Small Colleges vs. Big Universities: Pros and Cons


If you’re a high school junior, chances are you’re already thinking about college. You might be wondering what type of college or university you want to attend after you graduate high school. One important consideration to make during your college search is whether you’d like to attend a small college or a big university. There are distinct pros and cons to each type of higher education institution, and this article aims to offer some of those pros and cons to you to help you make a more informed decision about which colleges and universities to apply to.


First, let’s clarify what we mean by “small” when referring to college size, as well as what we mean by “big.” Colleges and universities come in many different sizes, so speaking broadly, these are the numbers of students we’re talking about here.


What’s considered a “small” college?


Small colleges have approximately 5,000 students or fewer. A couple defining characteristics of small colleges: they tend to focus on undergraduate education (often they don’t offer graduate degrees) and courses are taught primarily by professors. Small class sizes and a close-knit college community are often hallmarks of small colleges, and small colleges tend to be private and thus more expensive to attend in many instances than large public universities.



What’s considered a “big” university?


Big universities tend to have 15,000 students or greater. Big universities tend to offer a greater number of degree plans and major and minor fields of study, and are often research institutions. Many courses at big universities, especially introductory courses, are taught by teaching assistants (graduate students in most cases) rather than professors. Big universities tend to have graduate programs, offering Master’s and Doctoral degrees as well as undergraduate degrees. Big universities tend to have greater student body diversity and vastly larger class sizes, as well as more clubs, organizations, and opportunities for social interaction.


Pros and Cons of Small Colleges


Attending a small college comes with several pros and cons, broadly speaking.

Here are some of the positive aspects of small colleges:


The smaller study body size means you can get to know a greater percentage of students, and the likelihood that you’ll run into people you know when going about your day-to-day routine is much higher.


Small colleges, owing to their small student body, tend to foster a greater sense of camaraderie among students; small colleges tend to have higher percentages of alumni donors, perhaps because there’s a greater sense of “home away from home” at small colleges.


At small colleges, the chances of being a “big fish in a small pond” are vastly increased. There are fewer people to compete with in the college itself and in your major field of study, so standing out from the crowd is much, much easier.


Similarly, at small colleges, class sizes tend to be small. The teacher-student ratio is much higher, meaning that the chances of forming closer academic and professional relationships are also much higher. Professors will get to know you better at a small college than they might at a big university. These more familiar relationships with professors might make it easier for you to have an advocate for graduate study, if you happen to need letters of recommendation.


At small colleges, most—if not all—classes are taught exclusively by professors, rather than teaching assistants. Although graduate students are often quite intelligent (they did, after all, get into graduate school) they tend to have less teaching experience than professors, as well as less academic and professional experience. If you prefer to take courses with professors who have already “been there and done that,” a small college might be the way to go.


At small colleges, you might actually have greater academic flexibility rather than less. Your ability to double major or double minor successfully might be greater, and the opportunity to conduct independent studies might be higher. In addition, you might be able to create a self-designed major if none of the major offerings make sense for you to study.


Small colleges may offer grants, fellowships, and study awards that are much, much easier to win. Research the web sites of prospective small colleges and take a look for yourself at the grants and fellowships students can apply for during their undergraduate education. You can use these grants and fellowships for travel, to conduct independent studies, to conduct research projects, or to obtain experiential learning.


At small colleges, your experience with your college advisor will likely be more favorable. Your college advisor will be responsible for fewer students, and as a result, you’ll be able to obtain more personalized insight and information during the advising process.


At small colleges, your experience working with the financial aid office might be friendlier, easier, and more personal. If you develop strong relationships with your financial aid officers, you might be able to more successfully obtain aid and loans, and you might be able to make smarter financial decisions during the college experience.


Here are some of the negative aspects of small colleges:


Small colleges tend to be private and thus more expensive.

Small colleges can be isolating. Everyone might know your name at a small college. For some, that’s a pro rather than a con, but for others, a little anonymity might be refreshing for a chance. In rural parts of the United States, especially, colleges can feel like isolated bubbles. You might not be very close to the big city!


