Centre College for the Win!
Forbes just ranked my alma mater #14 among all institutions. Pardon me while I cheer for that tiny little Kentucky college that helped make me the person I am today. *grin*
I'm proud to be a Centre College alum - the individual attention I received there, the ridiculously small classes (I think my largest class during my undergrad career was freshman humanities, which had a whopping 21 students in it), and the dedicated faculty and staff make it a real gem. It may not make sense to put out for that sort of price for an undergraduate education, but Centre would be my first recommendation for any student who goes for their bachelor's with the intent to move on to any significant graduate work. I enjoyed myself, but the academics were extremely rigorous. (To the point where a number of the graduate programs I've completed since have been slightly anticlimactic.)
I can also say that after having worked at a number of colleges and universities since graduation, that personal attention and stellar customer service make an impact. (Not that Centre would ever use so cold and corporate a term as "customer service" - the terms we used were "community" and a "genuine shared interest in student success," and so forth.) I graduated in 2001, but when I go back, my professors ask about my life and how my parents are doing. President Roush still works out at the gym beside the students. Jan St. Pierre from the Registrar's office greets me by name at the Homecoming football game. (In my day, we registered for classes in person with registration forms signed by our advisors. We would take our sleeping bags to be close to the front of the line to get the sections we wanted and camp out. Thus is life at a college full of nerdtastic goodness.) I know that sounds silly, but when the registrar remembers you 8 years later? That's ridiculous, in the most fabulous sense.
Centre is a great example of how "customer service" isn't something that's done grudgingly to keep folks from complaining, it has been embraced as a way of life in all aspects of the campus community. It's not thought of as part of anyone's "job," but as an integral part of the academic and social community. I refuse to believe that this is only possible at very small institutions. (I am realistic enough to know that it is likely more difficult to develop at a huge institution, though.)
Anyway, these are just random thoughts. Yes, Centre may be the best value out there, and the best education out there, but what I remember most is it being the best *experience* - I made some of my best friends there, and that is where I saw professors being the sort of faculty members I wanted to be - nurturing and challenging, friendly and energetic.
I believe I would have walked a very different path if I had gone to another college or university, and every time someone at the University of Kentucky, Emory, StonyBrook, or North Carolina State University asks me my student number, I feel a pang of homesickness for Centre. Because my roots are where everybody knew my name, and where "customer service" wasn't a face people put on at work, it really was the way life was conducted. This is what I want to figure out how to accomplish in my library. That sense of welcome, of camaraderie, of 'we are all a part of this.' That is the challenge. Hooray for Centre for giving us a great example.