In Defense of "No-Name" Colleges
The recent announcement of Marlboro College in Vermont merging with the University of Bridgeport (read more here) brought me both relief and sadness. I experienced relief because it meant that Marlboro wasn't going to be added to the growing list of colleges and universities in the U.S. that have or are going to close their doors forever. Yet, I also couldn't help but feel sad, knowing that a CTCL school like Marlboro would likely be forever changed by this merger. Why? Marlboro College, with its close-knit community and exceptional intellectual rigor, has offered a supportive home for independent-thinking undergrads since 1946. Moreover, Marlboro has encouraged young adults to pursue their love of learning in a broad liberal arts context while preparing them for graduate programs at Harvard, Yale, Columbia, and many more (having an incredible 5:1 student-to-faculty ratio certainly helps). In short, Marlboro has been a place where students have always been at the center of its community.
Yet, most people have not heard of Marlboro College, and, unfortunately, too many people currently feel that, if no one has heard of the school, then it must not be a worthy place of instruction. Marlboro has always been a tiny school, but, like many other small liberal arts colleges in New England in particular, the student enrollment has been dropping while operation costs have risen. Add to that a decreasing amount of college-age students nationally and the trend of students feeling pressure to abandon the liberal arts in favor of more career-centered and technical training, and the result is college closure after college closure in the last academic year alone (35 colleges have closed since 2016, and many more have merged with other institutions).
Why is this important? Why should anyone care about some small colleges scattered across the nation that have had to shutter their doors? Big deal, right? If we haven't heard about these schools in the first place, then they probably deserve to shut down. After all, I want my child to attend a well-known college or university so that my child can have the best chance at success in life. At least, these are some of the reactions I have heard from both parents and students alike (to be fair, I'm speaking from a position of living in the metro-Boston area, a place saturated with higher ed and rife with elitism and snobbery).
I hear these false assumptions too often, and it's time to defend these so-called "no name" schools! First and foremost, attending a "brand name" college or university is NOT a guarantee for student success or happiness! This seemingly pervasive, insidious myth has been perpetrated by the PR machines of schools in the country for decades, partially because of the need to raise revenue due to the sweeping and consistent cuts to federal and state aid for higher education, partially in response to the schools' need to control and manipulate their enrollment numbers (blame the U.S. News and World Report rankings for adding to this frenzy). In other words, the more students apply to a university, the more students their Admissions Office can reject, and the better "their numbers" look on paper (making their rankings go up and increasing their prestige). One case in point - Northeastern University. Just 20 years ago, Northeastern was largely considered a regional commuter school that accepted the vast majority of applicants. In 2018, Northeastern University boasted an acceptance rate of 19%!!!! This means that it is now harder to get accepted to Northeastern than it is to gain admission to such esteemed institutions as Carnegie Mellon, Emory, Bates, Wellesley, Vassar, Boston University, NYU, and RISD.
How did this happen? Sure, there was an investment in the campus infrastructure and a cap added to class size, along with a notable effort to recruit more students from outside of the area. Yet, the true key to Northeastern's incredible success lies in the institution's determination to raise its rankings in the U.S. News and World Report (read more about this here). This meant that their PR department went into overdrive, and the result is that, if you stop any high school student within a 25-mile circumference of Boston, they are likely to tell you that they want to apply to Northeastern because of their co-op program.
The truly sad part to me is that, if pressed further to explain their desire to attend Northeastern, these same students are at a loss. They have uncritically consumed the brand messaging from this particular university, and, because of the school's name recognition and rankings, think that this is a great place for them without any consideration for what a true college fit means or looks like. And Northeastern is not alone here. While I know that "name brand" schools like Northeastern are great places for some students, too many families overvalue prestige and name-recognition, at the price of true fit and a student's well-being (broadly defined here - I'm talking about considering how well a student fits in academically, socially, emotionally, career-wise, and financially).
And this "fit" cannot be determined by a school's magazine ranking, by their acceptance rate, or by anything other than the student in question herself. For example, as I mentioned above, students who tell me that they want to attend Northeastern consistently to cite the school's co-op program as their main motivation for applying. Yet, these same students are unaware of or not interested in a place like Endicott College, a small school just over 30 miles north of Boston. While a student may easily graduate from Northeastern *without having participated in a single co-op*, Endicott REQUIRES all students to complete at least 3 internships in order to graduate! If experiential learning is truly a cornerstone of the promised Northeastern experience, why is not a requirement for the B.A. or B.S. degree? Meanwhile, Endicott grads will leave their alma mater with a deeper sense of self-knowledge, purpose, AND career training to boot precisely because they have had to explore different avenues and gain a variety of out-of-classroom experiences. Nevertheless, families seem to dismiss a school like Endicott, erroneously claiming that it doesn't offer enough academic rigor or will put their child at a disadvantage after graduation - all because it doesn't offer the "brand name" that other places do or has a higher admittance rate than other schools.
This is why the disappearance of too many small liberal arts schools deeply concerns me. A small, supportive school like Endicott could be a wonderful place for the right student, and the College will certainly prepare their graduates to succeed in whatever endeavor they choose. Yet, these kinds of higher ed gems are losing ground because of the myth of hyper-selective schools somehow offering a better experience for students. These families forget that gaining admission does not equal success or happiness. Today, only 41% of first-time full-time college students earn their undergraduate degree in 4 years - less than half! This is largely due to financial difficulties, as well as to increasing transfer rates extending the time that students take to complete all graduation requirements. These statistics just make it even more obvious to me that FIT MATTERS MORE THAN THE BRAND NAME! Our culture needs a broader mindset when it comes to college admission. Higher education remains a key component to improving a person's life (whether it means moving up the socio-economic ladder or an improved quality of life and mental health). Students need to identify the best places that will support their individual needs and desires, not sacrifice their well-being to gain a diploma with a fancy name on it. After all, what truly matters are a student's motivation to make the most out of the opportunities that college provides and the skills that she learns during her undergraduate time - these things lead to personal fulfillment and career success, not being able to boast about attending a highly selective school. My hope is that more families truly see this, and have an open mind to send their children to "no-name" schools that are the right fit. Otherwise, small liberal arts schools like Marlboro will become relics of the past, increasingly replaced by the corporatization of higher education.
Maruta Z. Vitols is an independent educational consultant in the metro-Boston area. When not helping students achieve their dreams, she enjoys hanging out with her dog, exploring new places with her husband, and doing yoga.