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Campus Correspondence : Why I’m Going to a Small College: Who Wants to Fight for Survival?

<i> Ryan Harvey graduated from Windward School in West Los Angeles. </i>

During my senior year in high school, people kept asking me which college I planned to attend. UC? Stanford? Harvard? Yale? Princeton? Surely, I had applied to Brown and Duke.

But my answer always evoked a little surprise.

“Carleton?” they would ask, looking confused. “Where’s that?”

“Minnesota.”

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Since Carleton is not a brand-name school, my inquirers wanted to know if it is any good. I assured them that Carleton’s record is outstanding, its programs wonderful, its departments fantastic, its teachers superb and its atmosphere friendly. That didn’t, however, ease their disappointment. They apparently expected me to be going to a big-name institution.

I don’t mind that Carleton isn’t a “name” college. I, too, had never heard of it until the middle of my junior year, when colleges suddenly became every student’s priority. I’d often wondered which big-name school I would eventually attend. Could I get into UCLA? Was attending Harvard just a dream?

Then I discovered Carleton and the elite club of small liberal-arts colleges to which it belongs. This club is largely unknown to the general public, but its members include academic giants that students covet to attend.

Many high-school seniors have discovered the values of a liberal-arts education. Early in my search for a suitable college, I was drawn to such schools as Amherst, Williams, Swarthmore, Haverford, Vassar and Carleton when I discovered that there is little at an Ivy League school or a state-run university that can’t be found at these smaller schools. The facilities may be better, the libraries bigger and the prestige higher at some of the large institutions. But small liberal-arts colleges offer the student the invaluable benefit of a personal, individual education.

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When I visited the smaller campuses, I noticed a sense of family and community pervading them. In contrast, when I walk across the UCLA campus to the library, I always feel alone. How could I spend four years at a place that made me feel insignificant and isolated?

One of my high-school teachers, who also teaches at UCLA, told me that if I attended a large school like UCLA, I would have to fight to be known, to avoid remaining just a number and a seat assignment. Others who had attended large schools told me similar stories.

I soon discovered that in the larger universities and colleges, the individual is almost nonexistent. Class size may reach 200 students; professors are nearly inaccessible phantoms. You really must fight to assert your individuality.

But, I thought, why bother fighting? Why not go someplace where I, as a student, really matter?

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That is why I found the small liberal- arts colleges so attractive. None had more than 3,000 students. The smallest had an enrollment of 1,100, the largest, 2,800. With fewer students to a class, the lecture is replaced by personal interaction between students and teachers.

I have attended lecture classes and those that employ a “dialectic” format; the latter has obvious advantages. During my years of high school, I discovered that my fellow students were as much a well of information as my teachers. Thus, the discussion-type class gave me the opportunity to learn from both.

Another advantage of small liberal-arts colleges is that teaching is the main concern of the professors. It’s hard for me to imagine taking classes from professors who do not care whether their students pass or fail, because securing tenure is their priority.

But in a college like Carleton, professors do care. When things go wrong, or you find yourself in academic trouble, you cannot simply hide in a corner and hope no one notices you. The individual’s education is what matters at these institutions, and the system will seek you out and help you. To the school, you are not just a number. You are not just a student. You are an individual.

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I spent my six years of junior high and high school in a caring academic environment. I would not leave that warmth behind to go to a huge, ice-cold university where I do not matter as a person.

It makes no difference to me whether the college I attend has a big name that my parents can use to impress their friends. I am not going to college for my parents’ sake or for my grandparents’ sake--but for my sake. My undergraduate education should be four years of education and social discovery, not four years of battle for recognition.


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