WHEN ALL OTHER FACTORS seemed equal, John’s choice of where he wanted to spend his four undergraduate years at an Atlantic Canadian university boiled down to a simple bit of social calculus: Was he, at heart, a city scholar or a country scholar?
He understood the respective, if somewhat different, benefits of both urban and rural academic settings, but John (not his real name) was also interested in selecting an institution that somehow “reflected his personality”, where, he says, he could be “comfortable in my own skin… I also wanted to be close to my parents. It wasn’t entirely like trying on a new pair of jeans to see if it fit, but there’s more of an emotional component in choosing a school than many people suppose.”
In fact, university recruiters in the Atlantic region have long understood the role feelings (for lack of a better word) play in the selection process. Much of this has to do with the extraordinary amount of choice prospective students enjoy in this part of the country. The Association of Atlantic Universities AAU) reports that the region’s 16 universities, in 25 communities, are collectively home to 74,000 full-time students, 14,600 part-time students and 16,261 faculty and staff.
And their economic impact is nothing to sneeze at.They account for three-to-seven per cent of employment in provincial capitals and as much as 35 per cent in small university towns; a total job count of 38,371; payroll topping $1.1 billion; $2.6 billion in Gross Domestic Product; $496 million in federal and provincial taxes; $615 million in research and development; and 250,000 local, wage-earning, tax- paying alumni.
All of which suggests that for a region whose total population is less than three million, universities play a significant role in shaping the culture and character of the communities, large and small, they inhabit. And this, in turn, feeds the student’s appreciation for the differences between big, urban institutions and small, rural ones. Indeed, in Atlantic Canada’s there’s no one size that fits all. Scholars can afford to be picky. And that tends to make for a competitive and growing marketplace.
Recent statistics (courtesy of the AAU’s annual “preliminary surveys”) suggest that full-time undergraduate enrollment rates at regional universities, overall, have been rising steadily, if not dramatically, in recent years. The total student population was 65,342 in 2009; in 2012, that number was closer to 68,328. The trend was similar among graduate students who numbered 7,200 in 2009 and 8,000 in 2012.
But where, precisely, the growth occurred, in the larger, municipally based schools, or the smaller, town-ensconced institutions, is somewhat harder to discern from the preliminary surveys.
Halifax’s Dalhousie University, for example, boasted a total student enrollment (undergraduate and graduate) of 13,800 in 2009, rising to 16,189 in 2012. St. John’s Memorial University was home to 14,487 students in 2009, rising to 15,188 in 2012. Other “big city” schools, such as Saint Mary’s and Mount Saint Vincent in Halifax, followed a similar pattern. In 2009, the former had 6,275; in 2012, the number was closer to 6,603. In 2009, the latter had 1,973, rising to 2,396 in 2012.
Still, there’s no evidence that the small- town universities fared appreciably better or worse over the same period. Mount Allison in Sackville, New Brunswick, for example went from a total student enrollment of 2,409 in 2009 to 2,609 in 2012. St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish, Nova Scotia, went from 4,138 to 4,116 (a statistically insignificant drop).
All of which suggests that, in Atlantic Canada, the much-touted “battle” for students between the big-city and small-town institutions is largely a media invention. Apart from anything else, in this part of the world, some of the smallest institutions actually reside within the larger municipalities.
That’s not to say there are no differences. They are just more likely to express themselves within the confines of the schools, themselves. In a piece by Dawn Calleja, headlined “Big vs. small universities: Which is best for you?”, for the Globe and Mail last year, Dr. Robert Campbell, president of Mount Allison University, put it this way: “
A smaller school offers a personal experience; whether in class, in residence, in clubs or on campus, professors and staff get to know and connect with individual students. Focusing on its undergraduate mission, quality teaching is an institutional priority, delivered by full-time, accessible professors who prioritize student learning.
“Smaller classes provide a greater opportunity to participate and connect with professors and classmates.
“The undergraduate setting affords significant opportunities for students to do hands-on, significant research in classes and on their profs’ research projects.
“Given intimacy and small scale, students can create personalized degrees that reflect their interests and capabilities. There is easier access to university activities, from campus clubs to residence life, from sports to social and political activities.”
To which Dr. Amit Chakma, president of University of Western Ontario, London, Ontario, countered:
“Large, research-intensive universities such as Western offer students a multitude of academic choices at the undergraduate, professional, graduate and postgraduate level. Our scale also enables us to offer a wider variety of co-op and extracurricular opportunities, including more on- campus jobs and volunteer experience, service-learning projects in the broader community, research and co-op internships with industry partners, student exchanges and study-abroad programs with partner institutions around the globe, and a huge range of on-campus activities involving clubs, associations, student government, intramurals and varsity sports.”
In the end, it wasn’t an “either-or” proposition for John. Having spent a happy three years at a small Atlantic university in a small town, he transferred to a large institution in a big city. “I don’t regret either decision,” he says. “I loved the intimate feeling of the small school. It really suited me at the time. But when I had to leave to pursue the courses I needed at the bigger school, I had a great time there as well.”