“I always assumed that working at a small school was like scraping the bottom of the barrel.”
The moment this was stated, I knew exactly what this graduate student was saying. It was a sentiment I have heard from various graduate students that I have connected with over the course of the summer. There seemed to be a growing mentality amongst these future professionals when thinking about their first position out of graduate school. They were reluctant to consider the opportunity of working at small schools as viable, prestigious or challenging experiences. Some gravitated towards small schools, primarily because they had attended similar institutions as an undergrad. This was the exception, not the rule. There were various reasons why the grads I spoke with indicated that small schools were not on their radar, including access to resources, opportunities for advancement, professional development, and the lack of name and reputation in the profession.
This resonated. I had the same mentality when going through my first job search. I wanted a school with a name, clout, and the resources to get me to my next step. I figured it was the mark of the good and competent professional to end up at these schools. My competitive side would settle for nothing less. I saw this mentality creep in when I was on the employer side as well. When I worked at large schools, we would question if a professional could transition from a small college to a large university. (Incidentally, we have the same conversations at small schools about those coming from larger institutions, yet this is rarely discussed in the field.)
In processing these concepts with colleagues across the country, I encountered mixed reactions. Often, it was my colleagues at larger institutions who didn’t agree that small schools were seen as “less than.” Yet, when asking those who worked at small institutions, they recounted a very different narrative. They felt the work that they do had been discounted by those at larger schools, struggled in convincing staff to come to work for their college, and felt a lack of representation in professional associations, both in terms of professionals and relevant content. Is this true? Maybe. Maybe not. Is it felt? By many, yes.
I am not here to argue which is better or can provide the best experience. That is up to each individual to decide. I have worked at large public universities and small private colleges. Each has provided experiences that have aided me in becoming a competent professional. Perhaps this conversation spawns from internal inferiority I feel working at a smaller school. However, my main motivation is to encourage us as a profession to shift the discourse on how we speak about, engage with, and find value in the experience of working as a professional at a small college. I don’t want a new generation of practitioners feeling a sense of failure if they are not working for a Big 10 school.
I am a Director of a small Housing department. In fact, my on-campus population is less than the building occupancy of the first residence hall I ever supervised. As a result, some have told me that in order to advance my career, my next position will likely be a lateral move to an institution with a higher bed count. Now, I am not assuming that all Director positions are created equal. However, I do find it to be true that there is a difference between running a residence hall and running a residence life program and those experiences have similarities, just on different scales. While I may run a smaller program, this has no indication of my capacity to do higher level work. This experience has allowed me to be a senior-level administrator, having my hand in a myriad of processes on this campus. At this stage in my career I would not have had these experiences and remained critically connected to students had I stayed with larger institutions. Being at a small school allows/forces you to wear many hats and work outside of your functional area. When I worked at a huge university, I couldn’t tell you the names of professionals outside of residence life due to distinct silos. But, I knew the ins and outs of my specific job duties.
As someone who started my career in medium and large public institutions, I recognize many of the amazing takeaways by working in these environments. But as someone who (by happenstance) found myself working at a small college and will most likely find myself working at them for the remainder of my career, I have found this experience invaluable to frame the work that we do as professionals.
As a profession, we need to reconsider the value placed on working at a small school. Soon, new cohort of professionals will be looking to come to our campuses. We need to teach them of the tremendous challenges and opportunities to be had at both types and guide them on a path to the best experience for them. From my time at both, I found the following to be true.
At a large school, you will experience many things:
- Great students and staff
- Large departments contributing to personal and professional network enhancement
- Human, financial and physical resources (still never what we want or need)
- The ability to focus in on the specifics of your job and perfect the details of the specific functional area in which you work
- (Occasional) opportunities for advancement focusing on larger administrative tasks
- “Traditional” student affairs departments
At a small school, you will experience many things:
- Great students and staff
- Smaller departments that create tighter bonds within an office and enhance cohort building
- The ability to collaborate with other offices and departments through sharing of resources
- Learning to be more of a generalist through collateral assignments in other offices
- Greater influence and a larger role on campus (committees, projects, processes, etc.)
- Continued connection to the student body as you move higher up the ranks.
- The ability to focus on specialized students at certain types of schools and institutions such as women’s colleges, performing and visual arts schools, engineering schools where student affairs structures fit the needs of the institution.
I have seen people succeed and be less successful at both types. We can’t limit the opportunities we create for ourselves because the school that would give us the best experience may not be what was originally in our heads. Regardless of where we work, it will always boil down to how we provide students with the greatest experience we possibly can in the framework we’re given.
What have been your experience working at schools of different sizes?