Academic Elitism: How Ideas Are The Same Everywhere

college-textbooks The college I teach at is fairly small.  We broke 1,000 students last year, and should break 1,100 next year.  We offer a number of four-year degrees, and many of our students head off to graduate studies after commencement.

And yet, there is a disconnect between the local population and the school, not to mention people who move into the school from larger areas or institutions.  They don’t see the academic community that many faculty members try to promote, or more accurately, they scoff at the idea that our college could have one at all.

This is not a problem just at my school, either.  Lots of people look down on smaller institutions, including community colleges, as though the academics are subpar, as though the ideas that a smaller school’s faculty have are any less valid than those from a larger, more prestigious university.

The thing is, though, that those people are entirely wrong.  And not just that, their mentality has a lot to do with what’s wrong with higher education right now because they place more importance on the professors’ pedigree and publications than they do the students’ education.

When I graduated high school, there were two schools I would not attend.  I would not even entertain the notion of going.

I nixed the local community college because I had reports from friends who’d graduated a year earlier and said it was nothing but a glorified high school.  I didn’t want to be a part of that anymore.

The other was a university about an hour away, and I determined that because it was in such close proximity to my hometown that it couldn’t be a good school.  And you know the irony? That’s the school I chose when I got my Master’s degree, and my education was superb.

But no one—no one!—could have convinced me of that when I was 18.  Now, though, I commend my cousins who are going to the same community college I scoffed at because they can get their general requirements out of the way at a fraction of the cost of even state schools.

And what’s more?  They’re going to learn a lot while there.

Because one of the biggest myths about small institutions is that the faculty there are subpar.  That they don’t have the qualifications of professors at larger schools, or they don’t have the same capabilities.

So let me now say this: hogwash!

My wife is the one who really turned me on to this idea because while I had generally been gravitating toward it myself during my undergrad years, she put it into words.  She said that just because someone is at a smaller school doesn’t mean their ideas are any smaller.  Ideas are the same anywhere.  People in Alabama have access to the same books and articles and resources that professors at Harvard do.

And when she said that, a light bulb went on in my head.  Because she was completely and totally right.

In a lot of ways, I’d even say that smaller institutions trump larger schools.  Not because their ideas are any better, but because the contact with faculty is so much higher.  Because professors who work at small schools don’t do it for prestige or money; they do it because they want contact with students.

Large schools have much more of a disconnect between students and faculty than smaller ones.  Sometimes, students don’t even see a non-graduate assistant teacher until the third year of their undergraduate careers.  college-booksAnd that works for some people, but it doesn’t for me.  Those were the most formative years of my undergrad career, and I learned what I wanted to do because of direct interaction with faculty members.  I can’t imagine what interaction is like in online universities, no matter how big or small they are.

And not just faculty members, but faculty members who cared more about making sure that I learned than they did about competing with their colleagues for research grants, funding, or promotion.  One of the great things about smaller colleges is that most of them are not part of the Publish or Perish mindset that has dominated academia for years.

I’m all about research and professional development.  I’m slowly putting together a couple of conference proposals as well as writing/revising a couple of articles I’d like to see published in journals within a year or two.  However, I’m one of the scholars who sees publishing as a side-task within my job, not the primary focus.  When research and publishing overcomes a professor’s commitment to his or her students, it’s gone too far.  The end is no longer justified by the means.

Which is why smaller schools without harsh research stipulations for tenure and promotion can often have a more nurturing environment for students.  The professors are just as smart, and they often attend the same conferences, read the same journals, and use the same textbooks.  Their focus is just on the students rather than themselves.

Which is how it should be.

Maybe I’m biased.  Actually, I know I am.  But that’s okay.  Because when I go to work in the morning, I know where I stand.  I know where my priorities are.

As I plan my classes, I’ll read the same articles that Harvard professors do, and I’ll browse the same forums, and I’ll even read the same books when I do my research.  Heck, I’ll even be using the same textbooks as some of them do in my class.  So unless I’m significantly less intelligent than my Ivy League contemporaries, I have to think that my students aren’t missing out on that much.

What do you all think? What do you see as the benefits of larger or smaller educational institutions?  Weigh in by posting a comment!

By B.J. Keeton

B.J. KEETON is a writer, teacher, and runner. When he isn't trying to think of a way to trick Fox into putting Firefly back on the air, he is either writing science fiction, watching an obscene amount of genre television, or looking for new ways to integrate fitness into his geektastic lifestyle. He is also the author of BIRTHRIGHT and co-author of NIMBUS. Both books are available for Amazon Kindle.


  1. Actually the credit for that idea should ultimately go to our friend Cynthia. I was talking to about how one of my friends was thinking about transferring to a community college, and she said that the education you get depends on you, not the school or even the professor. It’s how much effort you put into your assignment that really determines how much you learn and what skills you gain.

  2. I can only comment on the difference between larger universities and smaller universities in Germany. I tend to agree to your assessment that smaller institutions with more direct contact to the professors can make both the students and their teachers profit.

