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Reviewed by:
  • Old Main: Small Colleges in Twenty-First Century America
  • Peter A. Lamal
Old Main: Small Colleges in Twenty-First Century America by Samuel Schuman. Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005. 271 pp. $39.95. ISBN 0-8018-8092-0

As an alumnus of a small liberal arts college, this title caught my eye. Schuman's purpose is to make the case for the importance and value of small colleges, when only about 4 to 10 percent of today's college students are enrolled in them. For his purpose, the term small college means those that award primarily baccalaureate, four-year degrees and have between 500 and 3,000 full-time students. Schuman's concern is that small colleges, although extremely valuable, "are in some real danger of being so peripheralized as to be irrelevant" (p. 1). Moreover, the challenges and opportunities small colleges face may presage those that all American higher education will face in the coming years.

It is difficult, indeed impossible, says Schuman, to make accurate predictions about colleges and universities for even a decade hence, and illustrates this with some examples of erroneous predictions.

Schuman's methodology involved visiting 12 colleges that exemplify contemporary American small colleges. The 12 include George Fox University in Newburg, Oregon; Centenary College in Shreveport, Louisiana; The University of Wisconsin-Superior in Superior, Wisconsin; and Wellesley College in Wellesley, Massachusetts. For each of the 12, Schuman provides such information as the number of undergraduate full-time students, the retention rate, and the percentage of out-of-state students. Also, the size of the endowment each has, the tuition, and average faculty salary across all ranks. Schuman conducted interviews with each college's president or chancellor, senior administrators, faculty, and trustees and provides the list of questions he posed. He maintains that "the level of candor and insight of the responses was gratifying and often happily astonishing" (p. 9). But in my view, based on 36 years in higher education, the reader should be skeptical about such a claim. How do we know just how candid many faculty are willing to be in such a situation? Many faculty will never openly criticize administrators, but will do so when in private with trusted friends.

Schuman makes it clear that he is not contending that small colleges are better than the larger institutions. Rather, they are different in kind and thus for some undergraduates are the best option. One of the important characteristics of small colleges is the community they provide among faculty and students. Faculty members are continuously exposed, by proximity, to faculty from disparate [End Page 740] disciplines and students are exposed to fellow students from across the institution. Faculty-student community is possible when students take numerous courses from a relatively small group of faculty members, although Schuman also points out two potential drawbacks to this phenomenon. Underscoring the importance of the concept, Schuman says "It is difficult to find any college that does not mention community in its recruitment materials" (p. 110). For many students and faculty community is definitive of the small college. Small colleges are strong communities because of their efforts to build consensus among all college groups around a focused shared purpose.

"Institutional integration" (p. 152) refers to small colleges' ability to enable students to connect what they do in the classroom with other aspects of their lives. This is nurtured by the many opportunities small colleges provide for students to participate in a variety of amateur and special interest activities.

Weighing against their positive characteristics are the liabilities of small colleges. Many are located in small communities and lack of privacy both off- campus and on can be troublesome. In addition, institutional myopia may develop; a college and its faculty may become insular and resistant to any change. "The limitations of small communities are real, and they can be stultifying" (p. 133). And, says Schuman, there really is no way to eliminate those limitations.

With respect to small college faculty, their average salaries are the lowest of all the four-year institutions, although some have fairly generous benefits. Schuman also discusses teaching and research expectations of faculty and as with some many other...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1538-4640
Print ISSN
0022-1546
Pages
pp. 740-742
Launched on MUSE
2006-06-06
Open Access
No
Archive Status
Archived
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