Small Schools, Big Payoffs

Small schools offer warm, close-knit communities that appeal to local students—and give professors a chance to shine.
Small Schools, Big Payoffs

Small schools, like small towns, have a very specific appeal. While they don’t operate at the same pace or intensity as big schools—or big cities—they offer a distinct experience, defined by exceptional quality of life, a deep sense of community, and a chance to develop close personal and professional relationships. Most important, small schools present an opportunity for deans and professors to make a real difference in a defined world.

“If you want to have a major influence on the entire organization, be a dean at a small school,” says Danny Arnold, dean of the College of Business, Frostburg State University in Maryland.

The precise definition of a “small school” is difficult to pin down, for there are small universities that boast significant business schools and large universities with tiny business colleges. According to the Small School Network Affinity Group associated with AACSB International, a small school is one with 35 or fewer full-time faculty, though schools with up to 45 full-time faculty members are allowed to join the group. “The number of full-time faculty basically sets the parameters for everything else you have to work with,” says Doug Grider, co-chair of the group, and dean and professor at the School of Business Administration, Lander University, Greenwood, South Carolina. “That defines the resource base, operations budgets, and the funds for research.”

While they have fewer faculty and, often, more limited resources than their larger counterparts, deans and administrators at small schools have learned how to recruit and deploy faculty, work within their regions to attract students—and mobilize their resources to achieve big goals like accreditation. In essence, they’ve learned to exploit all their advantages.

Sources of Strength

Most small-school deans consider their greatest strength the close relationship that often develops between faculty and students. Because many small schools don’t employ teaching assistants or large numbers of adjunct faculty, students have constant interaction with their principal instructors and feel comfortable addressing them inside and outside the classroom.

“It’s much easier for faculty at a small school to imprint a program and have an impact on student performance,” says Grider. “Individual faculty members have a far more specific effect on students— not only on their current performance, but on their future careers—and they take that very personally.”

The close relationships also extend among the faculty. “Staff members operate very closely, almost as a family,” says Eon Smit, director of the University of Stellenbosch Business School in the Republic of South Africa. “It’s not difficult to obtain a clear focus on strategic issues. The sense of belonging to a family is frequently shared by our students, and mutual relationships tend to be strong and long-lasting.”

That’s much the opinion held by Geralyn McClure Franklin, dean of the School of Business at the University of Texas of the Permian Basin and co-chair of the Small School Network Affinity Group. “In some places I’ve been, I felt as if I were in a silo. We were on separate floors, and sometimes even the disciplines didn’t get along,” she says. “A small school environment is more collegial because it has to be. The smaller number of faculty compels them to work together more closely.”

Small schools often focus more on teaching than research, say these deans. While this can be a drawback if a school is seeking accreditation, it can seem like a benefit to a student who wants to be in a very student-centric environment—and it can be a lure to professors who feel their own strengths are in teaching, particularly recent doctorates. However, says Franklin, not all recent Ph.D.s have gotten the message. “I don’t think small schools have done a good job of publicizing what they have to offer in terms of quality of life,” she says. “I think there are a lot of plusses to being in a small school, but I don’t think we articulate that very well.”

Student Appeal

While some doctoral candidates might not have received the message about the appeal of small schools, students clearly have. Small schools tend to draw local students who don’t want to travel far from home, working professionals who live nearby, and students who simply appreciate the advantages of a safe, comfortable environment where the staff is eager to pay them close attention.

Small schools also offer an option for students who want a good education even if they weren’t the best performers in their high schools. “While we do get some top students here, our bread-and-butter students are in the middle range—the top third or half in their classes,” says Grider. “About 60 percent are first-generation college students.”

Many small-school students are also older, working students who are earning their degrees at night. “Sixty-five percent of our classes are offered in the evening because our students work full-time,” says Franklin. At UTPB, many are also transient, oil company workers who have been transferred to the region from somewhere else, and who may have taken classes already at some other university.

Even small schools that cater primarily to traditional-aged, first-time students often make efforts to reach out to working professionals. For instance, West Liberty State College in West Virginia offers an accelerated business program on Saturdays at two off-campus locations. The degree can be earned in two years if students have some general college background, says Elizabeth A. Robinson, interim dean of the School of Business Administration.

