When people think of a college, the conventional image that comes to mind is a large, sprawling campus with spacious amphitheater classrooms, erudite professors with small armies of TAs, and of course, thousands of students. For many students, this conventional image of a college is also an ideal one, and these students find it easy to thrive in an academic setting in which you can go weeks without seeing the same person outside of classes; where the options for class requirements are as plentiful and diverse as the student body itself; where an extracurricular club exists for almost every social niche.
However, the same qualities that make a large school enticing to some can make it equally unappealing to others – it comes down to a matter of preference. For instance, I attended SUNY Binghamton and my sister went to Haverford College. Binghamton is a state school and has over 14,000 students (and it’s one of the smallest in the SUNY circuit), and Haverford has an enrollment of a little under 1,200. Based on population alone, it’d be a safe bet to say our school experiences were different, on several social and institutional levels.
*Class size – The class sizes of a school with a small population is a large reason why many students prefer them over the amphitheaters of larger institutions. As a creative writing major In Binghamton, my average class size was between thirty and forty students; in Haverford, most classes are between two and nineteen students (the science courses have an even greater disparity). In most of my classes, I found myself vying for the professor’s attention in competition with the other students. Getting the most professor’s individual attention for any length of time was next to impossible. Yet at many smaller schools, the professor has more opportunities to get to know the individual students. With less papers to grade and less faces to know, professors at smaller schools are able to return grades sooner, and are in a better position to tailor classes to the individual academic needs of the students. In addition, at smaller schools, professors are less likely to also be involved in graduate-level work, and can focus more on the undergraduates.
*Closer, more efficient school administration – The benefits of a lesser-populated institution extend to the administrative. While in any school you’ll have to deal with paperwork for everything from financial aid to course registration to permission to graduate, in smaller schools there’ll generally be a thinner bureaucratic machine that’s processing your information. Even though a lot of this information is processed online these days, when it comes to interacting with people there’ll be a fewer mistakes, and quicker action and response time. If you need to call an academic office, or meet with a counselor, the odds are in your favor that you won’t be kept waiting for as long, if at all.
In addition, because there are less students and a generally smaller campus, a school administration can make a more concentrated effort to help undergraduates become accustomed to college life, as well as sponsoring more campus-wide events that engage the students. In Binghamton they would have a few large events a year with relatively minimal independent student involvement. There might be a concert, and the school would try to get a big-name band to perform. But with such a large number of students, it’s impossible to engage them all, let alone please them all. In a smaller school, the administration can take a more involved approach, and sponser events that have a more direct independent student flair.
*A tighter-knit community – This one is exclusively a matter of preference. While some people love being part of a crowd and having the opportunity to literally meet a new person every day (and still have extras!), for others, it has too much of a ‘faceless’ feel. Smaller campuses with less students have a more relaxed feel, and in addition to appearing less cramped, fewer students typically means there’s ‘more campus’ for less people – meaning the school may put more effort into beautification projects, and when walking around with your friends, you can get the sense that you’re at a temporary home, rather than an academic waystation on the road to the real world.
*Greater extracurricular involvement – While there will inevitably be a smaller and less diverse number of them, the respective sports teams and clubs will likely have less people on them as well, which equates to more playing time and direct involvement for each individual member. Even if you are a ‘less integral’ member of the club, you’d still be able to have more of a hand in collective efforts than if you shared the responsibility with the amount of people the analogous club would have at a larger school. In addition, there is usually less competition for school funding, and many such organizations or teams have access to top equipment and facilities that their larger-school counterparts may not.
In conclusion, there are benefits and detriments to large and small schools alike. There are many financial incentives to attend larger schools, especially state ones – aside from the cost-effective price of tuition, you are generally eligible to receive a broader array of scholarships and can get offered different types of financial aid. However, if you can afford a smaller, private school, you could find an education that’s more specific to your needs, a welcoming community atmosphere, and a generally more accommodating school experience. While most schools of any size don’t lack any of these attributes, they all have them in varying degrees, and when choosing a school it’s important to know which factors have the most priority in relation to your preferences. I’d recommend to visit as many schools as you comfortably can, and to do a lot of research on the school size, campus, and student programs before deciding. Good luck, and happy hunting!