Comparing Research Universities and Liberal Arts Colleges

This week and next, I’m making a couple of short road trips to speak at two very different schools: small Berea College in Kentucky and huge (massive? gargantuan?) Ohio State University. Tonight, I’m speaking to the Berea InterVarsity chapter about the Emerging Scholars Network and serving Christ as a professor. Next Wednesday at Ohio State, ESN, along with the Christian Graduate Student Alliance, Student Christian Fellowship, and the Fellowship of Christian Faculty and Staff, is bringing together ESN members at OSU for an informal networking lunch. (Here are the details on the lunch if you are interested in attending.)

It’s hard to imagine two American schools more different from one another. Berea College is a liberal arts college with about 1,500 students, founded in 1855 as a nonsectarian Christian college and today emphasizes its religious inclusivity. From its beginning, it was both integrated and coeducational as an expression of its Christian beliefs (it even went to court against the state of Kentucky in an effort to remain integrated during the Jim Crow era). Today, Berea is perhaps best known for not charging tuition. Instead, all students attend under a work-study scholarship program.

The Ohio State University has almost as many graduate students (13,657) as there are people in the entire town of Berea, KY (14,431). Founded in 1870 as a public land-grant university, Ohio State is now one of the largest research universities in the world. I have also heard rumors that it has well-known sports teams. Ohio State also has one of the largest contingents of ESN members in the country, with more than 60 students, faculty, and staff having joined ESN.

As one of my first projects for ESN, I researched which colleges and universities would be most strategic for ESN’s efforts. I asked, “Where do future PhD recipients start their academic careers?”, mostly relying on the Survey of Earned Doctorates to identify where doctoral recipients received their bachelor degrees. Three basic kinds of schools emerged:

  1. Research universities, both private and public
  2. Top-tier liberal arts colleges
  3. Regional public universities

I’ll have to come back to the third group some other time, but the first two groups – research universities and liberal arts colleges – both tend to produce lots of future graduate students. With large research universities, numbers aren’t the end of the story — a lot could be said about their ability to attract “star” faculty members, their incredible research resources, their financial aid, their status as “flagship” universities — but numbers do play a role. With nearly 40,000 undergraduates at Ohio State, you’d expect that a few hundred would wind up with PhDs just by playing the percentages.

At liberal arts colleges, it’s more about density. There aren’t anywhere near as many students, but those who are there tend to be high academic achievers. I’ve seen other research that suggests that one of the best predictors for PhD achievement is a close relationship with faculty members as an undergraduate, so that’s something else that works in favor of liberal arts colleges.

I’m looking forward to both of these trips, and I wonder what differences I’ll see between the two events.

What have been your experiences with these two kinds of schools? Do you have any thoughts on where future PhD students tend to come from?

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Micheal Hickerson

The former Associate Director for the Emerging Scholars Network, Micheal lives in Cincinnati with his wife and three children and works as a web manager for a national storage and organization company. He writes about work, vocation, and finding meaning in what you do at No Small Actors.

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