The School of Business at Indiana University in Kokomo also courts working professionals by offering flexibility in coursework. Dean Niranjan Pati believes some students choose to attend Kokomo instead of nearby universities because Kokomo’s program, which is offered primarily in the evening, is not lockstep. Kokomo also will accommodate students who want to finish their degrees in a year. Pati believes this ability to tailor the course to the student is another advantage that small schools can offer over larger institutions.

Finding a Niche

The makeup of the student body, as well as the resources available, dictate what kinds of programs these schools can offer. Some small schools focus on perfecting a single program, while others seek out partnerships within their larger school systems or with other schools that allow them to offer multiple degree programs to their students. Lander, for instance, offers only undergraduate programs, which Grider considers a real boon. “Because we only have to focus on one degree program, we can concentrate on doing that and doing it well,” he says.

West Liberty State College also offers only an undergraduate degree, with 11 specializations. However, in the future the school may collaborate with another institution to offer master’s degrees, as other schools within the college have done. UTPB also knows the benefits of collaboration, though mainly within the University of Texas system. While UTPB offers arange of its own degrees—a BBA with four majors, one MBA, and a master’s of professional accountancy—it also participates in the statewide MBA Online program. For that, eight schools in the UT system contribute two courses each to a 48- hour online MBA. “Students have to apply to a specific campus and they get a degree from that campus,” says Franklin.

The picture is considerably different at the University of Stellenbosch, where 50 percent of the full-time student body is international, coming mostly from Europe and Africa. Evening programs are attractive to local attendees, but a variety of other program structures, some offered in English and some in Afrikaans, ensure that the school has something to offer all potential students. About 700 post-grad students can enroll in four different MBA programs, and approximately 3,000 students participate annually in executive development programs.

Stellenbosch has been able to position itself as an international player, but most small schools content themselves with taking on a local role. Even so, small school administrators realize that they may need to rely on an identity other than “regional school” to continue to draw applicants in the future, so many of them are developing additional niches.

For instance, UTPB is expanding its entrepreneurship offerings, a plan that resonates well with Texans. “Most of the businesses in our area are entrepreneurial small businesses, so throughout the curriculum we’re trying to show that self-venturing is an opportunity,” says Franklin. “While we touch on major corporate company issues in our curriculum, we mostly use cases that deal with medium and small firms. We know that a high percentage of our students will probably stay in this area, and we want to try to add value to the community.”

Frostburg is also strengthening its entrepreneurship program, but Arnold believes it will find its true niche by fulfilling the promise implicit in its new slogan of “Applied Business.” The b-school has just codified a plan that bases as many class assignments as possible on real-world projects for real clients. To facilitate that goal, Arnold recently organized a forum in which about a dozen local businesspeople made presentations to faculty members, outlining project ideas that might be suited for student teams. He hopes every student will have completed ten real-world projects by graduation— and he wants his faculty to attempt something similar.

“I’ve told the faculty, ‘I want to look at your curriculum vitae over a five-year period and see three or four interactions between you and the real world,’” he says. “This means they should be working with local businesses on contract research, training, or consulting. ‘Economic development’ is in our university mission. To me, that means going out to the businesses here and making them better.”


Small Is Big

Small schools not only fill an educational niche; many of them fill a business niche within their own communities and forge close ties with local business leaders. In some cases, that means the dean must be very visible. For instance, Grider gets involved in civic organizations, particularly the Rotary Club, and serves on development boards, bank committees, and the advisory board of a local technical school. In other cases, the students and faculty must be visible.

At IU Kokomo, Pati encourages his faculty to make presentations to community organizations, participate in corporate open houses, and write articles for local newspapers. IUK students participate with the Small Business Development Center to promote downtown revitalization. It’s crucial for small business schools to publicize their efforts and successes, says Pati, to make sure the public knows the educational advantages they present to the community.

While small schools have much to offer their students and their communities, Pati believes that one of their greatest advantages is hard to quantify—a “value-added” metric that is not judged in any current ranking system. “We add value to the learning experience,” he says. “Students are at certain levels when they come to our schools, and we need to look at how much we have added by the time they get out. We can use inputs like the quality of the student when he enters and the cost of his tuition. On the output end, we can look at the learning experience he has had over time at the institution. What is the rate of return on such an investment? That doesn’t appear in any rankings.”

In the same way that not everyone is cut out for life in a small town, not every student or faculty member is suited for existence at a small school. But for those looking for close relationships and the chance to make a true impact in a community, small schools offer a big opportunity.