Message from the Dean: Beyond Either/Or--A Small-College Experience

As students, faculty and staff in the RCAH, we pride ourselves on the way we have been able to combine a particular kind of small-college experience with the resources of a large research university. You hear the phrase "the best of both worlds" regularly when we talk with prospective students and their parents, and it comes to mind frequently as we prepare for our first full graduation ceremony in spring 2011. What exactly does it mean? How have we been able to move beyond the either/or choice between a small college and a large university?

From the point of view of students I think it means that even though we are part of a major research university, we get to know each other in our classes, through activities outside the classroom, and even beyond the campus. The RCAH is a way of learning from one another, not just a point on the map. Students, faculty, staff, and our community partners get to know one another by living our learning. We've made each others' acquaintance, as Jane Addams, the founder of Chicago's Hull House, so famously put it at the turn of the twentieth century. These acquaintanceships ground the work we do and give it meaning. Human beings live their lives in groups, and the RCAH prepares students to enjoy and succeed as members of the many ensembles that await them after graduation.

At the same time, this place for making acquaintances exists within an enormously rich university environment. The RCAH is not an island. Our graduating students are the best evidence of this. Whether they have chosen a second major or specialization outside the RCAH (as more than 80 percent of this spring's graduates have), or creatively designed their own interdisciplinary elective pathway with courses from several different programs outside the RCAH, these students have learned how to take advantage of the extraordinary resources—the research laboratories and technical support; the archives, gardens, libraries, and museums; the performance programs; and the engagement opportunities—that make MSU a truly global institution.

In fact, what our students find is that one of the best ways to take advantage of being at MSU is to experience it through the RCAH. By getting acquainted with other students, faculty, and staff in a supportive, familiar environment in Snyder-Phillips Hall, they learn how to ask the right questions and stay focused in this world-class university. They are confident without being over-confident, open to new ideas without being rudderless, and creative when it is time to step outside the RCAH.

This is how moving beyond the either/or choice of a small college or a large research university works for RCAH students. One question many students and families ask is: “Can we afford it?” In other words, they ask themselves whether investing in a private-college education will reap greater rewards than an investment in a state university education, even one with a residential college experience like the RCAH. Even if private-college tuition is twice the cost of public tuition, they think, it might be worth the sacrifice.

While there is plenty of research on the economic value of (smaller size) private vs. (larger) public higher education, this too is a misleading either/or choice (what philosophers call a false dichotomy). Elite private colleges, we're told, have a higher immediate payoff in terms of salary, but for students seeking concrete employable skills, public universities may be a better bet. This kind of research, however, is notoriously inconclusive. It genuinely depends on the program, the goals of the graduate, and the shifting social and economic landscape that greets the student upon graduation. College education can be described as an investment in human capital; there is nothing crass about that as long as one remembers that graduates have to be prepared to make choices and think on their feet.

The RCAH at MSU is an elite program with a difference—and this applies to all of our students, not just the 40 percent of them who are in the Honors College. The RCAH teaches students how to think, manage, and plan the way elite colleges have taught the children of the elite, but it does so with a commitment to access and equal educational opportunity that have been the great virtues of our public universities. In addition to the regular small classes, all of our students take a small first-year seminar, a special tutorial, and a senior seminar or thesis. This is how they are able to cast, direct, and act in their own plays; write and perform their own poetry and music; produce their own animated films on human rights issues; and reach out to students and workers in Lansing and Detroit who rarely have had a chance to work with university students. RCAH students are now showing up in the winner's circle for awards such as the Office of Study Abroad "Tales from Abroad" contest and getting selected for prestigious internships, including one who will be interning at the White House this spring.

Without a doubt, there are either/or choices in this world. Often you are either on the bus or you’re not. You can't procrastinate and expect to make the choice later, because by that time the bus will have left the station. Fortunately, education is not like that, and the RCAH at MSU is not like that. You can be in the RCAH at MSU and not miss the bus. In fact, it is a very good way to begin a journey on which you will have to decide your own destination and on which you will take the wheel, open the windows, and, of course, make new acquaintances.