Question: A bunch of my friends from high school and I got together over winter break. All of them went to big universities in our home state, while I went away to a small liberal arts college in a different state. They were all teasing me that I would never find a job with my degree because I go to such a small unknown school. I like my school a lot, and have made a lot of friends, but it is super expensive. Since I got back to campus, I’ve been stewing on all the teasing and now I am seriously thinking about transferring next fall! If I ask people at my school, of course they will tell me it’s a bad idea. And if I ask people at the public schools back home, I’m sure they will tell me it’s a good idea! So I kind of need an unbiased opinion? Will going to my small school make it hard for me to find good employment? ~ Jenna T.
Answer: Transferring schools is definitely a big decision and I applaud you for gathering information before coming to a final conclusion. While I currently work for a small liberal arts university, I graduated from a much larger public university, so I can absolutely appreciate the value of both types of institutions. Let’s take a moment to consider the pros to each:
Pros of a large public university:
Cost – you will see a cost savings with in-state tuition, and the possibility of living at home may also add to the reduced cost.
Proximity to home – being close to home, family and friends, and familiar surroundings can definitely be a positive. Being close to home can also be helpful if you plan on interning or working at home during summers or after graduation.
Old friends – having access to an established support network should not be overlooked.
Access to equipment and labs – many larger schools are able to support equipment and laboratories that are state-of-the-art, effectively funded, and appropriately staffed. Depending on your field, having access to these resources ensures that you stay up-to-date on relevant techniques, equipment or software.
Relationship with employers – some larger or local employers may have standing relationships with larger public schools to recruit on campus; every fall and spring, they plan and budget to send recruiters to these campuses to give information sessions, conduct interviews, attend career fairs, and accept resumes. Likewise, some employers may have a history of hiring their co-op, internship students, and entry level staff from these same schools.
Pros of a small liberal arts college:
Small classes – being able to learn in smaller groups where your instructor knows your name can be very helpful to students and can offer opportunities to develop strong professional relationships early in your career. Moreover, it’s a lot harder to fall through the cracks and go unnoticed in smaller classes. You’ll often get pulled into group projects, class discussions, and seminar-like settings right from freshmen year.
More access to faculty – small liberal arts institutions often attract faculty whose interests lie more in teaching than in research. Advising may be an integral part of your faculty’s job description, and so assisting students through academic decisions may be common-place. Faculty may also be more likely to make a personal investment in their student’s career and academic progress. It’s not surprising at a smaller school to have a faculty member personally reach out to a student who is missing classes or performing poorly. It is also fairly common for faculty to feel very comfortable writing strong letters of recommendation for students with whom they’ve worked closely, invite students to assist in and even co-author academic research, or reach out to industry contacts on behalf of their students.
New friends – though not a guarantee, I have personally heard time and again from graduates from small liberal arts schools that the friends they made during their college years have remained their dearest friends for years, even decades after graduation. These friends, though not always in the same career fields, over time, can form the foundation of a strong professional network that can span wide geographic distances.
Flexible curriculum – many smaller schools allow students to create customized majors that more closely align with your interests. If there’s a topic that especially interests you, or a skill that you need to gain for your future career, faculty will often help you gain access to that knowledge or skill set.
Strong alumni base – alumni of smaller schools tend to be fiercely loyal to their alma maters. Many alumni are happy to network with current students, and may even be open to offering shadow opportunities, mentoring current students, or sharing when internships or full time jobs become available at their organizations. Moreover, many alumni will offer career advice and suggestions for entry into their career fields.
Since your primary concern seems to be whether or not attending a small liberal arts school will help or hinder your ability to attract future employers, it’s important to note that there are ways to increase your marketability and ways to supplement your academic experience. If you decide to stay at your current school, here are some tips, (keeping in mind that I’d offer most of these same tips to students at ANY school):
- Gain as much practical experience as possible through leadership roles on campus, volunteering, interning, and substantive projects.
- Network while you’re still a student and take advantage of your school’s alumni base. You may want to check with the career services office and/or alumni office to find out about ways to interact with alumni throughout your undergrad years.
- Connect with prospective employers early and often. Even if employers don’t do as much recruiting on your campus relative to how much they appear at larger schools, it doesn’t mean you can’t connect with them. What it means is that you may have to connect with employers through other means. This might actually work to your advantage because you may be able to make yourself stand out from other applicants because you’ve gone out of your way to reach out to the employer yourself. That said, you should still take advantage of any programming that your career office has to offer, especially ones that expose you to employers and alumni.
- Get comfortable talking about your liberal arts experience. Many employers value the liberal arts, but its pragmatic value isn’t always as obvious to everyone. Start practicing, well before graduation, ways to talk about the practical application of your academic experience. For example, you’ve probably heard a hundred different times that you will learn to think critically at your school. Find some concrete examples of times you’ve demonstrated critical thinking skills.
On the other hand, transferring makes good sense if you want to pursue a career that requires a specific major, certification or license that your current school does not offer, or can’t prepare you to achieve. For example, if you decide you want to pursue a Bachelor of Science in nursing but your current school does not offer that program of study, transferring would likely be a good option. Before you make a transfer, make sure you speak with knowledgeable administrators at both institutions to find out if any of your current courses will transfer with you. And while it may seem obvious, make sure the destination school does offer the program, certification or preparation courses for the career path you are seeking. (I cannot tell you how many students I have seen rush into a transfer from one school to another, only to discover that the new school did not offer the degree program they wanted in the first place!)
At the end of the day, the decision to transfer is entirely up to you, not your friends, faculty or family. Whether you stay or transfer, it will likely be your ability to successfully communicate the value of your unique combination of academic preparation and practical experience that will land you a job, not how large or small your school happened to be.
Image source: Simon Fraser University