I went to undergrad at an inexpensive public university — at the time, working a part-time job during the semester and a full-time summer job was enough to pay tuition and room/board, provided you were willing to live on pretty much a shoestring otherwise. That is not so for the college I work for now; like many small liberal arts colleges, it comes with great student-teacher ratios, tons of individualized advising and care, and…a hefty sticker price. Not the kind of money an 18-year-old can come up with flipping burgers in their spare time or working over the summer.
However, I’m beginning to realize that the way you use a college education, and the way you spend your time during those four years, has everything to do with whether the investment is good or not. In the long run, most economists say that the eventual greater earning power makes going to college a good investment, but that doesn’t stop the years of scrimping to make student loan payments. What I’m talking about isn’t the decision to go to college in the first place, but rather what you get if you play your cards right at a private school. Working here, and seeing how some students really suck the marrow out of the college life (and how others don’t), makes me wish more students knew a few things:
1. Most middle-class and working-class students will qualify for financial assistance, and not just loans.
Sticker price can be deceiving in this market. While you might be responsible for 100% of your public university’s list price for tuition, many small liberal arts colleges give anyone with even a modest household income a price cut off the top in the form of grant aid. Obviously, that doesn’t eliminate the need for loans, but depending on which schools you are aiming for, comparing the “full pay” price of the school may not be the best way to make the call.
2. Many small colleges have small, specific scholarships, internships, and job opportunities.
I’ve met students who seem “bored” because they are taking just enough classes, doing one or two extracurriculars, and don’t go out seeking inspiration for something more. Many small schools will shepherd any students willing to try on their way to scholarships, internships, jobs, and fellowships: anything you qualify for and then win will make the school look good, so they have the individualized attention to get those things for you. If you get an internship that pays $5,000 for the summer instead of the $3,000-ish you could pull working a full-time minimum wage job, your college experience has directly impacted $2,000 more dollars in your pocket. What’s more, that experience is more likely to help you get a job you specifically want than the summer gigs you could get without college connections.
3. Getting to know interesting people has tangible benefits.
A lot of creative types choose small colleges, and even if you don’t consider yourself one of those people, being around them can help you. If someone who ends up creating an important startup company knows you from college and knows how dependable and good with numbers you are, you might get asked in at the ground floor of a company, rather than having to wade through 50 jobs applications before you get a nibble from a stranger. Obviously, we don’t choose our friends based on how much they change our earning potential, and there are certainly plenty of different kinds of talented people at public schools, too. But being in a concentrated area of passionate people can be amazing for your own inspiration and for your future success, no matter which people you are organically drawn to inside that group.
4. Mentorship, at its heart, is about shortcuts, and more available mentors means less time spent making decisions.
Mentors exist, at least in part, to tell us what things we can ignore, what things we don’t have to do, and what ideas are going to lead us nowhere: these things save us so much time! A lot of small liberal arts colleges are known for smaller class sizes, and thus more approachable faculties. Having professors who know your name, friendly academic advisors, and academic support professionals of all kinds gives you a bunch of people to solicit questions from — questions about what looks good in grad school applications, questions about letters of recommendation, and questions about what goes into a grant proposal. We all have those “stupid” questions, but having mentors means that someone catches us before we send out an application that make us look like we haven’t done our homework. You can find great mentors in any job, and in any large school, but again: the concentration is higher in small or private colleges. They don’t help you if you don’t use them, but if you do, you’ll be saving untold money, time, and frustration.
I’m not saying private school is for everyone; even now, I stand by my decision for my own undergraduate education in a public school. But some individuals’ automatic rejection of private colleges and universities isn’t necessarily substantiated: yes, they are expensive, and yes, if you plan to take full advantage of a cheaper option, you’ll be doing a great thing. But if you or someone you know chooses private higher education, and can lay out for you why the benefits outweigh the weight of loans for a few years, that’s just smart. The networks of creativity, mentorship, and available opportunity can be tapped by almost anyone willing to dig in and do the research.
Laura Marie is a writer and teacher in Ohio. She blogs about the stories behind family recipes at Recipe In A Bottle.
Image via Unsplash