One of the most common questions we are asked is what size college is best. This is difficult to answer for many reasons. I, a graduate of a small college, sat down with Russ, our Director of College Planning and graduate of a large college, to discuss the differences.
Phil’s Take on Going to a Small College:
Going to a small college is similar to living in a small community: you know almost everyone, your classes have a conversational quality, and your surroundings quickly become as familiar as the back of your hand. I can remember being in an English class with eight - yes, eight - other students. Our teacher, the quintessential college professor - old, bearded, and addicted to coffee and Shakespeare - encouraged and fostered spirited discussions of the literature we were studying in an open and objective environment. Now I’m not saying that you can’t get this experience elsewhere, but for me, it just seemed a little cozier at a small college. No matter how technologically advanced and disconnected the world becomes, community will always be something humans strive to maintain, and attending a small, close-knit school can help instill the importance of community at an early age.
Being part of a small college community has both social and educational benefits: not only does it teach you to healthily coexist within an intimate contingent of people, it also gives you access to professors and advisors that you might not get at a larger school. For me, it was beneficial to be able to find my professors when I needed more information about an assignment, or simply to check my progress on a paper or project. This proximity actually led to many interesting conversations with many fascinating and eccentric teachers. A small community can also teach you how to handle social situations diplomatically. Living in a dormitory freshman year where everybody knew almost everybody, I learned quickly how to balance these relationships and stay on an even keel while interacting with people of wildly varying dispositions, backgrounds, and beliefs.
Sometimes students ask me if I regret not having gone to a large, name college. My answer, unequivocally, is no. While I can see the many benefits of attending a large university, the simple fact is that for someone like me, who thrives in a small environment in which I feel I am a part of a community, the small college experience was everything I could have asked for.
Russ’ Take on Going to a Big College:
On the other hand, I went to a large school with over 19,000 students. Coming from a larger high school on Long Island, I felt this would not be a big deal….until I walked into my first class: a Computer Science class in a lecture hall with over 350 students (and no computers). I, of course, was “too cool” to sit in the front so I sat where the teacher was barely visible and, with his microphone fading in and out, I’m not sure I heard or learned anything in that class. When I needed help with assignments or when I tried to meet with the teacher about my grades, I was forced to meet with a Teacher’s Assistant, barely older than me, telling me “Dr. XYZ isn’t available so you’ll have to do it yourself.”
From a social perspective, there were people everywhere. Privacy was unattainable; dorms were constantly busy. This may sound like fun, but after a while, and particularly while you are trying to study for a big test, concentrating in this environment can be challenging. The flip side was there was always something to do, which is great but can also be a HUGE distraction from the work you are supposed to be doing. Athletic games did exist but I can’t tell you that I went to one of them. I was “busy” doing, well, I don’t know. And the academics were more difficult and required more of my time than I expected.
So...Go Big or Go Small?
There are definite benefits to both kinds of schools. In a smaller school, you can receive the attention necessary to get through the academic demands in a more favorable position. The personal relationships you build can be stronger and more meaningful. There are activities available to provide an outlet and when you are with quality friends, every activity is enjoyable and worthwhile. In a larger school, there is always something going on. There will be sporting and many other types of events you can attend and the options for food, fraternities and sororities, and everything else will be numerous. But regardless of where you are, it is critical to ensure that the people there are the type of people you will get along with, that the academic rigor is something you can handle, and that the distractions can be managed so that you can do what you need to do to achieve the results you are looking for. Either way, whether there are 2,500 or 25,000 students at the college you attend, you only have the time and ability to enjoy 5 - 10 close friends and if they are the right ones, the size of the college won’t matter.