Small School, Big Difference: Does Size Really Matter?

Image by aherrero, Flickr

Image by aherrero, Flickr

In the big apple, New York University enrolls more than 50,000 students. The University of Toronto has more than 50,000 students at its St. George campus alone, and more than 300,000 students attend the University of Phoenix. Carleton College, a small liberal arts university in the town of Northfield, Minnesota, enrolls just over 2,000 students – a big step back from Phoenix’s 300,000. North American universities have a broad range of size.

How does size affect the average student experience? Many urban universities are large and can seem intimidating. Smaller universities in rural areas can seem friendlier, but may not present as great a challenge. Here are some positive points defending both proportions:

Pros of a large university:

1. Anonymity

You may not know anyone in your classes, but that means you can focus on yourself and your own learning pace without distraction.

Large universities offer bigger student populations and a wide variety of people from around the globe. If your new friends turn out to be jerks, you can disappear into the crowd. Instead of being stuck with one group of people that you may not get along with, you can eventually find the right group of friends through trial and error.

2. Interesting Campus

A large campus allows you to carve out your own niche. You can mix it up and keep your favourite spaces and commute interesting. Instead of having only a handful of options for study spots, you can find your favourite pockets within a larger campus.

3. Programs and Classes

Although online academia is growing in popularity and accessibility, larger universities can offer a more extensive variety of programs and/or specializations. Not all universities offer Celtic Studies, The History of Maple Syrup, or Elvish 101 (and yes, some do).

Larger universities need more professors to service their student population. Each professor is a unique link to their respective academic field. More professors means a broader range of opportunities and experiences you can tap into.

4. Extra-curricular Opportunities

At a small university, you might be the only Doctor Who fan. At a large university, there could already be a Doctor Who fan club that meets every week. A small university might have only one or two student publications, but a large university can have dozens of official and unofficial student publications. You can comfortably stretch out your interests and share them with your peers.

Pros of a small university:

1. Social Security

In your dorm, your classes, walking down the street, you feel at home. You will rarely feel alone or abandoned amongst the masses because you will always have someone to hang out with since there’s probably only a handful of people in the same classes. You might even know all the undergraduates in your residence, or those in your program.

2. Familiarity

Figuring out the campus takes less than a week. And by the end of first semester, you know the surrounding town inside out, including all the best places for takeout. If you’ve fully explored your campus environment, you may be more encouraged to go on international exchange.

3. Access to Resources

As one in a small body of students, you will get priority and easy access to all of the university’s resources. This includes one-on-one time with professors who might not have time for you in larger classes. If your grades slip, your professors or TAs might check in or take you aside. At a larger university, you might just get an impersonal warning from the Dean’s office. Getting references for graduate school will be a lot easier than at a large school, where you might not have as much face time.

4. Trailblazing Opportunities

No Doctor Who fan club? Make one, be a trailblazer. The same goes for student publications – no student historical journal or poetry magazine on campus? Found one, and it will look great on your resumé.

In conclusion, while there are definitive pros and cons to both large and small universities, all of the above observations are generalizations. Your happiness depends on your own personality and academic preferences. Have faith in your ability to find happiness in an overwhelmingly large university, and your creativity in a small one.

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