Should You Attend a Small College or Large University?

10 Reasons Why Size Matters When Choosing a College

As you figure out where you want to go to college, one important considerations is 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.

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Name Recognition

aerial shot of Stanford campus
Stanford University.

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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. In Pennsylvania, more people have heard of Penn State than Lafayette College, even though Lafayette is the more selective of the two institutions.

There are several reasons why large 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 frequently than the faculty at teaching-centered liberal arts colleges.
  • With the economics of scale, larger schools typically have more advertising dollars than small schools.
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Professional Programs

You're more likely to find robust undergraduate professional programs in fields such as business, engineering, and nursing at a large university. There are, of course, many exceptions to this rule, and you'll find small schools with a professional focus and large universities with a true liberal arts and sciences curriculum. That said, list of top engineering schools and top business schools tend to be dominated by larger universities.

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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.

A large and prestigious university with an 8 to 1 student/faculty ratio is likely to have some first-year classes with 100 or more students, while a liberal arts college with a 16 to 1 ratio won't. This is because many of those professors at the large university are devoted to research and graduate instruction.

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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. These opportunities exist at large schools as well, but not as consistently, and often not until you're in upper-level classes. If chatting with teachers and fellow students is your thing, a small school is likely to be a better match.

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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 Ph.D. programs, the faculty will have to devote a lot of time to graduate students and consequently have less time for undergraduates.

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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. Nevertheless, classes at small colleges are more likely to be taught by full-time faculty members than at large research universities. This has clear advantages when it comes time to building relationships over years and getting strong letters of recommendation.

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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. If you want to get an athletic scholarship, you'll need to be at a Division I or Division II school. And if your life goal is to become a professional athlete, a larger Division I school will provide the best opportunities.

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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 will not at a huge university. That said, it will probably be more impressive if you become a student leader at a big school.

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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. Advisors at both large and small schools can certainly tell you what classes you need to graduate, but smalls schools are more likely to be in tune with your specific strengths and goals.

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Not everyone wants small classes and personal attention, and there's no rule that you learn more from peer discussion in a seminar than from a high-quality lecture. Do you like being hidden in the crowd? Do you like being a silent observer in the classroom? It's much easier 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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Your Citation
Grove, Allen. "Should You Attend a Small College or Large University?" ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Grove, Allen. (2023, April 5). Should You Attend a Small College or Large University? Retrieved from Grove, Allen. "Should You Attend a Small College or Large University?" ThoughtCo. (accessed June 6, 2023).