Time to select a college? Not so fast. With more than 1,600 four-year colleges and universities to choose from, you will need to think this one through. As we mention in our article “Selecting the ‘Right’ School,” size is an important consideration. As a frame of reference, a small- or medium-sized college is one with fewer than 5,000 students and a large or very large university is one with more than 5,000. If you select small or medium, you will be able to choose from a list of over 1,200 schools; if you choose large or very large, then your list will include almost 400 schools. Midsize schools to some extent combine qualities of both small and large schools and offer a sort of compromise.

So, if you are feeling confused about whether you would be better off at a small college or a large university, we have prepared this checklist for you as a starting point in your research. Go through the advantages listed below in each category and check off the ones that mean the most to you. One word of caution: every school is different, and the qualities listed are generalizations that won’t hold true for every small or large school.

  • Smaller classes (<20 students), allowing for greater class participation and the ability to develop close friendships
  • Greater professor involvement in teaching
  • Lower student to faculty ratio (<15:1), allowing for more direct access to your professors for coaching and advice
  • Greater accessibility of popular classes and majors
  • Greater accessibility of housing and resources
  • More variety of courses and subject areas
  • More professors to choose from within departments
  • Greater diversity among faculty and students
  • More opportunities to observe, and even participate in, advanced research
  • Larger libraries and more extensive research facilities
  • Graduate programs (at universities), which provide a means of familiarizing yourself with later options for continued study
  • Courses taught by graduate students, who have less experience but often more enthusiasm for their subject than more advanced professors
One way of thinking about the basic differences between small and large schools is in terms of being a small fish in a big pond or a big fish in a small pond. At big schools, you have a wider range of students and opportunities, but the vastness of this setting may make it hard to take advantage of everything out there; at small schools, by contrast, you stand out, but for some, the intimate atmosphere feels claustrophobic. The decision is a personal one that will require some thinking not just about what different schools offer, but about what environment will be most conducive to your learning and overall happiness.