The Power of Small
The Power of Small
It is no secret that states are in a bind when it comes to supporting funding for higher education. Obligations to other “must-fund” priorities like Medicaid, Corrections and K-12 often push support of public colleges and universities down the list. In Colorado, the governor and legislature have worked hard to reverse this trend by adding $100 million to operating and financial aid just last year — and we deeply appreciate this commitment.
Nevertheless, Colorado remains near the bottom of states in funding for public colleges and universities. The pinch is particularly tough on smaller state schools who often have unique missions, serve regional populations, and have smaller economies of scale. The governor and legislature continue their work on the funding challenge for our state with House Bill 1319. Various committees are now configuring the funding formulas for the different pieces of that bill, and the actual law will likely affect smaller-enrollment schools more than larger institutions. It is critical for all involved in this process to remember the true value that these smaller schools provide.
Not all students thrive at larger universities, where lecture halls accommodate 500 people and anonymity is often the norm. For many, a lower student-teacher ratio and a more intimate social environment are critical to their success. Why? As the best research shows, optimal learning takes place in an environment of student engagement. At smaller liberal arts campuses such engagement takes place not only through the enhanced interaction with professors and classmates, but through the myriad co-curricular opportunities afforded every student such as participating in a music ensemble, becoming a DJ at the campus radio station, acting in a theater production, or participating in an internship.
In his most recent work, “David and Goliath,” best-selling author Malcom Gladwell provides case studies of underdogs besting favorites in a host of arenas including the private sector, athletics, and higher education. The chapter devoted to higher education is titled Caroline Sacks, so named for a young woman who from childhood has had a passion and aptitude for biology. She attends an Ivy League school and becomes utterly disenfranchised, struggling with grades, and ultimately dropping out of the field she loves. Caroline, who is probably in the top 5 percent of all biology scholars on the globe, finds herself competing with people who were probably in the top fraction of 1 percent of biology scholars on the globe and, for the first time in her life, feels stupid, embarrassed, and confused.
At the Ivy campus, Gladwell argues, Caroline Sacks was a “small fish in a big pond,” in an intimidating rather than engaging environment. Gladwell ponders the loss for both society and Sacks, and provides evidence that the result might well have been quite different and more positive had she attended a different, less formidable school.
We at Western are quite familiar with the Carolines of the world. Consider the case of Esmeralda Alejandre from Cedaredge. When she arrived at Western, she was a first generation college student who struggled academically and socially. Esmeralda moved to America when she was nine and her first language was Spanish. She was terrified to speak in public.
She was embraced by Western’s tight-knit community of students, faculty, and staff, and found a home in the bustling multicultural center here. Esmeralda’s self-confidence grew and she developed a comfort being a college student and pursuing her dreams. Today, Esmeralda is a leader on campus and has conquered her fear of public speaking, often speaking to audiences of 100 or more in her role as a campus ambassador and president of the Amigos club. She’s currently preparing for a career in law enforcement. Her story is just one of many that wouldn’t be possible in many of the larger, often more formidable venues.
What is clear is that one size does not fit all. The higher education system must help students like Esmeralda Alejandre with a variety of needs, strengths, fears, and goals. Overloading Colorado’s university system in favor of any particular model removes balance — and will weaken the whole in a number of ways.
Lastly, all of this isn’t to suggest that quantitative metrics have no place. Indeed, as compared to Western’s official peer group established by the Colorado Department of Higher Education, our retention rates, graduation rates, and most recent increase in diverse student population all exceed our peer group average. Rather it is a request not to forget Caroline Sacks or Esmerelda Alejandre and how the power of small is often the best option for an important segment of the college-bound population.
Greg Salsbury, Ph.D., is president of Western State Colorado University.