Parents and students make lists of colleges they are considering, and then, based on various factors, they start crossing colleges off their list. Too big, too small. Too close, too far. Too cold, too warm. Too expensive. However, one factor that parents and students need to think of a bit more carefully before crossing a school off their list is the size and location of the college’s town. All too often, especially from the perspective of the fun-loving 18-year-old student, if the college (usually a small college) is in a small rural town (“in the middle of nowhere” is the wording they choose), they scratch the college off the list. They mostly worry about being bored.
I can tell you, from having attended a small college myself (1,000 students in a town of 10,500 people) —and having worked for another small college (900 students in a town of 10,000 people) as an admission representative for 27 years, I can tell you that there are many more advantages than disadvantages to choosing to attend a college in a small town.
Recently, as a research project, I asked students who had attended college in small towns (and individuals who have worked for such colleges) to help me compile a list of advantages. There are many!
- Professors and staff tend to live closer to campus, which makes it easier to interact with them outside of class. It is not uncommon for faculty and staff to invite students to their homes for coffee or for a cookout. Many of the most significant and life-changing conversations between students and faculty occur in casual settings away from campus.
- There are exceptions of course but compared to day-to-day life in a big city, there is a significant safety factor. Students, in general, feel safe walking around town and around campus. Especially if it is a small college, it is also easy to be able to spot an individual who does not belong there and report them to the security folks.
- Everything is walkable—there is no need for a car. According to one alum “I didn’t have a car in college (we couldn’t afford me having a car). I loved being able to walk to the grocery store, and once I turned 21 the cabs were significantly cheaper than in the city to go to the local bars. More than a few times when the weather was nice, we were able to walk back to campus. Since I am from Chicago it was nice being able to see a different way of living and sometimes, we just went on a walk in the town. It was also nice running into my professors outside of school in random moments and having a non-class-related conversation.”
- It turns that boredom is not a byproduct of small-town college life! Due to the lack of community options, there tend to be a lot more on-campus activities and more student organizations (I worked for one college that had over 80 organizations for the 800 students—and it was super easy for students to start their own clubs. I know one girl who was in 13 such organizations during her four years at our college. Students are far too busy to be bored. Quotes from others about this: “I work with a small rural university. They recognize that there aren’t a lot of entertainment opportunities near campus, so they go above and beyond to offer university sponsored entertainment. There is always something going on. The community is very supportive of the university and of the students. And I have never seen alumni so deeply connected to their Alma Mater. I went to a large state university, and loved my years there and the school, but nothing like I’ve seen from the alumni of this small university.” “When touring, we considered a very small school in a very small and isolated town. One thing that really stood out to me was how the school organized and promoted fun weekend activities on campus for the kids such as concerts, silent disco, bubble dance party, water slide, scavenger hunts, Easter egg hunt, cookouts at the President’s house, etc… It made for a real family-like inclusive on-campus environment. My kid ended up choosing a small college in a big and exciting city instead (ATL) 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”
- Friendship groups tend to be a lot bigger. With fewer places to go to in the town, students tend to do things in larger groups. Friendship groups also tend to be more diverse and a bit less cliquey, especially if the college is also small. If you have a car, you will become the most popular person on campus and your friendship group will be huge (and very thankful—they might even pay for your gas!) Plus, as one alum says, “most everyone stays on campus on weekends because it’s too far to drive home. This creates a great sense of community among the students. I also think it helps them learn to cope, and/or deal with, issues that might arise because they can’t just go home for the weekend to escape the situation.”
- Less distractions. Easier to focus. Quieter. 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. As a [small college small town] alum, I know 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….it creates a very strong school spirit and very active alumni network.” Another alum said that she just enjoyed being able to see the stars at night and breathe the fresh air. Cross Country runners and Cyclists love it too! For Astronomy majors it should almost be a requirement—less light pollution.
- Most off-campus housing is less expensive in smaller towns…plus (when you turn 21) you just “gotta love” those 50 cent draw nights at the local watering hole. Save money, go small town!
- For many of the lesser-known smaller colleges in small towns, their enrollment fluctuates from year to year. This means that they tend to give large amounts of merit money to entice students to attend. Low prices make parents happy!
- To a certain extent, especially for students who are from larger cities, one advantage is just learning what life is like “outside their urban bubble.” Just as students can learn from study abroad, they can learn from experiencing rural America. Cultural exchange benefits everyone. Students from big cities can take their new friends back on breaks to show them the big city. Students from small farming communities can take their “city friends” home to the farm and do some line-dancing and maybe even milk a cow.
- Finally, not only will attending a small college in a small town leave a “mark” on you…but you can leave your “mark” on the town. I have known students to help reorganize the town library special collections. I have seen students graduate and immediately open a coffee shop in town. I have seen students teach Bible classes to kids at a church in town and then begin a “youth dance program” that continued years after the student graduated. There is a bond that forms with the town that benefits both the student and the town. Attending college in a small town enables you to leave your college with more than a diploma…you can leave your legacy!
So please—do not be too hasty to scratch these small town treasures off your list. Visit. Ask the students lots of questions about social life. In the end, attend the college where you feel most at home.
V. Peter Pitts, M.A., is a member of 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.