oregon University (WOU), a mid-sized, public, liberal arts-focused institution. I don’t have first-hand experience with a small, private, liberal arts institution, but many members of my cohort began their college experiences in those colleges, and I have learned a lot about them through my cohort members. I also don’t have first-hand experience with for-profit institutions, community colleges, or massive open online courses (MOOCs), although I’m eager to continue to learn about these. Within each setting and institutional type comes a particular set of challenges to the ideal student experience. The missions, visions, and core values shift and change, impacting students.
The large, research, land grant university is obligated to serve the people of its state to the best of its ability, in terms of education, service, and research. Therefore, access is very important, as are extension services to the community and service learning objectives. Students, however, may feel lost in a large research institution because of the size of their courses, the lack of community and sense of belonging they may feel, and a disconnect between the various experiences that they have on campus (Gordon, Habley, & Grites, 2008). Their professors may not know their names. Some of their instructors may be graduate students without much training. Many of their professors may be researchers first and teachers second, with a lack of training in pedagogy. They may not have a consistent cohort of fellow students from class to class and term to term. And they may be overwhelmed by the options, in terms of course or major selection and co-curriculur activities. For all of these reasons, large universities use various methods to connect students to the institution and attempt to make the size less intimidating. These methods can include orientation programming, professional advising, living-learning communities, and summer bridge programs. However, sometimes for certain students, who may come from a small rural community or desire a stronger connection with faculty, the transition to a major research institution is too overwhelming, despite all our attempts to make it feel smaller (Upcraft, Gardner, & Barefoot, 2005). For these students, transferring to a smaller public institution, like WOU, might be a good option.
Smaller public institutions have smaller class sizes, less focus on research, and fewer programs available from which students can choose. However, students may have an easier time feeling a sense of belonging at the institution. Although there are only approximately 40 majors at WOU to OSU’s 200+, the student experience may encourage campus involvement, social connection, and retention. Whereas some students may thrive in a huge setting with lots of options, others may need more concentrated time and attention from faculty and staff, as well as more consistent social bonds.
There are a multitude of different types of private institutions. My experience at SMU was a positive one. This experience was due to the program I was enrolled in; I was in the theatre department, which I auditioned for before I was accepted, and I had a cohort of approximately 30 students. We lived together in a residence hall and had class together several times per week. We also rehearsed together outside of class, so our time together was intensive, and we became close. My largest class at SMU was a general education requirement of about 100 students, and every class I took there was taught by a professor as opposed to a graduate student. The sense of belonging I had at that institution was quite strong. I was also lucky enough to be fully funded there, because the tuition costs at private institutions can be astronomical. The challenges of the private institution are related to their missions; they may not be committed to access and students may not encounter diverse others because of this lack of commitment. The institution may be so small that it has only a few programs or that everyone receives a Bachelor’s of Arts and Sciences in the Liberal Arts. For some students, however, this type of experience is exactly what they are looking for; they want a well-rounded education that encourages them to explore various disciplines and think critically about the world before they narrow in on a career field.
Many students are currently attending college courses online, through MOOCs and online institutions. For some students, who may have full time jobs and families, these may be the best educational options for them. Community colleges vary extensively in terms of size, programs available, and services, but for many students, community colleges may be the best place to begin their education before transferring to a four-year institution or as a place to get vocational training to improve their job prospects. Each student comes to higher education with different goals and expectations, and we ideally hope to match each student to the correct institution in order for that student to be successful. However, students need to know what their options are in order for this matching process to be successful. Recently, I read an article in the New York Times that described how low-income students with excellent academic records are not applying to highly selective schools because they believe that the costs are out of their reach. They don’t know their options in terms of scholarships and financial aid, making their choices more limited. They also may never have met someone who attended a selective institution, reinforcing for them that it is out of the question. Institutions need to do a better job of informing students what their options are or could be before students make their choice, cutting down on the number of transfers, so that students have a positive experience from the very start of their higher education experience.