Does Size Matter? Professional experiences at small colleges and universities.

Group of dogs different sizes sit and looking into camera isolated on white. Yorkshire terrier, spitz, bordoss dog.

“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?

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4 thoughts on “Does Size Matter? Professional experiences at small colleges and universities.

  1. Todd, thanks for posting. There are indeed benefits to working at any and every institution. Also, there are those who sell a variety of professional experiences short due to a variety of biases.

    That being said, I’d add one unique perspective of working at a small institution: having such a small staff means that sometimes you are cross-training for responsibilities that you’ve never had experience with (an amazing opportunity), and if that “office of one” happens to stub his/her toe in the morning, you may find yourself as the de facto (insert office here) representative for a day 🙂

    Like you said, a great many opportunities for learning and growth in any situation you find yourself in.

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  2. Great article, Todd. As a New York Univ. graduate student, I work in Residence Life at the School of American Ballet (Hey neighbor!) and in the Office of Global Services at NYU. Those dichotomous experiences really reflect some of the observations you outlined about the positives and negatives of institution sizes effect on role. I have been intermittently worried that SAB’s size would negatively impact my job search (population size less than one residence hall on many campuses), but I so greatly value the work I’ve been able to do, the close relationships I’ve built on our staff (and with our students!) and the autonomy I’ve been given to innovate and build my position as I go.

    Reading Where You Work Matters [https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/2604759-where-you-work-matters] in my first semester of grad school helped broaden my perspective beyond the small LAC I attended to think about the atmosphere, politics, opportunities and challenges of different institutions.

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  3. Thank you for addressing this frustratingly uninformed mentality! I struggle at conferences when I hear graduate students and young professionals describing their disinterest in small school opportunities because of any number of myths and misconceptions. I wish they understood what a gold mine opportunity small schools offer and how professionally rewarding they can be. I am now 6 years into my higher education career, and I have worked at two small, private institutions. I have had experience working in SO many areas and have developed many skills as a result. it is important for people to understand how scale-able our work can be. Developing a program for 10 students versus 1000, requires much of the same knowledge, understanding, and skill. The difference often comes in logistics and resources.

    Working at a small college requires a level of creativity, agility, and resilience that our larger school counterparts cannot begin to comprehend without experiencing. I am SO glad for the experiences I have had as a young professional and not once have I worried about my ability to successfully pursue any advancement opportunity I may come across.

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  4. I think its great that someone (YOU) have tackled this topic. Since I entered the field I have noticed the bias towards the small colleges. Its as if for some reason…working at a larger school is better or more professional. I have heard pros say…”A Directorship at a small college isn’t a true Directorship because of the size of the school”. As a field we need to get away from looking at small colleges as inferior or less than. Small colleges (and the pros who work at them) should be getting a whole lot more respect than they are being given.

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