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College Sizes: Small, Medium, or Large

college campus at sunset

The size of a campus can definitely affect your college experience. A huge university can feel overwhelming—or exciting. A small college can feel friendly—or isolated.

Explore what feels comfortable. You might feel great cheering the team on with thousands of fans at a big university, or feel right at home chatting with a few friends over coffee on a small campus.

Colleges Considered Small, Medium, or Large

  • Colleges considered "small" have fewer than 5,000 students. These are typically private colleges like Hobart, Colgate, Grinnell, and Reed. Yet, it is entirely possible to find small public colleges, such as SUNY Geneseo and Delaware State University.
  • Many colleges fall into the "medium" category, between 5,000 to 15,000 students. Yale, Brown, Howard, Duke, University of Arkansas, University of Montana, and Binghamton University are all medium-sized.
  • "Large" usually means more than 15,000 students. University of Southern California, New York University, and University of Pennsylvania qualify as large 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.

The Social Side of College Size

Deciding between a large college and a small college often comes down to the social environment you prefer. Knowing whether you 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.

  • Smaller 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.
  • Larger colleges may seem impersonal on the surface, but most offer many opportunities to become part of a smaller community of students with common interests. You may need a bit of self-control to say "no" to all the socializing that tempts you away from your studies.

Small Colleges Don't Have a Monopoly on Small Classes

Small colleges are more likely to offer classes with fewer students, enabling professors to give students more individual attention. At larger colleges, classes may be more lecture-oriented. But many such classes are supported by lively discussion sessions. Also, university honors programs can provide a small-class environment.

Large Campuses Don't Equal High Demand

Size has little to do with demand. A public university may be large because it serves a densely populated area or maintains extensive graduate and research programs. In fact, the size of the undergraduate population may be much smaller than your initial impression.

"Medium" Doesn't Mean Just Right

Many students find that medium-sized colleges have it all. Small enough to easily find friends and participate in social activities, and big enough to offer the academic options they seek. But they do vary widely in other ways. They may not be as intimate as you would like, or as diverse as you would like. So be sure to visit several before making up your mind.

What If Size Is Not a Big Deal to You? What If It Is?

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. And then be sure to validate your impressions. You might become more comfortable with larger or smaller campus sizes as you visit more colleges.

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