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Minors, Triads, and May Terms--Oh My! (Cool Stuff at Small Private Colleges)

Why check out small colleges? Flexibility and Opportunity. Let me explain:

Let’s take the calendar year for example. Most larger universities (and a few small colleges) use a standard two semester schedule. A few have quarters or trimesters, but 95% have the two semester schedule. Are you aware that there are at least 3 small colleges where you take one course at a time? Many more have 4-4-1 programs (four classes in the fall, four in the winter/spring, and then just one class in May). Others have 4-1-4 (four classes in the fall, one in either December or January, and then 4 classes in the spring). Both 4-4-1 and 4-1-4 give students an opportunity for independent study, research, travel, internship, service, etc.. I went to Wartburg College in Iowa. They have a 4-4-1 calendar. In late April and the first three weeks of May they have what they call “May Term.” I was a transfer student, so I only benefited from this calendar twice. My junior year I did a research paper (my major was Sociology). My professor met with me maybe twice, but I was basically on my own. Loved it! The professor loved my report too. My senior year, I went with 11 other students, by car, to Kentucky for a class entitled the Culture of Southern Appalachia. This was by far the best class I have ever had. [We made it back just in time for the graduation ceremony. I had to run to get in line!] I so wish I had attended all four years so I could have benefited even more from the May Term. There are many other variations in terms of calendar year at small colleges (one has a 3-1-3-1 which gives each student a total of 8 of these month-long opportunities). If a student loves doing research, working independently, and travel, these kinds of calendars make small colleges look even more appealing!

Many small colleges encourage students to design their own major or to combine their major with two minors (or another major). There are even small colleges that do not have majors (they allow students to structure their own path with guidance from professors). It is possible to do this at large universities, but very small percentages of students actually do.

Internships and other off-campus experiences are not only encouraged, but some colleges require 100% of their students to do an off-campus internship, travel, service, or some other off-campus opportunity. Again, this is done at large universities, but not as many students take advantage of it.

Small colleges have an interesting array of “general education requirements” (classes that all students must take prior to graduation). Some have NO set requirements. Others give a lot of choice (for example, math and science-haters love the fact that they may not have to take an actual math or bio/chem class, depending on their major; Instead, they have to take some class that deals with something quantitative or at least with a lab and can choose from a list of 20 classes, like statistics or psychology w/lab).

Small colleges often have arrangements with larger institutions in a 3+2 arrangement or 3+3 for engineering, law, or a myriad of other arrangements. Many of these save families a lot of money because they reduce the number of years it takes to get both a Bachelor Degree and a Masters Degree.

Small colleges have other, sometimes very creative, opportunities for students that they just wouldn’t get at larger institutions. Let me give you a couple examples from Monmouth College (750 students) in Illinois where I worked for 27 years. They have a program called SOFIA that allows some of the top incoming freshmen to arrive three weeks early to do research (or some other kind of project) in various interdisciplinary areas in small groups of 4 or 5 students and a professor. Some of these are off-campus, others are on. Students get free room and board and a stipend. At the end of the three weeks, they give presentations on the results of their projects. Another really cool “paid” research opportunity is the Kieft Summer Chemistry Program funded by estate of beloved chemistry professor gives Monmouth science students unique research opportunities. Eleven students stay on campus for the summer with free room and board, plus a generous stipend, and produce quality scientific research.

In choosing a college, it’s not just about majors. It’s minors, triads (combining three disciplines), unique calendars, flexible requirements, emphases, concentrations, certificates---basically, OPPORTUNITIES. Small colleges offer all these things. They are small enough to be flexible. A lot of students, once they find out about all these cool things, go to a small college for their undergraduate years and then go to a larger/major university for graduate school. It’s the best of both worlds!

Question for the reader: I am thinking about writing a book about all of these kinds of opportunities at various small colleges throughout the United States. Good idea? Bad idea? Would people actually buy and read a book like this? Tentative title: Minors, Triads, and May Terms--Oh My! (Cool Stuff at Small Private Colleges). Email me at with your thoughts

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