For most of American history, small colleges have been "the defining core of postsecondary opportunities" for students, writes Samuel Schuman  in Old Main: Small Colleges in Twenty-First Century America,  just published by Johns Hopkins University Press.
Despite that history, Schuman writes, small colleges' "centrality has been lost." Small colleges (defined in the book as those enrolling between 500 and 3,000 full-time students) enroll between 4 and 10 percent of college students but are in "some real danger of being so peripheralized as to be irrelevant," he writes.
Schuman thinks many small colleges are thriving -- and in fact have important roles to play both for their own students and for American higher education as a whole. In his book, he mixes the history of small colleges, data on their conditions, in-depth profiles of selected institutions, and a series of interviews with people affiliated with small colleges.
The interest in small colleges reflects Schuman's career. A literary scholar-turned-administrator, Schuman is chancellor of the University of Minnesota at Morris, and previously held teaching or administrative positions at the University of North Carolina at Asheville, Guilford College, and Cornell College. At one larger university where he worked -- the University of Maine -- he directed a small honors program. Schuman recently responded to questions about the future of small colleges:
Q: You write that small colleges may be the canaries in the mine for higher education. Can you explain that idea?
A: Small colleges can be seen as standing in the same relationship to large universities as canaries to miners: their lack of bulk means they react more quickly, and often more dramatically, to changes in the world around them. Some of the issues being faced by small colleges today will become major concerns of large universities tomorrow -- e.g., enrollment pressures; thinking of higher learning as a private, not a public good; spiraling tuition discounting, etc.
Q: The image many people have of small colleges is of private colleges. You include public colleges and you lead a public college. How similar are small private and public colleges?
A: In many ways, small private and public colleges are very similar. I think that the educational experiences that students will have in good small colleges, be they public or private, will be very similar. In other ways, the differences are profound. For those of us who are presidents of public institutions, state system issues and politics, and legislative relations are paramount. As the CEO of a small public institution which has done about $60 million of construction in the past half-dozen years, I've never had to ask for a major private gift for bricks-and-mortar; on the other hand, when the Minnesota legislature is in session, it is a rare week that I'm not at the Capitol.
I also think that small public institutions have a different kind of obligation to serve the public which supports them -- locally, regionally and at the state level. When our students do a service project, it is in Morris, Minnesota; when those at a national private liberal arts college do similar work, it might be in Mexico or Croatia or China. We certainly seek a national reputation and an international consciousness, but we always begin at home.
Q: For much of their history, small colleges have been defined in contrast to large universities. Competition today may well come from online or for-profit institutions. How does that change the challenges for small colleges?
A: I actually think that the for-profit and on-line institutions pose a larger challenge for large universities than small colleges. We have a strong case to make for intimate, intense community relationships; for the kind of learning setting where students and faculty all know each other; where teachers may teach the same student 3 or 4 times during the undergraduate years; where curricular, extra-curricular and co-curricular activities are pervasive and mutually reinforcing. In some ways, the larger, less human-scaled universities have a harder time differentiating themselves from commercial providers -- what's the difference between sitting at a computer monitor or in a lecture hall of 3000 seats? The average student is no more likely to be the starting quarterback at a major state university than at an on-line university, but at a small college, usually, anyone who wants to can play on the football team, or in the orchestra, or be active in student government.
Q: The small colleges that have struggled the most in the last decade (some of them failing) have been the smallest of the small. Do you think there is a critical mass level of enrollment, endowment, or other qualities below which survival may be difficult? Is that level changing?
A: One of the more interesting discoveries I made in writing Old Main was how the definition of "small" has changed: in the 1960s, for example, there was a rash of studies which suggested that small colleges probably needed to grow to about 1000 students to survive. Today, colleges of 2500 consider themselves "small," and are so considered within and beyond the world of education. While there are some spectacular exceptions (e.g., Deep Springs College) I do think there is a certain critical mass usually necessary for both pragmatic survival and educational breadth.
It costs pretty much the same to run a computer network for 450 students and for 4500 -- both need a director, connectivity, etc. It is also hard to imagine a sound liberal education without a certain degree of breadth, and it takes some size to achieve that level of coverage. But what is that size? What is that breadth? No small college can have on the staff historians qualified to teach the history of all eras and all places: how many is enough? Do you need an anthropologist? a photographer? a specialist in African-American literature? These are great questions, and every college should be constantly asking and trying to answer them!
Q: You write about the efforts of some large universities to have some qualities of small colleges. How successful do you think they are?
A: I think that many large universities have tried to capture some of the virtues of small institutions, usually through such devices as honors programs, living/learning residence halls, and the like. My sense (and I was once the honors director of a flagship state campus) is that such efforts, if well conceived and executed, can make a considerable difference. No one can turn Ohio University into Denison or the University of Texas into Southwestern, but I have seen several examples of very big institutions successfully building smaller learning units which achieve some of the intimacy and community of small colleges. Such efforts are never wholly successful (students still have to go out on campus, after all -- the same strictures about playing football or first violin or getting a parking permit apply) but they are frequently partially so.
Q: Are there policies -- of states, the federal government, foundations -- that should change to provide more support for small colleges?
A: Yes, yes, a thousand times yes. Too often large entities are drawn to institutions which seem to resemble themselves. Of course, there are many ways in which large educational institutions serve government and foundations admirably -- massive research infrastructures, for example; or wonderful and comprehensive libraries. But there are also contributions which the smaller colleges offer which should be cherished by state and federal governments, and by the foundations. Great teaching and pedagogical innovation, for example, merit support wherever they occur, and they very often occur at small colleges.
Q: Do you ever think it would be fun to be the president of a large university?
A: Not for a minute. I've seen women and men who were clearly having a fine time in such posts, but their characteristics and inclinations were radically different than mine. I'm where I belong!