I get a kick out of those cell phone commercials with the kids sitting around a table. I’m sure you know which commercials I’m talking about – the announcer usually starts by asking whether it’s better to be faster or slower, and they all shout out “Faster!” before sharing the random thoughts of kids on the topic of speed. Cute as these commercials are, you have to admit that the kids could use a little more context before they say whether faster is indeed better than slower. Yes, faster is better when it comes to cell phone service. But for some things slower might actually be better, like a perfect day at the beach. The kids really ought to answer with a loud, “It depends!”
I think we can apply the same logic to making a choice between colleges. Let’s imagine colleges split into two types, we’ll call the big pond and the little pond. The big pond colleges are the ones that are generally regarded as the best at whatever variable we’re considering, be it academic reputation or athletics or whatever else might be important to us. The big pond colleges are the ones that people think of first when they think of “good” colleges. The little pond colleges, on the other hand, are all the others. They might have a good regional reputation but not a national presence. They might not be contenders for the conference championship in athletics. They might actually be smaller in the size of their student body, but not necessarily. Which one’s better? Conventional wisdom says the big pond college is better. It’s the automatic answer, right? Doesn’t everyone want to go to the best college possible?
There are lots of valid reasons why the big pond colleges are considered to be the best college choice. They might have Nobel laureates as faculty, or might have won the national championship in several sports, or might have such an array of majors to choose from that any student can find their niche. Their national reputations might very well clear the way for students to secure a good job after graduation. But almost everyone who attends a big pond college becomes a little fish in one way or another. While a student may have been a super-star in a given area during high school, they are now one among many in their big pond college. The benefits of being a super-star are in the past now, and instead those students might find an academically competitive culture in which a study group is unlikely to exist because nobody wants to help someone that might turn around and get the higher score on a test. Or the high school star athlete may find himself sitting the bench in his first year while he waits his turn to play. Or the student who has been known by all their classmates and teachers may now feel anonymous. Is being a little fish in a big pond really all it’s cracked up to be?
Meanwhile, going to a little pond college means you’re more likely to be a bigger fish. The professors may not be Nobel laureates, but they might know their students better. The athletic team may not win the conference championship, but the freshman player might actually get off the bench and play the game she loves. A student at a big pond college might be thrilled with an offer of admission, but that same student at a little pond college might be thrilled with a scholarship and/or honors college opportunity. The students at little pond colleges have an opportunity to be a big fish, and there are advantages in being a big fish.
Now, I’ve made some pretty broad generalizations and they’re not all going to be true of every big pond or little pond college, but here’s my main point: don’t just assume that a college is a good choice for you because “everyone” says it’s a good college. Being a little fish in a big pond has its advantages, as does being a big fish in a little pond. Think carefully about what will make the college experience successful for YOU and make your decision based on that alone. On that note, I’ll close with a reminder of my definition of a good college.
A good college is one that educates the student well in preparation for a career,
allows the parents to be good stewards of their financial resources,
and provides the student with opportunities for spiritual growth.
I have one final thought, and I beg your forgiveness for how cheesy it is. No matter which college you choose, in the eyes of God we are all big fish in the biggest pond. Sorry, it was too good to resist!