Size is a really important factor to take into consideration when deciding where to apply to college. Both large and small colleges have their advantages, but it all really depends on what type of school will provide the best learning experience for you on a personal level. In this article, I’ll give you details about the types of experiences you can expect from small colleges and whether you should consider putting them first in your college search.
What Is a Small College?
A small college is typically defined as a college with a student enrollment of less than 5,000. Small colleges are characterized by more individual attention from professors and advisors, smaller class sizes, and a greater sense of community amongst students. However, they may also have fewer resources than large colleges and a less diverse social scene.
Examples of small colleges include:
- Classes are usually taught by professors, not TAs, and you’ll get more of a hands-on learning experience.
- Many small colleges have great advising systems where students know their advisors well and have access to a lot of strong academic guidance.
- Classes are usually smaller even at the introductory level. Though some large colleges may cite similar student-teacher ratios to small colleges, this can be deceptive since they may be including TAs in their statistics or not factoring in the large introductory classes.
- You’ll run into people you know wherever you go, so you’re less likely to feel lonely.
- Often small colleges will allow you to design your own major that isn’t specifically offered by the school or modify majors to fit your needs.
- There’s usually a close-knit community feel, almost like you’re a part of a big nerdy family.
- You may find that there are more leadership opportunities in a smaller community.
- Small colleges tend to have fewer research facilities and resources than large colleges. This mainly applies to the hard sciences where expensive, high-tech equipment is required for advanced research. In the humanities, the lack of cutting-edge facilities may not impact research as much. If you don't find the research materials you need in the library at a small college, many libraries are in partnership with a network of other college libraries that may have what you're looking for. It will just involve waiting a bit longer for things to be sent to you.
- The social scene can be less diverse and might feel claustrophobic.
- You won’t see big sporting events at the level of large colleges.
- There is usually less variety in housing choices. To give you sense of the contrast, NYU, a school with over 20,000 undergraduates, has 21 different residence halls that include old hotels and a converted monastery. This is a huge range of accommodations compared to the four residence halls you'll find at a place like Manhattanville College, which has less than 2,000 undergraduates.
- There may be fewer major choices (although you can usually design your own or modify your major without too much trouble).
- You might have less extracurricular opportunities, but you can always start your own club if you can’t find what you’re looking for!
Those were some abstract pluses and minuses of small colleges. Next, we’ll take a look at how real students at schools with enrollments of 5,000 or less actually feel about the small college environment.
Small Colleges: What Do Students Actually Think?
The Fiske Guide to Colleges is a guidebook that provides information about the best colleges in the country based on statistics and student testimony. I picked out a few small colleges from the book and looked at quotes from students that gave details about different characteristics of the schools that related to their size. Here’s how students feel about the benefits and drawbacks of small colleges, based on my brief sampling:
Manhattanville College - Purchase, NY
One student says, “I like how our president is involved in everything and gets to know everyone”. Students describe career services as “phenomenal”. They also say professors are “knowledgeable and passionate about their fields and about sharing that knowledge with students” and “it just feels like all the students belong to one big family”. However, size can be “an asset and an annoyance...the familial atmosphere can get claustrophobic at times”. Manhattanville allows students to design their own majors, and "those studying psychology, biology, or chemistry can conduct research with faculty."
Pomona College - Claremont, CA
Pomona “prides itself on its diverse community”, so you don’t necessarily need to go to a huge school to access diversity. However, during midterms and finals campus can be a “social ghost town”. The Summer Undergraduate Research Program gives funds to students to conduct summer research mentored by a faculty member. Research opportunities still abound at small colleges, especially if they are highly regarded. Professors often hold study sessions at their houses, and 73% of classes have less than 20 students. Only professors teach classes, so “students do not have to wait until they are upperclassmen to enjoy the benefits of working with and learning from brilliant professors”.
Pomona also has the advantage of being part of a 5 college system called the “Claremont Colleges”, whose collective enrollment exceeds 5,000 students. This means that there’s a small college atmosphere, but through interactions with the other schools in the system it can feel more like a medium-sized school depending on who you are.
Carleton College - Northfield, MN
Sixty-four percent of classes have less than 20 students. Students say, “Our profs are incredible. The instruction we receive is available not just in the classroom but during office hours, phone calls, Skype sessions, and many other modes of communication”. Students are “concerned about building a community feeling on campus” and “everyone is a bit nerdy and everyone is free to be whomever they want”.
