When considering colleges, a multitude of factors are involved. While some colleges are difficult to distinguish between, there are several ways to categorize colleges in order to form clearer pictures of how one differs from another. One such distinction, perhaps the greatest, is whether a college is an "undergraduate specialist," or whether it offers graduate degrees as well. (An undergraduate school might offer Masters degrees to qualified graduates; however, these are awarded to students who have studied at that school, not to those who have earned Bachelor degrees from other schools.)
The advantages of large universities are many. Every state offers at least one public university. Such schools, inexpensive to the in-state students, are relatively close to home. Large public schools also offer academic diversity, granting Masters and Doctorate degrees. Large public universities are located in urban environments, often major cities. Subsidized by state and federal governments, these schools are able to afford state-of-the-art equipment and obtain special grants and monies. They boast high percentages of professors with doctorate degrees and attract well-known speakers, often holding key debates, lectures and seminars.
Student bodies at universities are incredibly diverse, representing many states and foreign countries. Athletics, publications, clubs, organizations, frats, sororities, radio stations, volunteer groups, ethnic, religious, and cultural societies all form a part of campus life. A student at a large, urban university might easily spend four years on campus without getting bored, while wishing for more time to become involved in even more student activities.
Many state universities also specialize and boast in-depth centers of learning in a number of fields. In some cases, students who desire to take advantage of the low cost of in-state public universities find that the schools don't offer the programs they seek. Then interstate programs come into play through which a student in one state can study at a public school in another state at no additional cost. Often, interstate programs form between specific groups. The New England Regional Student Program, which publishes the annual "Apple Book," is one example, existing between all six New England states.
There are, however, drawbacks to undergraduate life at metropolitan centers of learning. As a single freshman among one, two, even five thousand others, a student can easily become lost in the crowd. With so many activities and other ways to spend time (and no one to remind a student to focus on classes), trouble can easily "brew up." Academics at the freshman level include large lecture halls and low-grading teacher assistants. Professors are under the "publish or perish" leash. A freshman is competing for a professor's office time against other freshmen, upperclassmen, graduate students seeking favors, recommendations, and jobs, teacher assistants, and the next deadline for submissions to the "Miskatonic Journal of Incomprehensible Science."
Undergraduate-only colleges offer an entirely different environment and learning style. Small, the average student body size is sometimes a fraction of a larger school's freshman class. Classes are therefore much smaller. The "publish or perish" syndrome is non-existent. Though professors will get published, they are not under pressure. Professors, most of whom possess doctorates, teach classes. Their office time is chiefly devoted to their students, with whom they are willing to work on long-range projects and develop close friendships.
A number of advantages are unique to small student bodies. Everyone becomes familiar with everyone else on campus. Students studying in similar areas, small dorms of only twenty or thirty, small cafeterias - all these factors lead up to the formation of lasting friendships. Few students plan to stay on as graduate students or professor assistants, an atmosphere of mutual assistance, friendship, and understanding replaces the sense of competition found on university campuses.
While some small schools boast endowments, equipment, and facilities of no less quality and quantity than the best of the large schools, many don't have the means to directly offer students everything available on university campuses. Instead, small schools form consortiums and programs of great depth. Geographically, small schools are often clustered together around big cities and take full advantage of each other. Students are allowed to choose classes from surrounding schools. They also make effective use of the libraries and technological equipment of surrounding public and private institutions.
For example, "A bus service links Amherst College to the University of Massachusetts, Hampshire College, Smith College and Mount Holyoke College in what has become a five-school consortium..." (U.S. News 1991 College Guide). By offering the personal touch of a close-knit environment, classes available at five or six colleges, and then combining that with the state-of-the-art facilities, equipment and libraries of large universities as well, small colleges truly become ideal centers of learning for undergraduate study.
Campus life and activities are not as self-contained as those of larger schools. College clusters and close proximities to major cities make up for this lack, though. For example, the college cluster around Philadelphia includes Swarthmore, Drexel University, St. Joseph's College, Widener University, Haverford, U. of Pennsylvania, Temple, Rosemont College, Bryn Mawr, and Villanova (to name a few). They are all within fifteen miles of each other. The area is saturated with college students, to say the least. Small student bodies have a strong positive effect on student activities as well as a strong drawback: a school isn't going to offer multitudes of activities. For instance, instead of three fiction publications (one for fantasy, one for science fiction and one for poetry), there might only be one. The good point is a talented freshman journalist isn't going to have to compete against graduate students for a position or single by-line. He's not going to have to compete against as many upper classmen as he would in a large institution, either. Clubs, organizations and groups will be smaller, forming tighter friendships and stronger loyalties, as well.
Both types of schools have their strong and weak points. Public institutions are the best buys. Small schools have the most academic advantages. Large schools offer more of everything, while small ones will cater to students on a more personal level. Some large universities offer "honors" programs that imitate the atmosphere and academics of small schools, but these are only open to a minority of students who have achieved the high requirements set by the program for admission. In deciding upon how and where to spend four years, the size of a school is a definite factor. n
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.