What are the Differences Between Big and Small Colleges

August 29, 2016

For many students, this is the penultimate question when determining what college they want to attend: big or small? Each has its merits and the truth is neither is superior to the other; the reality is they cater to different types of students.

Are you self-motivated and enjoy anonymity? Are you curious and interested in a community?What are the Differences Between Big and Small Colleges

These are two of the core questions to ask, but even if you don’t know the answer, hopefully the following differences will help you figure it out. Here’s a comprehensive list of the differences between big and small colleges.

Class Size: Big or Small?

If you’ve just graduated high school, then this may be hard to visualize, but the class sizes at big colleges are enormous. Can you imagine being in a classroom with 200 other students? How about 300 or 400 where students are standing in the back row (waiting for people to drop out)? This is common and especially with your mandatory general education courses.

Some students enjoy this feature of big colleges because they feel like they can blend in. They won’t be called to answer a question unless they decide to. There are many opportunities to meet new people and you don’t feel like you’re being watched every time you send a text to one of your friends during the lecture. That said, unless you make a concentrated effort to formally introduce yourself to your professor and make repeat visits to their office hours, you cannot expect to build a mentor/student relationship naturally. Smaller classes are essentially the opposite of this.

In smaller classes, you will get to know everyone, even the professor, and you are no exception. Your presence will be felt and have an impact on the class. If you’re the one always asking the questions on everyone’s mind and you’re out sick, then it will change the tone of the class that day. Similarly, if you prefer anonymity, but the person who always asks questions is absent, then that role might fall onto you.

Professors: Esteemed or Mentors?

Typically, larger colleges have famous or esteemed professors at their school. These can be people who are experts in their field and teach as a “side-gig” while they work full-time on their own or with a research grants from the university. For many students, this can be appealing since you’re not simply reading about contemporaries in your field of study, but you’re listening to your contemporaries talking about their books; their research.

That said, there is a caveat that comes with this. Not all classes “by the professor” are necessarily taught by the professor. Oftentimes, the professor’s assistant is the one teaching the course, but the professor is available during office hours.

With smaller colleges, it’s less likely that you’ll meet a famous professor in your field (less likely, not impossible), but they are usually full-time professors. This means you can reach out to them, talk with them, get coffee and really delve into the subject matter and/or develop a mentor/student relationship.

(Also, especially with this difference, remember that this doesn’t apply to all colleges. Some small colleges have famous professors, but some of the best small colleges might have no one you’ve ever heard of. It’s simply more likely that at a large university, you will have someone of renown.)

Sports: Priority or Secondary?

Almost all schools have sports teams, but at the bigger universities, you’re guaranteed to have large sporting events celebrating your home team. These are huge gatherings that you can enjoy with friends or experience a new community.

Small colleges foster sporting programs and athletes as well, but there’s usually a focus on a few select sports rather than the whole gamut. So if you’re erring on the side of small colleges, you should definitely do some research beforehand to ensure that the one you select has the sports program you’re interested in.

Majors: Variety or Select?

Another big difference between large and small colleges is the options for majors. Larger colleges tend to have an endless swathe of choices. This caters to people who are interested in double-majoring, majoring in something a bit more esoteric, or don’t know what they want. If you go into a four-year college undecided, then a large university will give you a taste of the myriad choices.

A smaller college is more focused. They may not offer as many majors, but they do offer very customized plans. Many small colleges are flexible and if your passion appears to be a hybrid of sorts, you may be able to create an entire program for yourself.


The last difference we’ll address is community because for many people, this is why they attend a small college over a larger college. If you’re not very outgoing, you can go through your entire four-years at a larger college without getting to know anyone. There are thousands of students and you can slide through the cracks wholly anonymous. At small colleges however, you will know everyone, it’s a consequence of being at the same school. You don’t need to have a class together to get to know someone. You meet everyone by proxy or through some intermediary. You establish a genuine community with your peers. If this is important to you, then you may want to consider a smaller Christian college.

Ultimately, the choice is yours, but as you may have already pieced together, each college appeals to a certain type of person. If you’re self-disciplined, outgoing, but unsure of who you are (or want to be), then a bigger college will appeal to you. You can be the anonymous observer, get the work done, experience some events and become who you want to be.

If you’re curious and need to dig deeper into subject matters, and want some guidance, then a smaller college would be perfect for you. The community gives you the opportunity to enhance yourself, but the mentor relationship fosters growth. It’s your choice, so take some time to delve deeper into what you want and then decide what’s right for you.