A Big or Small School? How to Find the Right Fit

To go big or go small? When it comes to picking a college, that is an essential question.

Each year in the US approximately 1.5 million seniors start the admissions process by thinking about that issue. It deserves their attention, as key differences exist between a big university and a small college.

For starters, there is cost. Most large schools are state-run and cheaper than small colleges, even for out-of-staters. Compare the University of Illinois and Colorado College in Colorado Springs. The gap in tuition is a hefty $17,000 for in-state residents and $9,000 for out-of-state students.

Then there is the professor-to-student ratio. It tends to be lower at small schools and usually fewer graduate students teach classes. But defenders of large schools say that grad students teaching isn't necessarily bad. Some students found teaching assistants more helpful than professors.

Atmosphere is another issue. Students at small schools say they like the more nurturing, supportive environment and intimate classes. "I like the dynamics at a small school," says Semra Koymen, a junior at Kalamazoo College in Michigan. "You walk down the road and people say 'hi' and all the professors give you their home numbers and stay late if you need them."

Ms. Koymen and other fans of small schools say, though, that they sometimes wish for a place where it was easier to hide. At times they long to get lost in a crowd or want to switch friends, but can't because someone is always keeping track of them.

Students at larger schools boast of their exposure to a broad range of people, academic and social options, and dismiss critics who bemoan the anonymity of large schools. They say sports, the student newspaper, and the Greek system are good ways to break a large school down. When pressed, though, they say that going to a large school can be tough. "At a big public school, you're pretty much on your own," says Kevin Cohen, a senior at the University of California at Berkeley. "I think it's pretty good though because it's more like the real world."

Despite the downsides to both size schools, most students are sold on one or the other. But they stress that the school must match the personality. They remind seniors of a simple truism: Know thyself.

"Some youngsters do very well in a large setting because they are self-starters and self-motivators," says Martin Falkoff, an assistant principal at Forest Hills High School in New York. "For others that might need more individualized attention, a small school might be just right. The same schools are not for everybody."

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