At a small college, it might be harder, rather than easier, to make friends and form meaningful relationships. Although the smaller class size might mean that everyone knows everyone on a deeper level than is possible at a large university, small colleges have fewer people, period, meaning that if you’ve met everyone at your college and still haven’t found anyone you click with, you might feel more alone in college, rather than less alone. It sounds paradoxical but it’s very true. Larger colleges have vastly larger pools of potential friends, though it might take more effort to actually MEET those friends and forge those relationships.


Small colleges will likely offer a lesser degree of variety in housing choices than larger universities might. At a large university, there will be many more housing options.


What about big universities, though?


Pros and Cons of Big Universities


Here are some of the positive aspects of attending a big university:


At a big university, there will be a great deal more opportunities for social interaction, a greater number of clubs and student organizations, and more options for extracurricular activities. If you’re hoping to spend a lot of your time at university on your social and extracurricular pursuits, a big university might offer the diversity you’re looking for.


Large universities tend to have a greater selection of fields of study, so if there’s a certain field of study you’re hoping to pursue that isn’t offered at a small college, chances are it’s offered at a large university.


At a big university, fewer people will know who you are, and as a result, you’ll be able to feel more anonymous if you so choose. Some people treat this aspect as a pro, while others treat it as a con.


Big colleges tend to have much greater funding, and as a result, more robust extracurricular offerings and sports programs. If you’re big into sports, a big university might be the way to go.


Big universities are often much cheaper than small private colleges (if you plan to study in-state). Out-of-state tuition are large public universities is often much more expensive than in-state tuition, so taking a year to establish residency in a state is a common tactic for many cash-strapped students who dream of going to out-of-state universities.


Big universities are also often research institutions, meaning they offer graduate degree programs in addition to undergraduate degree programs. If you’re aiming to go to graudate school, perhaps even at the SAME school you’re going to attend for your undergraduate education, you might be able to forge a meaningful relationship with a professor who holds sway in accepting or rejecting graduate students. Impressing a professor who’s responsible for admitting students into a graduate program could increase your chances of getting into that graduate program!


Here are some negative aspects of big universities:


At a big university, there tends to be MUCH more competition. It will be much harder to stand out, impress people, and be at the top of your game at a big university. You will likely be a small fish in a big pond, so to speak.


At a big university, class sizes are much larger, meaning you’ll get much less individual attention from professors and even from their teaching assistants. You might have to take many courses with hundreds of fellow students in big lecture halls where no one even knows your name. This might be a pro for some students who don’t enjoy the spotlight, but for students seeking individual attention and closer relationships with their peers and professors, it might constitute a con.


There’s likely a greater amount of bureaucracy to navigate through at a big university. Things that might be simple at a small college, like switching majors, might be more confusing and time-consuming at a big university.


Your advisor will be responsible for many more students at a big university than at a small college, so the chance that you’ll receive a great deal of advice and recommendations from your college advisor is smaller at a big university.


A middle path: the medium-sized college


Medium-sized colleges and universities, in some respects, offer students the best of both worlds. With enrollments of between 5,000 and 15,000 students, medium-sized colleges and universities may have many of the pros and cons of both small colleges and large universities, though those pros and cons will be markedly less pronounced.


What’s right for you?


Only you can determine what type of college and university is right for you. It’s wise to take the factors that I’ve listed into account. What are your priorities? Friends? Extracurriculars? Diversity? Intimacy? Anonymity? Flexibility? Student to teacher ratios? Clubs? Sports? Will you be attending graduate school? Would you like to be a big fish in a small pond or a small fish in a big pond? What’s your budget for college look like? Do you want to live in an urban, suburban, or rural area? Will you be attending college in state or out of state?


There are may things to consider, but as long as you’ve considered them, you’ve done your homework! We wish you the best during your college search and college application process. Remember that if you need any college advice or help with the college application process, including help with your college application essay and short answer questions, we’re here to help. Shoot us an e-mail or join our mailing list for great tips and information!


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