Leadership & Governance

Finding Advantages in Being a Really Small College

Darron Collins, president of the College of the Atlantic

May 10, 2016

Produced by Julia Schmalz and Carmen Mendoza

Darron Collins, president of the College of the Atlantic, talks about how an institution of only 350 students can have an impact on innovation in higher education. He also describes some of the things that a very small college has to do to survive in an environment that pushes colleges to “scale up.”


SCOTT CARLSON: Hi. I'm Scott Carlson from The Chronicle of Higher Education, and I'm here with Darron Collins from the College of the Atlantic.

DARRON COLLINS: Hi, Scott. How are you?

SCOTT CARLSON: Thanks for coming down from beautiful Bar Harbor, Me.

DARRON COLLINS: Bar Harbor, Me. Yeah.

SCOTT CARLSON: That's great. So you and I know each other from about three years ago, when I did a story up at COA on innovation and higher education. I was looking at the College of the Atlantic as this experimental college that started in the late 1960s, early '70s — really unusual program, largely self-directed, very small college, environmental focus, that kind of thing. These days, when you hear people talking about innovation in higher education, they talk about scaling up. You're a college of like 350 students, right?

DARRON COLLINS: 350 students, yeah.

SCOTT CARLSON: So they talk about scaling up. They talk about getting on the Internet and offering it to thousands — tens of thousands — of students, right? What's the place of a really, really small college like yours — or Marlboro, or Goddard, or Sterling in Vermont — in this kind of landscape that is all about getting bigger?

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DARRON COLLINS: That's right. You know what, Scott? I think the beauty of the higher-education model — and the country — is in its diversity. There's no silver bullet that's going to fix our situation. When I look at the College of the Atlantic, I think about us and the role we serve to try and make sure that there are a whole different swath of approaches to higher ed. So being 350 students is specific to us, and we're strategically small at 350.

But it's not just the size. Like you've mentioned, it's the place on Mount Desert Island on the coast of Maine. It's our approach to education that makes us different. It's not enough to be different. You have to be different and excellent, and we sit out there as a really different approach to higher ed that is also excellent.

SCOTT CARLSON: Well, you say "strategically small." What's strategic about being small? What's the advantage of that?

DARRON COLLINS: When I came in as president, one of the things I said is we are going to cap our student body at 350 students. Perennially, it is the question that we face at COA and that we've gone through over the past 40 years. What size should we be?

For the College of the Atlantic, 350 makes sense for several reasons. One, because of our infrastructure — we can fit in our space really well at 350. Second, we demand that our students play a role in the evolution of the College of the Atlantic and in the management of the college, and so that becomes really difficult to do when you get much larger. Then third is we want students to be part of a community, and feel like they are part of a community and not an anonymous entity moving through college.

There might actually be a fourth one, and that is we want to keep our student-faculty ratio below 10 to 1. If you start to balloon up, you have to concomitantly build that faculty up, and we are a departmental-interdisciplinary college. I don't want to see a larger and growing faculty population start to splinter off into pseudo-departments. So all those reasons mean that 350 makes sense for the College of the Atlantic. It doesn't make sense for every college in the country, but for a COA, it makes a lot of sense.

SCOTT CARLSON: What are the educational advantages of having students involved in the running of the college? You're right — in a lot of cases and lot of institutions, students are just sort of paying the tuition and passing through, gathering what they can and just going on.

DARRON COLLINS: That's right.

SCOTT CARLSON: What are the advantages?

DARRON COLLINS: Yeah. I mean, you read through any college promotional material, and most talk about, you're not just a number at so-and-so. We take that to a real extreme at COA. One is just the intimacy of a working relationship between students and faculty and staff and the trustees, so there's that closeness of a community that really makes a difference in the way the community feels. I think maybe most importantly, students learn what it means to be part of an institution. The world — when they graduate, they will very likely be part of an institution, whatever they wind up doing.

And as part of the College of the Atlantic, they see from the inside how it's run. They hire people, students run my hiring committee. Students are on all the faculty-hiring committees. Every single application that comes to the College of the Atlantic is read by a student, so they see how an institution is organized and run, and that gives them definitely a leg up when they go off looking for work.

SCOTT CARLSON: The other part of scaling up, when they talk about scaling up in higher education, is a financial consideration. I mean, you have these financial folks who say, if a college is not a certain size — then that size changes, 1,200, 1,500, 2,000, 3,000 students — you're really not viable. So how can you make 350 students work financially?

DARRON COLLINS: We make it work for several reasons. One, I think it really helps that the College of the Atlantic has a focus, broadly speaking, on the environment. We are seen as a mission-driven organization, not just a small liberal-arts college, and that resonates with people. We've been very successful in raising money for scholarships to be able to do that. So that's key.

A second way is we really keep costs down by partnering with other institutions. That partnering means we have a partnership with the YMCA — we don't build an enormous gym on campus — so we can keep costs down. We have a new relationship with the Jackson Laboratory, which is a world-class genetics lab right down the street. Our front yard is in Acadia National Park. So those things become our campus, and by strategically making partnerships with those organizations, that helps us keep costs down at the same time.

Lastly, in terms of impact, one way that you can increase your impact is by growing your student body. Another way you can increase impact is by setting down your model strategically in other places. Just a few months ago, I went to Hiroshima Prefecture, Japan, on the invitation of the governor of Hiroshima, who wants to create a College of the Atlantic in the Seto Inland Sea of Japan — which is really interesting. And so one way we can maximize our impact is by saying, hey, not all colleges should and can follow our model, but if we can put it down in really important places around the world, we'll have a greater impact.

SCOTT CARLSON: But by being small, does that mean that you have to attract more students of means? Does it become more of an exclusive kind of education? This is part of the whole scaling up thing, too. Let's scale it up so that we can offer it to low-income, poorer people.

DARRON COLLINS: We've got kids coming from 40 states and 40 countries, and our group of 350 students, 90 percent of them are on need-based aid. And when we've built our endowment, we've built it around scholarships, and we've built it around endowing faculty chairs, which helps us on our annual operating budget. We've been able to offer tremendous financial aid to make sure that people can come to the College of the Atlantic regardless of their economic background. I know people will thrive — and can thrive — at the College of the Atlantic, regardless of what economic background they come from. That's a really important piece of the mission, is to continue to offer very substantive COA aid. That's just a critical part of the mission.

SCOTT CARLSON: Well, thanks so much for stopping by and talking with us.

DARRON COLLINS: Yeah. Thanks, Scott.