Whether you thrive in a crowd or enjoy being one of a few, the number of students on campus can definitely affect your college experience. Read on to get help choosing the student body size that is optimal for you!
How Large is "Small" and How Small is "Large"?
Colleges considered "small" have fewer than 5,000 students. These are typically private colleges like Hobart, Colgate, Grinnell, and Reed. It is entirely possible to find small public colleges, however, such as Evergreen State College (Washington) and Delaware State University.
Many public and private colleges fall into the "medium-size" category, between 5,000 to 15,000 students. Yale, Brown, Howard, Duke, University of Arkansas (Fayetteville), University of Montana (Missoula), and Binghamton University (State University of New York) are all medium-sized.
"Large" usually means more than 15,000 students. Many of the most well-known institutions fall into this category: University of Southern California, New York University, and University of Pennsylvania on the private side; UCLA, Michigan State, and University of Texas at Austin on the public side. A label of "huge" would be more accurate for those public universities that have more than 30,000 students.
Big Fish or Big Pond?
Deciding between a large college and a small college often comes down to the social environment you prefer. If the qualities of the colleges you are comparing are similar, knowing whether you would feel more comfortable as a small fish in a big pond or a big fish in a small pond can help you make a decision.
Small schools can easily set the stage for camaraderie and team spirit. You can get to know just about everybody in a small school, and see familiar faces whether you are in the library, the cafeteria, the quad, or in class.
Large colleges may seem more impersonal on the surface, but most offer many opportunities to become part of a smaller community of students with common interests. It may take more effort on your part to make these connections. But after a while, you may need a bit of self-control to say "no" to all the socializing that tempts you away from your studies.
Does "Small" Mean Small Classes?
Small colleges are certainly more likely to offer classes with fewer students, enabling professors to give students more individual attention. In large colleges the initial classroom experience may be a shock—the class "room" may really be an auditorium filled with hundreds of students. But most large lecture courses include at least one small study group meeting each week. And the lecturers may be exciting professors who are very popular. In a small class, your experience might not be as wonderful as you had assumed if students do not contribute meaningfully to discussions or the professor is uninspiring.
In any event, classroom populations normally thin out as you take more advanced classes and focus on requirements for your major. No matter where you attend, by the time you are a junior or senior, many of your classes may have 25 students or fewer.
Are Large Schools More Popular?
In actuality, size has little to do with demand. In most cases, small private colleges keep the number of students low for academic, social, and financial reasons. A public university may be large because it serves a densely populated area or maintains extensive graduate and research programs that have little to do with undergraduate studies. In fact, the size of the undergraduate population may be much smaller than your initial impression.
What's Important to You?
Other college qualities may be more important to you than student body size. If that's the case, you might put both small and large colleges on your application list. But if the number of students on campus significantly affects your comfort level, put it among your top college requirements.
To find out the undergraduate student body size at any college, look up its College Profile. To find out how other students compared small and large colleges and determined their most important college factors, read the student profiles in College Buzz.