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Small College or Large University?

10 Reasons Why Size Matters When Choosing a College

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As you figure out where you want to go to college, one of the first considerations should be the size of the school. Both large universities and small colleges have their pros and cons. Consider the following issues as you decide which type of school is your best match.

1. Name Recognition

Large universities tend to have greater name recognition than small colleges. For example, once you leave the west coast, you'll find more people who have heard of Stanford University than Pomona College. Both are extremely competitive top-notch schools, but Stanford will always win the name game.

There are several reasons why universities tend to have greater name recognition than small colleges:

  • Larger schools have more alumni around the world
  • Larger schools are more likely to have NCAA Division I athletic teams with games on TV
  • At research-centered universities, the faculty often publish more and appear in the news more

2. Professional Programs

You're more likely to find robust undergraduate professional programs in areas like business and engineering at a large university.

3. Class Size

At a liberal arts college, you're more likely to have small classes, even if the student / faculty ratio is higher than at a large research university. You’ll find far fewer giant freshmen lecture classes at a small college than a large university. In general, small colleges have a much more student-centered approach to education than large universities.

4. Classroom Discussion

This is connected to class size -- at a small college you'll usually find lots of opportunities to speak out, ask questions, and engage the professors and students in debate.

5. Access to the Faculty

At a liberal arts college, teaching undergraduates is usually the top priority of the faculty. Tenure and promotion both depend upon quality teaching. At a large research university, research may rank higher than teaching. Also, at a school with master's and PhD programs, the faculty will have to devote a lot of time to graduate students and consequently have less time for undergraduates.

6. Graduate Instructors

Small liberal arts colleges usually don't have graduate programs, so you won't be taught by graduate students. At the same time, having a graduate student as an instructor isn't always a bad thing. Some graduate students are excellent teachers, and some tenured professors are lousy.

7. Athletics

If you want huge tailgate parties and packed stadiums, you'll want to be at a large university with Division I teams. The Division III games of a small school are often fun social outings, but the experience is entirely different. If you're interested in playing on a team but don't want to make a career of it, a small school may provide more low-stress opportunities.

8. Leadership Opportunities

At a small college, you'll have a lot less competition getting leadership positions in student government and student organizations. You'll also find it easier to make a difference on campus. Individual students with a lot of initiative can really stand out at a small school in a way they won't at a huge university.

9. Advising and Guidance

At many large universities, advising is handled through a central advising office, and you may end up attending large group advising sessions. At small colleges, the advising is frequently handled by the professors. With small college advising, your advisor is more likely to know you well and provide meaningful, personalized guidance.

10. Anonymity

Do you like being hidden in the crowd? Do you like being a silent observer in the classroom? It's much more easy to be anonymous at a large university.

A Final Word

Many schools fall within a gray area on the small/large spectrum. Dartmouth College, the smallest of the Ivies, provides a nice balance of college and university features. The University of Georgia has an Honors Program of 2,500 students that provides small, student-centered classes within a large state university. My own place of employment, Alfred University, has professional colleges of engineering, business, and art and design all within a school of about 2,000 undergraduates.
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