Picking a College Size: Debunking Some Myths About Small Colleges

Of the many factors students can weigh when selecting a college, one of the more critical but frequently overlooked is the institution’s size. By debunking some of the myths I hear about small colleges, I am presenting a few thoughts on their valuable brand of education.

Of course, there are some points I need to make up front:

1. I am biased because I attended a small college (about 2000 students total)

2. Size is just one parameter that defines an institution’s culture.

3. Schools aren’t just “big” or “small” even though I am using that kind of categorization for explanation. There are college and universities everywhere along the size continuum, so the comments below should be construed relatively.

4. If you are committed and you work hard, you’ll have a formative, meaningful experience at almost any school, big or small. If you slack off, remain uninvested, and ignore opportunities, you are deflating the value of higher education, regardless of your school’s size.

5. Some programs are very specialized and many not be available at certain types of schools. If you are pursuing a careerist track through college instead of a more liberal education, you may need to let your major drive where you go.

Now, to debunk some of the myths about small colleges:

Picking a College Size – MYTH #1: “I won’t have enough alumni connections if I attend a small college.”

While there are fewer total alumni from a small college, they tend to stick more closely together. The reason for this is that students at small colleges typically have more shared experiences across generations, social orientations, and academic fields. Schools like Oberlin, Macalester, Bucknell, Bates, and Lafayette – just to name a few – become a central, lasting part of their students’ personal identities. [If you doubt this, look at the difference in alumni giving rates between small colleges and large universities.] So when alumni who don’t already know each other begin networking, small school alums typically have a more instant connection! Remember that quality is always more important than quantity.

Picking a College Size – MYTH #2: “Small schools are less efficient. Big schools make all the logistics of college easier.”

Even though a lot of big schools put their resources behind “customer service” and sleek branding in an effort to convince you that you’re not just a number, few huge universities make good on their promise to provide personal attention. Administrators at smaller colleges are, on average, more accessible than their big school counterparts. It’s not that they necessarily care more; it’s that they are in a better position to help. Put another way: there’s less red tape. If that’s not important to you now as a high school student, ask anyone who’s gone to college recently about the level of bureaucracy in higher education.

Picking a College Size – MYTH #3: “Everyone knows your business at a small college, so social life is dull.”

One criticism of small colleges is that “everyone knows everyone.” But really, it’s more like everyone *recognizes* everyone, and that difference should not be glossed over. Just because you see the same people doesn’t mean they necessarily know much about you. Also, a new crop of freshmen arrives every year, turning over a quarter of the student body and providing constant opportunities for new interaction.

Picking a College Size – MYTH #4: “I’ll have fewer opportunities at a small school.”

Remember what they say about big fish in smaller ponds? Sure, a 1500-person school may have fewer total opportunities, but there are also far fewer students to fill them, resulting in a VERY favorable ratio for students who want to serve as research assistants or pursue any other leadership roles. My experience at a small college was filled with so many academic and social possibilities that I had to start turning things down. Research shows that students at small (particularly residential) colleges are more involved on campus and more engaged intellectually than their big-school peers.

Picking a College Size – MYTH #5: “Sports suck at small colleges.”

It’s true that athletic programs are, with some notable exceptions, less nationally competitive at small colleges. That said, there exist many rivalries, unique traditions, and a sense of accessibility with sports programs at small school. Attending athletic events is quite fun when you actually know the people on the team.


Picking a College Size: MYTH #6: “A small college will limit my learning.”

Limit your learning? No way.


One criticism of small colleges is that they offer fewer course options within each major. But the truth is that, in four years at a school of any size, it’s unlikely that you could ever take all the courses that pique your interest – unless you are remarkably anti-intellectual ansd thus not a good candidate for college anyway. Also, faculty at smaller colleges cater more to independent study, so the lack of a class on, say, “Economics of Central Asia,” is not a bar to studying that topic for credit.

Furthermore, at smaller schools, class sizes tend to be ideal at *both* introductory and advanced levels. My largest class topped out around 50 people, and that was ONE course. I frequently had courses with only five or six fellow students, and I’d say that 10-20 was average. Higher education is about far more than just acquiring information and repeating it on multiple choice tests. Even Psych 101, Intro to Art History, and Basic Geology courses – freshman-level classes that some people write off in 500-seat lcture halls – become more meaningful learning experiences when class sizes are smaller.

Why? You have better access to faculty because they have fewer students to handle. You have the opportunity to ask more questions. You have the chance to improve your speaking skills. You’re poised to get more extensive feedback on exams and papers. The exams and papers themselves will probably be more thorough. Interdisciplinary cooperation is easier, and faculty work to help you see connections across bodies of knowledge. Yes, you may have to work harder if you have smaller classesâÂ?¦but that’s the whole point!

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