Don’t dismiss small-town colleges

As a graduate of one small college (1,000 students in a town of 10,500) and former employee of another (900 students in a town of 10,000), I want to make a suggestion as your students are exploring colleges: Don’t be too quick to cross small-town and rural colleges off the list.

I compiled a bunch of advantages with the help of some small-town college alumni. Here are just a few:

1. Tuition and housing prices may be more attractive. Enrollment at small colleges fluctuates from year to year and a lot of them have sizeable endowments. This means that they tend to give large amounts of merit money to entice students to attend. Plus, in small-towns, most off-campus housing is less expensive.

2. It may be safer. Students, in general, feel safer walking around a small town and a small campus.

3. It’s easier to build relationships with faculty and staff. Professors and administrators tend to live closer to campus, which creates more opportunities for your student to interact with them outside the classroom or office. There may be cookouts at the president’s house and informal gatherings at professors’ houses. “It was nice running into my professors outside of school in random moments and having a non-class-related conversation,” one small-college alum told me.

4. Your student probably won’t need a car. Everything – from the grocery store to the laundromat – is probably within walking distance of campus. Students who patronize the local watering holes (after they turn 21 of course) can walk home instead of driving. “Sometimes we just want on a walk in town,” a former student told me.

5. Small colleges tend to have better organized activities. In cities and larger communities, the colleges may expect students to find their own fun on the weekends. Said one parent, “My kid ended up choosing a small college in a big and exciting city, and there are very few organized on-campus activities. At this school they expect the kids to venture off campus for their activities and entertainment.” I worked for one college that had over 80 organizations for 800 students!

6. It’s easier to focus on academics. There are fewer distractions. Per one small college alum: “College in a rural town can be a cherished time to focus on academics, becoming an adult and building lifelong friends. It can be a very rewarding experience to be in a beautiful, scenic rural college town. There is also something special about being together, ‘in the middle of nowhere,’  in the cold, and just focus on learning.” Another alum said she just enjoyed seeing the stars at night and breathing fresh air.

7. There’s a greater sense of community. With fewer places to go in town, students tend to do things in larger groups. Friendship groups also tend to be larger, more diverse and a bit less cliquey, especially if the college is also small. “Most everyone stays on campus on weekends because it’s too far to drive home,” one alum told me. “I think it helps students learn to cope with issues that might arise because they can’t always go home to escape the situation.”

8. It broadens your student’s perspective. City kids learn what life is like in the country, and country kids can see what city life is like when they accompany their friends home for the weekend. It’s also easier for students to become involved in town activities, like volunteering at the library or tutoring at the local elementary school.

 There are a lot of reasons to cross a college off the list of schools you and your students are considering. Too big, too close, too far away, too expensive. Students should always choose the colleges where they feel most at home, of course, but don’t let them ignore a college just because it’s “in the middle of nowhere.” Trust me… they won’t be bored!

V. Peter Pitts, M.A., is an advisor with My College Planning Team based in the Chicago area. . He retired after 42 years in the college admission business, most recently spending 27 years at Monmouth College. Peter holds a master’s degree in sociology from the University of Iowa and a bachelor’s from Wartburg College.