Comparing Public Colleges: Big vs. Small Schools

You probably know the saying "big fish in a small pond." What about small fish in a big pond? Or medium-sized ponds? Old adages aside, school size and student population can greatly influence your university experience.

You probably know the saying “big fish in a small pond.” What about small fish in a big pond? Or medium-sized ponds? Old adages aside, school size and student population can greatly influence your university experience. 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 considering your education after graduating from high school? One of the first considerations is often size, and when looking at colleges and universities, you really do need to ask yourself: Do I want to attend a small college or a large university? There are advantages and disadvantages to both. Think about envisioning yourself at the school of your choice, and then take a look at the pros and cons. There are no wrong answers; it just depends on what you prefer.

Related: Search for schools based on size of student body

Class size

The size of the college or university affects the size of classes. It is not unusual for freshman students at a big university to take notes along with hundreds of other students in a huge lecture hall. These classes may work if you like being somewhat “under the radar,” prefer a bit of anonymity, and are comfortable learning in a large group. In this case, the student-filled lectures might be just right for you.

At a small school, you will find yourself in a more intimate setting: small classes support student participation. These classes foster greater interactions between classmates and professors, generally more so than the lecture hall scenario. This environment might be what you prefer.

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


A college’s size impacts professors and student-faculty interactions as well. Large universities often have professors who are at the top of their fields—renowned researchers, writers, and experts. But undergraduates may not have much contact with these professors. Instead, a graduate student “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 practice 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 will likely have far more interaction with the faculty. Many small colleges strive to foster mentoring relationships between professors and students.


Large universities have a wide variety of classes in more disciplines than you can imagine. They may even have a law school or medical school attached to them as well. You will have access to many majors, minors, and concentrations. Big schools may be more likely to offer dual-degree programs, in which you can graduate with both a bachelor’s and master’s degree. This expansive learning environment means you can test a broad range of subjects and find what interests you the most. And you can pursue your academics with excellent professors, massive libraries, and well-equipped labs and facilities.

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


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 are a sports fan, attending an NCAA Division I school with high-profile players and games might factor into your decision. Part of attending one of these schools is the excitement created with televised games, pep rallies, and homecoming. Even if you are not a sports fan, large universities offer plenty of other clubs, events, and activities.

Instead of a packed sports arena, do you see 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 scene at smaller colleges. That being said, plenty of smaller colleges hold their own even as D-I schools, and there are fierce rivalries among many small schools. While only a few hundred fans may be cheering, they can have the same spirited intensity as thousands. And you’ll probably know many of the people in the stands. There are large and small colleges and universities for all types of sports fans. 


School size can have a big impact on extracurricular activities. In general, the larger the college, the more types of activities that are offered. If you’re interested in a relatively obscure activity, you’re more likely to find it at bigger colleges. On the other hand, it can be more difficult to “break in” to 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 that you are cast as a bystander for your first few productions at a big college. Yet, by your senior year you could be starring in your own university musical theater 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 are usually equal. Whatever suits you best is your answer.

Social life

The effects of a college’s size on student social life are similar to those on extracurricular activities. Larger schools have a greater variety of social options, and small colleges may have fewer options, but larger student participation in any one event.

You may find that smaller colleges seem friendlier, but only 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 will begin to feel like home.

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

Big or small—the choice is yours

The best way to figure out what size college appeals to you is to visit a variety of colleges—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.

Although size does have a significant impact on many aspects of college life, general statements can never capture the unique environment and community of an individual college. No matter what school you attend, your personality, interests, and choices will make your college experience different from anyone else’s.

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