Big College Vs. Small College: How to Choose the Right One

It's an important call. The big college vs. small college choice changes a student's entire education experience. Here's what to factor into the decision.

When your child imagines his or her ideal college, does it feature a sports arena packed with thousands of cheering student fans – or a small classroom where every professor knows your name?

The big college vs. small college decision can be as important to some students as choosing a major. The size of the school can affect a student’s entire experience.

Vicki Baker, a professor of economics and management who researches liberal arts colleges at Albion College, says it’s important to understand that the ideal size of a college is different for each student.

She says parents should ask two key questions – “What’s best for the student?” and “How best do they learn?” – when helping their child tackle the big college. vs. small college conundrum.

Benefits of a smaller university

Smaller universities sometimes come with smaller class sizes, Baker says. When she was a student herself at Penn State University, she says she remembers class sizes reaching over 400 students – while at Albion, a class might have 20 students.

“You get more one-on-one time, more opportunities for closer, long-lasting relationships and mentorships with faculty,” she says.

Twelve years after teaching her first class at Albion, Baker says she still knows every single one of her students from her first class.

“I’ve been to their weddings, held their babies,” she says. “It’s amazing, and it’s why I continue to stay.”

Baker also recognizes not every student flourishes in an environment that small.

“You can’t hide at a small institution,” she says. “Professors notice when students are engaged and disengaged. For some who want to blend in, it’s harder to do on a small campus.”

Because there are fewer students, smaller colleges are also sometimes able to individualize majors in a way that would be harder for larger universities, Baker says.

“At Albion, we have interdepartmental majors where a student can design his or her own major – we can tailor it,” she says. “You can individualize different elements of the experience and still finish in four years.”

Going big or going home

Many of the biggest colleges in Michigan are in populated city centers, like Wayne State University in Detroit.

“There is lots of culture – museums, pubs, craft beer places – near campus, and we’re just a few miles down from Comerica Park, Little Caesars Arena and Ford Field,” says Theodore Montgomery, associate director of communications at WSU.

A bigger college lends itself to bigger on-campus events, too, he adds.

“There are a lot of fun events scattered throughout the year, and the turnout and support for those events are fabulous,” he says. “The buzz on campus is constant. There’s always something going on.”

He says, “Having roughly 27,000 students here is part of the reason why the university is such a hub of activity and fun.”

Aside from the social aspect of having more people around, Montgomery says larger schools sometimes have more resources to help students.

At WSU, “We support our students academically in a lot of different ways,” he says. “We have support resources like financial aid and the human resources, for example, if you needed tutoring, one-on-one counseling or psych services.”

Larger universities, especially big research universities like WSU, tend to have more resources for research as well, and can pull top-of-the-line faculty, too, he says.

How to choose

Baker says it’s imperative that students see the campus and have a tour before making any decisions.

“You need to spend time talking to current students, sit in on a class or two and engage with faculty,” she says. “Sometimes it’s a gut feeling, and sometimes they’re surprised positively or negatively.”

She continues, “Ask yourself, ‘Can I see myself spending the next four years here?'”

Montgomery agrees that tours and campus visits are a necessary part of choosing a college.

“College is such an investment, and you don’t want to buy something sight unseen,” he says. “Our website has lots of resources, but nothing compares to being on the ground in the campus.”


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