Carleton's on-campus social life is vibrant, and "most students stay on campus over the weekends because there is always so much happening." Many small colleges do have quite a bit going on in their social scenes, just with less variation in location and in smaller groups than at large universities. Students say that Carleton's surrounding town of Northfield is "quaint, but there's not much to do".
Should YOU Go to a Small College?
After taking all this information into account, you may still not be entirely sure whether you should go to a small college. A small college might or might not work for your college goals and personality, or some small colleges might work and some might not. To decide whether a small college is best for you, you’ll need to do a bit of reflection about your ideal learning environment and social scene.
Do you thrive better in situations where you are given more academic guidance and direct access to teachers? Small colleges will offer you smaller class sizes on average and more opportunities to interact with professors on a personal level. You will also have access to advisors who will help you devise a plan for your academic career. Resources like these are helpful for students who are less sure of their path in college and may need extra guidance.
What are your academic goals? If you’re looking into doing some sort of research, you should check and make sure small colleges have the resources you’ll need. As mentioned above, sometimes small colleges are lacking in the same advanced research facilities you’ll find at large schools. However, they usually offer many opportunities to work closely with professors.
If you’re one for blazing your own trail major-wise, a small college may be a great option for you because you will most likely be able to design your own major rather than adhering to program constraints. There’s usually less bureaucratic red tape involved in switching majors and classes at small colleges than at large colleges because advisors and professors can afford to give more specialized attention to the needs of individual students. If everyone in the process knows you and you’re not just handing in paperwork to be processed, things don’t need to be as rigidly organized.
Do you prefer familiar situations and interactions over new, unfamiliar ones? The social transition from high school to college can be smoother if you attend a small college. Even if you just make a couple of friends initially, you’re likely to see them around frequently. You'll be able to make strong social connections with other students more easily since almost everyone has some activity, class, or living situation in common at a small college. If you’re more of an introverted type who’s not going to college for the big parties, then the small college social scene may appeal to you as well (not that small colleges don’t have parties, they’re just a little less on the crazy side than big colleges!).
Searching for Small Colleges
So you’ve decided you’re interested in small colleges - how do you find one that you’ll like? I would recommend using College Navigator initially because you can easily search for schools by size (choose a maximum enrollment of 5,000 if you’re looking for small schools) as well as other characteristics like surrounding area and admissions rate. Just click on “more search options” at the bottom of the search panel to get access to the undergraduate student enrollment search feature.
Your results will give you a list of schools you might be interested in, and f you click on any of them, you’ll get extensive data about all aspects of the school.
You can also add schools to your “favorites” and compare the statistics side by side to see if one fits better with your tuition or admissions requirements. After this initial search, you should try out some other college search sites to get more details about campus life and other factors that might affect your college experience.
I’d recommend signing up for a profile on Cappex. If you fill out information for all of your preferences, including student enrollment, it will find appropriate college matches for you. You can also search outright for any colleges that you found on College Navigator that looked interesting to you. You’ll find a lot more data on Cappex about life at the schools including student reviews and other information about the area and the social scene. Every school is different, so make sure size is just a starting point and not a deciding factor.
Small colleges are usually defined by a strong sense of community, individual academic attention, and flexible, hands-on learning experiences. Students at small colleges tend to take a lot of pride in their schools and cherish the comfortable, familiar atmosphere. You may consider attending a small college if strong relationships with your teachers and classmates are important to you and you feel you will benefit from more individually tailored academic guidance. If you prefer a more toned-down social scene and like being able to see the same small group of friends more frequently, the small college life will also probably appeal to you.
That being said, be sure to treat each college individually and not judge it just by its enrollment size. Small colleges might appeal to you in a general sense, but that doesn’t mean you can choose just any small college and be happy. Devote some time to figuring out your wants and needs in tandem with your research so you can find your ideal school.
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Samantha is a blog content writer for PrepScholar. Her goal is to help students adopt a less stressful view of standardized testing and other academic challenges through her articles. Samantha is also passionate about art and graduated with honors from Dartmouth College as a Studio Art major in 2014. In high school, she earned a 2400 on the SAT, 5's on all seven of her AP tests, and was named a National Merit Scholar.