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People and Places: Why Size and Location Are Important in the College Search

Campus size and location are important to your future happiness at college. Consider these options for the next four years of your education.

There are a multitude of factors to take into consideration when choosing a college. From the programs to the school culture to the financial aspect, there’s plenty to think about. Two key components to give some extra thought early in your search are the size and location of the colleges you’re considering. Campus size can lead you to vastly different experiences, and the location of a school in relation to its community can make more of a difference in your college experience than you may realize. Let’s break down the advantages and disadvantages of the variety of sizes and locations to choose from for your future college home.

Considering college size

Determining the right college size for you can be difficult. One of the best ways to determine what size college is best for you is to visit the schools in person on campus visits and consider the general qualities of these three main categories.

Small colleges

A small college is typically defined as having fewer than 5,000 students. Anderson University, my school, has roughly 3,800 students and is considered a small college. The biggest difference between small colleges and larger ones is the feel of the community. When walking around a small college campus, the chances that you’ll see a familiar face are high, which can be comforting and homey. Small colleges offer small class sizes similar to high school classes (or even smaller) rather than huge lecture halls you see in movies. This allows for more interactive classes, seminars, and closer relationships with faculty members. Many students at small colleges tell stories of eating dinner with their professors or even visiting their homes. Not only can these faculty relationships inspire you to engage with the class more fully, but they can also be useful to learn about research opportunities, grants, or programs that may not be as accessible at a larger school.

There are some downsides to small schools as well. By virtue of sheer numbers, smaller schools are less likely to have large athletic programs or nearly as many activities, events, and organizations that a larger school with more resources may offer. At the same time, you’ll have fewer new people to meet (although, I’m still meeting plenty of new people all the way into my senior year!). You may also run into fewer major options, as small schools generally offer fewer academic programs due to the low number of students and staff. However, if you’re able to pursue the field of study you’re interested in at the smaller school, it doesn’t matter that there are only 30 alternative programs compared to 100. At the end of the day, a small school is ideal if you’re looking for a tight-knit community and thrive as a big fish in a small pond.

Related: Video: Advantages and Disadvantages of Small Schools

Midsize colleges

Medium-sized colleges have enrollments ranging from 5,000–15,000 students. In many ways, a midsize school is a mix of small and large universities, combining the best of both worlds. While class sizes are likely to be somewhat larger than those at small colleges, they’ll often shrink as you move up in your field of study, and close student-faculty relationships are typically still more common than they are in larger schools. Medium colleges also tend to offer more diversity, activities, and sports than smaller schools but don’t feel as overwhelming as large colleges. While each midsize school is unique, you’ll most likely be disappointed if you’re looking for a completely intimate or huge state school experience. Many characteristics are a blend of large and small colleges, so if you like aspects about each one, midsize may be the way to go.

Large colleges

If you’re looking for a big college sports scene, tons of new people, and a lot of major options, a large school might be for you. Defined as any college with more than 15,000 students, large colleges tend to offer the most diversity in majors as well as organizations, activities, and student body. If you have a unique interest, you’re most likely to find a community at a bigger school, whether it’s knifemaking, embroidery, or a specific type of rock-climbing. Large schools also usually offer the most exciting teams to cheer for in Division I athletics. Plus, you’ll meet new people each semester in classes and around campus!

While large schools have a lot of advantages, there are a few potential cons to be aware of. First, it can be easy to feel lost in the crowd at a big school. It can also be harder to get to know your professors and classmates due to large class sizes and caseloads for professors—classes are often taught by teaching assistants. However, you can get around these obstacles by doing simple things like attending office hours and joining a few smaller organizations to break down the enormity of the campus. A large college is likely best for you if you prefer to be surrounded by lots of people and thrive as a small fish in a big pond.

Related: What Life Is Really Like at a Big Public University

Researching college location

Now let’s dive into the differences in college location. Although it may seem unimportant now, choosing between rural, urban, and suburban campuses can result in vastly different experiences.

Rural colleges

Rural colleges are usually out in the country and close to farms and other wide-open spaces. An obvious pro of this environment is how close to nature you are; away from the hustle of urban life, you’ll find plenty of opportunities to hike, camp, fish, or just tie up a hammock and relax in peace and quiet. It’s also more affordable to live in these areas, although there may not be a ton of off-campus housing options to choose from. Don’t sleep on these schools; there are many hidden gems in rural areas! However, since they’re outside of the city, rural colleges tend to not have as many amenities you may be accustomed to with city living, such as public transportation, dining and entertainment options, and off-campus job or internship opportunities. You’re also much more likely to need a car to get around as things are typically more spread out.

Many rural schools provide a more traditional college experience with an emphasis on campus life and activities. You may also get more of a chance to connect with the authentic local community since the towns tend to be smaller. If you grew up in a rural area and know you want to stick with a similar lifestyle, this is a great option, but it’s not just for small-town folks. Consider a rural college if you’re excited to try new things, love nature, and want to move away from your suburban roots. As with any college, it’s helpful to visit the area before making a commitment; seeing a place in person will help you know for sure if it’s for you!

Related: Great Colleges If You Want to Live in the Mountains

Suburban colleges

Suburban colleges describe a lot of schools: They’re within a city but not in the heart of downtown. As with midsize colleges, they have a lot of blended characteristics of rural and urban schools to varying degrees, depending on the specific college. Suburban colleges have less commotion than urban schools while still being close to amenities such as public transit, job opportunities, and entertainment options. You’re also likely to have lower rent and fewer safety concerns compared to urban schools. Basically, by adding a little distance between you and the center of town, you can save some money and hassle while still being within striking distance of all the action. However, the suburban location isn’t without its drawbacks. You likely won’t get either the wide-open space of a rural area or the character of downtown. Instead, you may feel like you’re living in a similar space to where you grew up because a lot of suburban areas tend to feel similar—but it’s worth remembering that every town is different.

Urban colleges

Urban colleges are right in the center of things—think of any prominent university in the heart of New York City. These colleges place you in the middle of the action; you’ll be practically guaranteed plenty of public transportation options, lots of diverse cultural events, and access to a heavy concentration of internships, jobs, and networking opportunities. Of course, in exchange for all these amenities, you do pay a price. Housing is likely to be more expensive, and urban colleges usually have less available land to provide on-campus housing, which means you’ll be in charge of finding your own apartment. If you value nature, you may find it harder to locate, although many large cities have heavily invested in creating greenspaces with greenways, park systems, and more. Finally, large urbanized areas unfortunately tend to come with an increase in crime, noise, pollution, and general chaos. Although you’ll want to be careful no matter where you live, it’s especially important to consider how you feel about living in a high-density area, especially if you aren’t used to that environment.

Related: Great Colleges If You Want to Live in the Big City

All campus sizes and locations will have their strengths and weaknesses. There’s no one right or wrong answer; it all depends on your own personal preferences. You may fall in love with an urban school due to the advantages it offers, but just ensure you’re fully prepared for busy city life before you decide. Take the size and location of your college options into consideration to make a more informed decision. Now that you know more about each option, you can start planning your college visits accordingly!

City or country? Mountains or beach town? Discover great schools in the place you want to be with our lists of featured colleges by landscape.  

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