What Size College is Right for You?

Large Universities vs. SLACs

With over 4,000 colleges and universities to choose from in the U.S., one way to focus your search is to consider what size campus is a good fit with your college and career plans and your personality. It is important to understand what the differences will mean to your college experience. A large research-forward university, which is referred to as an R1 (Research 1) in the Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education, can be a happy place for some and overwhelming for others. Some schools that fall into this category are University of California, Los Angeles (total enrollment 45,925), University of Georgia (total enrollment 39,147), and Johns Hopkins University (total enrollment 27,092).

The pros of a large campus are that there are many, many opportunities. If you are unsure of your major, you can (except for certain majors that require you declare as a freshman), take your core classes your freshman year and explore different areas through your elective courses. There are hundreds of majors to choose from at a large university with a strong offering of classes across many fields. These universities have many opportunities for learning outside the classroom as well. They have hefty budgets for bringing in engaging speakers – you might hear an award-winning author one night and an important political player the next. If you are a sports fan, large universities have plenty to make you happy. Football is king on most large campuses in the fall and social life revolves around it. If you are interested in the Greek system, large campuses have plenty of chapters of fraternities and sororities. There are also a plethora of clubs and activities outside of the Greek system to be involved.

Large campuses do have some drawbacks. First, classes tend to be large. In your freshman year, except for possibly your English class, you will likely be in large lecture halls of 50+ students. These will be in the “sage on the stage” format with little to no class discussion. The professors at R1s are hired based on their research, publications, and reputations; their teaching skills are not part of the hiring equation. It will be difficult to foster relationships with your professors. In fact, most will not know your name.

Since these schools have large graduate programs, many of the freshman and sophomore classes are taught by graduate teaching instructors. While a fair number of these instructors tend to enjoy teaching and are typically approachable, they are young and inexperienced in working with students, and they do not have the credentials to be strong recommenders in the future for graduate school or professional programs.

Beyond the graduate instructors, large universities increasingly rely on adjunct instructors to teach most introductory courses and some upper-level courses. This can be even worse from a long-term standpoint for undergrads in these classes, because an adjunct instructor – regardless of their credentials – will not be a strong recommender if grad school is in your future (in fact, they may be MIA by the time you need a recommendation). Typically, these instructors are teaching at more than one campus to make ends meet because they are grossly underpaid, and they receive no benefits from the universities where they teach. If you are looking for professors to work closely with you and to become mentors, that is not likely to happen at a large university. Additionally, if you do not want to be in the Greek system, it can be hard to find your “group.” Since everything is so big, it is sometimes easy to feel lost or lonely on a large campus for students who are shy about getting involved.

Small liberal arts college – SLACs – (pronounced slacks in higher ed circles) also have many pros and cons depending what you are looking for in your college experience. SLACs include schools such as Colorado College (total enrollment 2,024), Davidson College (total enrollment 1,983), and Skidmore College (total enrollment 2,500).

On the plus side, classes are small, they foster lively class discussions, and full-time faculty are typically at the podium even in the freshman-year, core courses. These are teaching forward colleges. When faculty apply for jobs at these locations, they submit teaching statements and often lead a class during the interview process. Because classes are small, professors really get to know their students and become mentors to students early in their college experience. If grad school is in your future, you will have strong recommenders in these professors. Many times, professors extend their research projects to their students allowing students to get important research experience and even conferencing and publication experience. Students at these campuses tend to be friendly and collaborative, and there is a strong sense of community.

On the negative side, at a SLAC you can be very limited in the course offerings. For instance, if one of your goals is to learn Italian in college, it is very possible that a SLAC may not offer courses in Italian. You will want to look carefully at course offerings to ensure the types of classes you want to take are offered. Additionally, majors are limited, and, in some majors, you may have the same instructor multiple times (which can be good and bad). While some SLACs have some varsity sports, it is typically not the focal point of campus life the way that football is to an SEC conference school. So, if football Saturdays are important to you, the sports culture may be lacking. However, most SLACs have club sports and intramural sports for those who like to participate.

Likewise, not all SLACs have a Greek system, so if that is essential to your college experience, you would have to pick and choose to find campuses that have fraternities and sororities. While SLACs typically host some speaker series and other activities for learning outside the classroom, these types of lectures and talks are not as frequent as opportunities at a larger school. For some, a small campus can be boring and too quiet.

The best way to decide what campus is right for you is to do your research. Talk to friends who attend large schools and small schools and ask what they like and don’t like about their campuses. Research campuses of interest to you to see if they offer courses and activities that align with your goals. Visit different sized schools and talk to students and staff. If you would like to learn more about my expert guidance to help you sort out the perfect fit schools for you, contact me at [email protected].

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