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Big school or small school?

There are many decisions that go into choosing a college, but institutional size is (no pun intended) one of the bigger ones. Is a small college or a larger research university best for your student? There are a number of differences between these two types of institutions, and it’s important for your student to find the right fit. So what are the main differences between the two?


The most obvious difference between large and small schools is, obviously, size. Small colleges are generally classified as having less than 5,000 students whereas larger schools generally have more than 15,000. Most larger institutions also tend to be publicly-funded state schools, while many (though not all) small schools are private.


State schools are publicly-funded, which means that tuition levels are often kept relatively low for residents of that state. Smaller, private institutions often have a higher sticker-price, but may also offer more scholarships to students, sometimes resulting in a comparable net cost. 

Private institutions also do not charge higher tuition amounts for out-of-state students (unlike most public universities). 


Big schools naturally tend to offer a higher number of majors, often numbering in the hundreds, while small schools generally have around 30-50 majors. None of this matters of course if a particular school has the major that your student wants.

Learning environment

This is one of the key things to consider between the two. Does your student feel more comfortable blending into the crowd and quietly going about their business? If so, larger universities (where lectures might include several hundred students) may appeal. 

Or do they prefer to be in a smaller class environment where their professor knows them?  If so, a smaller school may appeal. For example, at Columbia College, we find that many students transfer to us after spending a year or so at a large public university, in search of a more personal learning environment.   

Another thing to bear in mind is that students may have less access to professors at larger institutions, where classes are often taught by graduate assistants. That said, the reduced teaching load allows the professors to work on research and advance their field.

Surrounding areas

Due to the sheer–size of many large state institutions (and the number of students and employees), busy college towns have often grown up around them, offering lots of social and leisure opportunities. With smaller schools, this might not always be the case.

That said, Columbia College shares the city of Columbia with the University of Missouri (a state school) and Stephen’s College (a private school), meaning  that our students get to experience everything that a big college town has to offer. So it doesn’t always follow that a small school is necessarily located in small towns or in more rural areas. Many are located in busy cities.     


The choice really comes down to where your student feels most comfortable. There is no one-size-fits-all answer, and your decision will really depend on a range of factors and your student’s preferences.

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