    I just deleted a huge block of text here – the disadvantages of smaller universities I listed also exist at larger ones. The only argument pro larger universities that might have some substance is that they can offer more subjects and different studies, have probably a larger library and there are even more girls. 😉

    “the education you get depends on you, not the school or even the professor”

    Cynthia is so right, but try to make a student in the first or second semester understand this. Few do. I was quick to point out what is wrong here, why this or that professor sucks. It takes a while to realize that the responsibility to your education is entirely up to you alone, and nobody else.

  3. This is another brilliant topic that speaks directly to me!

    I went to a smaller, regional college and I often get people that look down at me from my high school. They decided to attend the larger state schools (u. Kentucky) or even private schools an they feel their education was vastly superior. It annoys the piss out of me. But it annoys the piss out of them when I’m getting my third promotion in as many years at my job and their still stuck at barely above entry-level at their jobs struggling to make student loan payments and I’m almost completely paid off…

    But on a professional level, this idea has held me back from pursueing a higher degree. I want to teach at a collegiate level, but only because found the subjects to be more interesting. I don’t care much for glory and tenure and prestige, I want to educate. So I’ve held back because i don’t want to get my degree and work for a publish or perish environment. But seeing someone such as yourself who has navigated that mine field and seeing that you can teach at the collegiate level without succumbing to the worst of academia is very inspiring!

  4. Seconded, Dickie. I’d love to teach at a university (or even local college, whatever) because I love teaching. I don’t have that graduate degree, and may never get to it, but I believe that I can teach extremely well at present. I just don’t have the paper that says I made it through the Establishment.

    Since I have little interest in playing the politics necessary to get that paper, I’ll be content teaching my own children.

    Oh, and incidentally, the best class I ever had was in junior high. The worst class I ever had was at BYU. I see little correlation between quality and school size. 😉

  5. When I was looking for a university, the larger ones always manged to scare me off. It was usually seeing the giant auditoriums that sat 1000 students that did it. What kind of learning environment is that? I bet most of the students go the whole semester without ever speaking to their professor.

    I really have no idea how the requirements for tenure differ between large and small schools, but how often my professors were published was the furthest thing from my mind when I was a student. I’d take someone who is engaging and is good at teaching over someone with a mile long list of publications any day.

  6. Smaller schools, yes. It is weird talking to people who went to big state schools and barely knew their professors (and barely had any classes taught by them). I went to a small school with brilliant professors whom I knew pretty well and had a lot of fun and academically fruitful interaction with.

  7. I’m not sure if it’s come off in our random chatting, but I myself attend a community college and have for some time now. I’ll hopefully be transferring to VCU come Fall 2011, but still. Before that, I attended a smaller university that had only changed over from college to university within the last couple of years before I got there. Small schools are amazing. You feel more close with the staff and your fellow students, it’s easier to socialize because the place is so small, and you don’t have to drive anywhere. Yes, I love that factor. It has nothing whatsoever to do with academics, but I love it thoroughly.

    Admittedly, I didn’t want to attend community college when I first started out. I didn’t want to, I thought it was bellow me. Now, to be honest I feel it’s a healthy transitional step that might raise retention rates in four-year schools. Not to mention had I started out there I might have already graduated and would be in much less debt than I currently am. This won’t ring true for all, but my entire community college career since I got on the ball with filling out the FAFSA forms has been paid for entirely by grants.

  8. I just found this article because I googled “academic elitism”. I know it’s an old post, but I couldn’t resist leaving a comment. 🙂

    I agree with you to a large extent, but the fact is that prestigious schools are still full of the brightest and most intelligent students and this in itself could be quite a rewarding experience. Nevertheless, this does not mean that teaching quality is better at those schools. As far as I can tell, prestige is hard to get and hard to lose.
    Prestige is usually deserved, or at least was deserved at one time. So Ivy League institutions must have been superior back in the day, but they not necessarily still are. Despite this, prestige persists and the best students aim to go to those universities and this alone keeps those universities prestigious. Because their graduates are the best. But their graduates are not (necessarily) the best because they were taught well; they’re the best because they’re more intelligent in general and are more interested in their fields than students of other universities. Obviously, this doesn’t apply to everyone, but this seems to be the overall picture.
    And yes, I agree that especially on the undergraduate level, it doesn’t really matter who teaches you as long as (s)he’s a good teacher. It doesn’t matter if it’s a Nobel laureate or the TA of one; or “just” someone with a graduate degree from a mostly unknown small school. The topics covered are what matters and the way students are educated. This also applies to much of the coursework on the graduate level. I don’t know about graduate research work, though. I have no experience with that (yet).
    Despite this, I am still aiming to get into those institutions that are prestigious, and are stated to be the “best” (I’m currently applying to Master’s programs in Europe). And the reason is that later I would like to go for a PhD in the U.S., and yes the name of my school (unfortunately) often matters more than my other accomplishments. I experienced this with job search as well. Even though, I would have been completely qualified for certain jobs, I was not even contacted back. Later, I heard from an insider that certain companies (investment banks in this case) have a list of “approved schools”. If your school is not on the list, your application is rarely considered if ever. So it’s kind of like if you’re not Ivy League educated, you’re not even considered.

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