One of the most important considerations in choosing a college is size. A small college of 2,000 students provides a very different experience than a large university of 20,000.
It’s like living in a small town versus a large city. People say hello when they see you. When I visited Muhlenberg College, known for a strong sense of community, I saw a professor greet a student by name and stop to chat. I don’t often see this when I tour large universities. Faculty and staff at small colleges are there to help, and the caring atmosphere can help students feel they belong.
For some, anonymity is more appealing. Sitting among 500 students in a lecture hall is a great way for a shy student to hide. But not a great way to grow. Believe me, I tried it. In a big university, you might be able to go all semester without talking to your professors, and that doesn’t make for the best educational experience.
Many of my students say they want a college that’s bigger than high school. But every college is physically bigger than high school. In addition to classroom buildings for art, music, social sciences, natural sciences, there are residence and dining halls, library, student union, athletic facility, counseling offices, health service and more. A college campus doesn’t feel as confining as high school.
If students are concerned that they won’t find enough interesting people at a small college, they might be reassured to know that there will be more diversity than in high school. They will find students from different parts of the country, as well as from different ethnic, religious and socioeconomic backgrounds. But all of these students chose to attend the same college, so chances are it will be easier to find people with similar interests. It may also be easier to meet more students, because you get to know people in your classes as well as in your residence hall, and you probably won’t have the same students in sociology as in astronomy.
When it comes to extracurricular activities, again, there may be more opportunities, because there are fewer students competing to write for the school paper or to work at the campus radio station. Since smaller colleges generally don’t have graduate students, courses are less likely to be taught by graduate students, and there are often more opportunities for students to collaborate with professors on research projects.
Students get more out of college when they are engaged. That means interacting with professors and students, doing research, and being involved in campus life. At smaller colleges, this level of engagement is built into the system. It doesn’t mean students can’t be engaged at large universities, but they have to take the initiative to create that kind of experience.
Students who don’t have a lot of confidence will find more nurturing at a small college. They get more feedback on their work. Professors are there because they want to teach undergraduates.
Many students believe that if they haven’t decided on a major or career, they should go to a large university, where they will be able to sample lots of possibilities and figure out what they want to do. Ironically, many students find it easier to discover their passion at a smaller college, where they are nurtured by professors.
While small colleges offer many benefits, they’re not for everyone. Some students thrive on the energy and excitement of seeing thousands of people walking across campus every day. They know what they want and are assertive enough to pursue it. They are motivated to get to know their professors during office hours and to seek help when they need it. They aren’t intimidated dealing with bureaucracy. They will create a sense of community by getting involved in activities. The key to a successful college experience, as always, is finding a good match for each student.