Big or Small – New Take on the Question of Size in Considering a College Search

When people ask me what I actually do in counseling kids about college choices, I have to admit that I mostly ask questions.

Each question leads to the next and each question is essentially a forced choice.  All in order to get at what are the truest and most significant priorities in starting a college search.  We ask the impossible of kids just setting out; how can they possibly know how to start and narrow a college search?

Location?  Major?  Extra-curricular options?  Sure, they all matter to some degree.

But the first sort often has to do with the size of the college or university that best meets the student’s needs.  Generally that conversation presents commonly understood pros and cons.

PROS

Small colleges offer personal attention,small classes,  the opportunity to get involved in a number of activities, and the likelihood of studying under a real professor.  Many small colleges are located in non-urban areas, offering access to the outdoors.

Big universities offer broad curriculum, extensive facilities, big time sports, opportunities to pursue graduate or specialized work, and access to professional programs.  Most large universities are located in urban areas with access to a variety of cultural and social activities.

CONS

Small colleges have a smaller number of professors to choose from.  The facilities at a small college are likely to be on a far smaller scale than those at a university.  The library is smaller, the stadium is smaller, the campus is smaller.  In some cases, small colleges may offer less diversity than large public institutions.  Although independent small colleges may offer significant financial aid, the cost of attending a small college may be greater than attending an in-state public option.

Big universities are complicated; public universities are subject to political forces and the size and complexity of the institution may slow or eliminate response to the individual.  Institutions with strong graduate programs may invest more in the graduate education than in the undergraduate program.  Professors  in a large university may be assisted by instructors who do not have the competence or experience expected.  Classes are likely to be large and there may be difficulty in enrolling in required courses.  The cost of attending an out-of-state or independent large university is about the same as attending an independent small college.

I’m going to add two other significant issues to the mix.

Open-ended choice is great for some students; predictability is good for others.

Some students thrive when making a personal connection with a course or instructor; some students prefer a degree of anonymity.

So, I ask questions such as these:

“Do you want to know your professors?  Do you want your professor to know you?”

“Is it important for you to have more than two or three options for dining each day?”

“Would you like to know some significant proportion of your classmates by the time you graduate?”

“Does the thought of running into the same people every day bother you?”

“What might matter more to you – a pretty good idea of what the day will bring or the possibility of surprise?”

“Do you like to run into many friends most days, or are you ok with seeing one or two friends over the course of the week?”

“What do you want to see when you wake up in the morning?”

“If you had one hour to spend, what would you most enjoy doing?”
Keep in mind that the issues surrounding the size of a college or university may be very important for some students and not for others.  Just as location or the ability to play rugby may not be of interest to a candidate, the question of size may be irrelevant for a number of prospective applicants.  If it does matter, however, it is likely to matter a good deal.

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