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Big or Small? How School Size Affects Your Public College Experience

You're thinking of attending a public college—that's great! But have you decided large or small? Learn about how campus size impacts your college life.

You probably know the phrase, “big fish in a small pond.” But what about small fish in a big pond? Or the medium-sized ponds? Adages aside, school size and student population can greatly impact your university experience depending on what kind of environment you’re looking for. Going from a small, familiar high school to a big state university can be jarring­—or it could be just the change you need.

What comes to mind when you consider your education after high school? One of the first considerations is often size, and when looking at colleges and universities, you do need to ask yourself: Do I want to attend a small college or a large university? There are advantages and disadvantages to both. Envision yourself at the school of your choice, and then take a look at these large and small university comparisons.

Academic options

Large universities have a wide variety of classes in more disciplines than you can imagine. Many even have law or medical schools attached to them as well. You’ll have access to many majors, minors, and concentrations at a large university. These schools are more likely to offer dual-degree programs that allow you to graduate with both a bachelor’s and master’s degree in less time. This expansive learning environment means you can test a broad range of subjects and find what interests you most, with the support of massive libraries and well-equipped labs and facilities.

Small schools may not offer the sheer variety of courses, but there are plenty of other advantages to obtaining a top-notch education with individual attention and guidance from smaller colleges. You may have the opportunity to work with your academic advisor more closely to develop a curriculum specifically designed for you. You’ll be supported and encouraged by the staff and faculty, some of whom could become friends or mentors. Though the library may be smaller, maybe it’ll be your favorite place to meet friends and study in a cozy corner.

Class sizes

The size of a college or university affects the size of classes. It’s not unusual for first-year students at a big university to sit with hundreds of other students in a huge lecture hall. These classes may work if you prefer a bit of anonymity and are comfortable learning in a large group. At a small school, you’ll find yourself in a more intimate setting where professors support student participation. These classes foster greater interactions between classmates and faculty, generally more so than the lecture hall scenario.

Of course, both small and large colleges and universities offer lecture-style and small classroom-style interactions. At larger universities, the classes will generally get smaller when your field of study narrows as an upperclassman, like senior capstone courses or courses for a concentration. Think about these different learning environments and the options available to you to determine where you feel you would be the most successful.

Related: Considering College Size: Which Is Right for You?

Faculty support

As said before, a college’s size impacts the types of professors who are employed and the interactions they have with their students as well. Large universities often have professors who are at the top of their fields—renowned researchers, writers, and experts. However, undergraduates may not have much contact with these professors. Instead, a graduate student acting as a teaching assistant (TA) may run smaller, more focused seminar classes to review what the professors lectured on during the main class meeting time.

Sometimes this is a good thing because TAs might have more time to work independently with students and may be highly skilled at communicating the material since they are still students themselves. This is something to consider if a campus with distinguished professors is an important factor to you. At smaller colleges, particularly those without graduate programs, you may not run into as many “big-name” research professors, but you’ll likely have far more face time with them. Many small colleges strive to foster mentoring relationships between professors and their students.

Athletic teams

When you envision your college years, do you see thousands of fans cheering your school’s basketball team on to the big win? One of the advantages of going to a large university is the athletic program. If you’re a sports fan, attending an NCAA Division I school with high-profile players and games might factor into your decision. If you’re an athlete, maybe the draw is the prospect of landing on a team. Part of attending these schools is the excitement and energy created by televised games, pep rallies, and homecoming.

Instead of a packed sports arena, do yourself with a group of friends spending a Saturday afternoon tossing a Frisbee or getting involved in intramurals like a rugby club? You might find a more subdued sports and activities scene at smaller colleges. That being said, plenty of smaller colleges hold their own as D-I schools and there are fierce rivalries among them. While only a few hundred fans may be cheering, they can have the same spirited intensity as thousands. And you’ll probably know many more people in the stands.

Related: The College Intramural Sports You Want to Play

Extracurricular opportunities

School size can have a big impact on extracurricular activities. In general, the larger the college, the more types of activities are offered. If you’re interested in a relatively obscure activity, you’re more likely to find it at bigger universities. On the other hand, it can be more difficult to break into popular activities on a larger campus. After all, the more students there are the greater your competition. If you come from a small high school where you always got the starring role in the musicals, you might find yourself cast as a background for your first few productions at a big college. And by senior year you could be starring in a university production.

At smaller colleges, students may find it easier to get involved and stand out in extracurricular activities. While small colleges usually can’t offer the variety of activities that a large college can, the quality of the programs is usually equal. Either way, if you don’t find the club you want, most big and small schools allow students to start their own clubs.

Social life

The effects of college size on student social life are similar to those of extracurricular activities. Larger schools have a greater variety of social events and small colleges have fewer options but likely larger student participation. You may find that smaller colleges seem friendlier because you’re likely to run into the same people more often. On the other hand, once you make a few friends, even the largest campus can feel like home.

One thing is true wherever you end up, you can make a big university feel smaller and a small college feel big. At a big school, you can get involved with your major, dorm, and extracurricular activities to create a tight-knit community. Conversely, some small schools are located in cities or near other colleges, cafés, and attractions, which can expand students’ social and cultural horizons immeasurably.

Related: Top College Search and Campus Life Tips If You’re Not a Big People Person

The choice is yours

The best way to figure out what size college appeals to you is to visit a variety of schools—small, large, urban, and rural campuses. Remember, each school has a personality, and experiencing the campus in person is the best way to gauge if it’s a good fit for you. General statements can never capture the unique environment and community of each college. No matter what school you attend, your personality, interests, and choices will make your college experience different from anyone else’s.

Use our College Search tool to find public colleges of all sizes that could be a great fit for you!

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