My Pet Peeve: Picking Colleges By Size

Here’s one of my biggest pet peeves about how teenagers look for colleges:

When teenagers put together a list of potential colleges, a campus size requirement is often way up at the top of their criteria.

  • I want to go to a big school.
  • I don’t want to go to small school.
  • I’m interested in a medium-sized school.

Hardly anyone questions teenagers for focusing on size. In fact, many high school counselors tell kids to look at size when evaluating schools. The reason why I’m writing about this today is because a father emailed me last week and mentioned that his son only wants to go to a medium-sized school (5,000 to 10,000 students) on the East Coast.

Why, you might be wondering, does this size thing bug me? It’s because when kids evaluate colleges by size they are missing a much larger factor that should go into their college admission decisions. When teens and parents ask how big a school is, they rarely ask what is its educational mission.

In my mind, a school’s mission is far more important than its size. There is a link, however, between a school’s mission and size that is important to consider when evaluating schools.

Major Categories of Colleges and Universities

There are four main categories of four-year colleges and universities:

Research universities. If a kid is most interested in a big school, state flagship universities are an obvious choice.  Among the biggest in this category are Arizona State (68,064 students), Ohio State (55,014), University of Washington (45,943), Penn State (45,198) and University of Arizona (38,767).  Private research universities are typically smaller. Harvard, for instance, has 10,400 undergrad and graduate students.

Master’s degree universities. In this category you’ll find medium-sized state schools, as well as private universities. Examples of private master’s degree universities include Villanova University (PA), Santa Clara University (CA), Creighton University (NE), Emerson College (MA), The Citadel (SC) and Rollins College (FL). Plenty of state universities fall into this category, including College of New Jersey, Rowan University (NJ), James Madison University (VA) and SUNY-Geneseo (NY).

Liberal Arts Colleges. Most liberal arts colleges are private, but there are public liberal arts colleges too. When teens say they don’t want to go to a small school they are typically eliminating these from contention. Most private liberal arts colleges have less than 2,000 students. Private liberal arts colleges include Vassar College  (NY), Whitman College (WA), Washington and Lee (VA) and Kalamazoo College (MI). Public liberal arts colleges include Truman State (MO) University, New College of Florida, Evergreen State University (WA), Sonoma State University (my nephew attends), Cal Poly-San Luis Obispo and the University of North Carolina, Asheville.

Specialty colleges. These are typically as small as liberal arts colleges. They focus on one area of expertise such as business or art. Schools in this category include Curtis Institute of Music (PA), Rhode Island School of Design, Ringling College of Art and Design (FL), Babson College (MA) and Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology (IN).

If you look primarily at size when looking for schools, you face a high risk of eliminating some wonderful opportunities.

In my next post, I’m going to look at what the missions of these schools are. When you understand what they can offer, you might not be so quick to fixate on size.

Lynn O’Shaughnessy is the author of The College Solution, an Amazon bestseller, and she also write a college blog for CBSMoneyWatch. Follow her on Twitter.

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  1. I would agree that the size of a school is a secondary factor and is not a good starting point for high schoolers to start narrowing the search. However, size is rather deterministic in a way that clarifying what the student wants out of a college education and which schools fit in with those objectives. Within large universities there are often programs which provide an intimate learning environment. Some small schools (~2000) have an amazing number of degree programs for those who are not sure what they want to pursue.

  2. I can see where you’re coming from but I believe size can matter. First of all, there are the general stereotypes that seem to hold true (Larger Schools: more research experience, more of a Greek life atmosphere, higher probability of it having D I athletics etc. Smaller Schools: smaller classes, professors that actually know you and can therefore write good personalized letters of rec for you etc). Furthermore, as a person who grew up in a small town (<15,000 people), I probably wouldn't be comfortable at a place like Arizona State. Therefore, size can reflect 'fit.' And of course, it can simply help narrow down the options. I considered schools in New England, the mid-Atlantic, and some miscellaneous states such as Ohio with an intended major of Biology. Narrowing it down by a smaller size helped me. Sure, there may have been some large universities that would've been a 'fit' for me that this eliminated, but the possibility of smaller schools being a 'fit' for me were much higher.

  3. I understand the importance of looking at the bigger picture, but doesn’t size ultimately effect classroom size in most cases? i.e.: in general smaller schools have smaller class sizes. So the question I have as a parent is how to evaluate which mid to large size schools operate like a “small” school in terms of class size and personal attention?