(Photos by Keble College and Baseball Digest)

“College” connotes gathering and sharing. Where can you get exactly the amount and kind you want?

By Paul Culp, MA (Oxon.), CFT, GCDF, CCSP

“Tuition” is a word that can cause some confusion in international contexts. Strictly speaking, it means “teaching,” but among Americans it has come to mean the money we pay for classes. It’s what our friends in the United Kingdom call “tuition fees,” while we pay “tuition and fees” and they are not the same thing.

“College” is another such word. In the Middle Ages, a college was a residence where university students gathered to live collegially. Teachers began living in those establishments as well and doing some of their teaching there, but the college continued to be a residential entity associated with a university. In the case of Oxford and Cambridge, the university evolved into a confederation of legally autonomous colleges and “halls.” (Oxford has 38 colleges and six halls, and we won’t bother explaining the difference between colleges and halls, especially since one so-called college is actually a hall, and one of the halls is a “house.”) Students live in the colleges (and halls) and receive some of their tuition there–with one exception:

When I was “up” at Oxford, which is to say “at university” as opposed to being “in college,” though of course I generally was, the largest of the colleges and halls had about 700 students and the second-smallest had nine–but my favorite, from a purely statistical standpoint, was the smallest, All Souls, which has no students. Zero. Only research fellows. And of course some of the fellows are women. Some fellows may even be ladies or dames; I haven’t checked recently to see who inherited what title or received which honor from the queen.

college size

All Souls, no students. Photo by All Souls, Oxford

A few American institutions have retained the old usage: At the University of Notre Dame, for instance, the oldest dormitory, Sorin Hall, is sometimes still referred to as Sorin College, and it hasn’t been long since the president of the university lived there with the students. Outside the United States, “college” may even be used in the name of a high school. The word has to do with gathering and with sharing, with being colleagues.

college size

Photo by Sorin College

We are actually going somewhere with this. Collegiality can be an important factor in your choice of a college (we’re employing American usage now). How many people do you want to have around you, and what kind of people and interactions are important to you? These questions, as well as questions about physical layout and location, are important in deciding what size college is right for you.

As Collegedata puts it, “The size of a campus can definitely affect your college experience. A huge university can feel overwhelming—or exciting. A small college can feel friendly—or isolated.” We assume that by “the size of a campus,” they are also taking into account the size of the student body. A small college may be situated on a large rural campus, and a large university may be relatively compact, especially if located in an urban area.

As for collegiality, I have heard horror stories from people who attended small colleges where they underwent the most excruciating alienation of their lives, socializing little and making few if any friends, while from other people I have heard glowing accounts of their study groups and social connections at universities with tens of thousands of students. My dad was associated with a school that was noted for its warmth and friendliness—even though its size prompted the yearbook staff to put a silhouette of a bicycle on the cover one year. Meanwhile another close relative was attending a small liberal arts school where it was pretty easy to get assaulted or murdered.

College size alone guarantees nothing. Nonetheless a few general observations are possible:

We should of course define our terms before proceeding. The consensus among people who write about such things is that a college with 5,000 or fewer students is small, with “large” beginning at 15,000. A few well-known examples of small schools would be Bennington (about 700 students), Hillsdale (1,500), Colgate (3,000), Bucknell (3,600), and Stetson (4,300). Medium-size schools would include Rice (7,000), Western Illinois (9,000), Villanova (11,000), and Tulane (14,000). Among large schools, there’s merely large—the University of Chicago (16,000), Harvard (22,000), Auburn (30,000)—and there’s gigantic, as in Washington (47,000) and Ohio State (60,000). Not all state schools are medium-sized or large—New Mexico Tech has about 2,000 students—and private schools are often on the large side, like BYU with 33,000 students.

The size of the institution can be of critical importance where academic opportunities are concerned. A smaller school might not offer as many majors as a big school does, but small schools may provide a more supportive and personal ambience in the teaching and counseling arenas. If the small school has a particular overall emphasis—STEM or business, for example—it might actually offer more opportunities for specialization in the choice of a major, if your major is related to that overall mission of the school. Another point to consider, wherever you go, is whether changing your major during college would necessitate transfer elsewhere, either because your college doesn’t offer that new major or because its program in that field is not of the quality you desire.

Class size is obviously an important consideration. Smaller schools usually have smaller classes, most of which are taught by fully-fledged members of the faculty. Larger schools often rely on lectures delivered to large audiences, especially in lower-level courses, but those large groups might be divided into smaller discussion-oriented cohorts some of the time. One of my undergraduate history courses was built around twice-weekly lectures by a full professor in an auditorium the size of a respectable cinema, but once a week his research assistants would work with us in groups of about thirty. If you can live with that sort of arrangement, the matter of class size might not be an issue for you.

And how much attention do you want, anyway? Some students like being in a place where the teacher notices and perhaps cares when they miss class. Others find this claustrophobic and too reminiscent of the high schools from which they have only recently escaped. Members of the latter group often choose large schools as places to attain anonymity except among the particular sort of people they wish to associate with.

Medium-size and large schools do offer that opportunity to “disappear.” They also may have bigger and better research facilities, something to consider if you want or need a research assistantship. Libraries may be better stocked. Sports programs are likely to be larger. But there’s nothing sporty about administrative red tape, and bigger schools tend to have red tape aplenty, with administrative staff bound by procedures designed to cover all eventualities among great masses of people, many of whom may in fact be trying to get away with something.

Those who want a more intimate atmosphere should realize that a small school doesn’t necessarily offer that if the activities and organizations available are not the right ones for them. Depending on their interests, they might be better off at a larger school with a wider range of people and experiences.

That said, if you’re the kind of person who likes to make things happen, the lack of a particular activity at a small school could provide you with the occasion to organize it yourself. On a related note, if student government is one of your interests, you might have a better chance to break out of the pack at a smaller school. Then again, if you have post-graduate political ambitions, student government experience at a larger school could generate a larger number of valuable contacts among not only peers but also influential alumni.

As we have pointed out in Ten Common Mistakes You Must Avoid in Applying for College (August 31, 2018), the matter of institutional culture is worthy of very serious attention. Admissions officers usually try to assemble a diverse incoming freshmen class, in terms of students’ interests and backgrounds, but whether they always achieve this is debatable, and how they define their terms can be crucial.

Schools that pride themselves on being avant-garde and boldly different often are places where everyone pretty much thinks alike about the big issues of the day and most of the small ones. This is the point my friend Vance was trying to make when he said, “Whenever you voice an unpopular opinion, always make sure you’re in the majority.” Yogi Berra, alas, is dead, but Vance lives on, last I heard.

The more obvious culture problem is when a school is completely up-front about its characteristics but applicants don’t pay attention. My undergraduate degree is from an institution that was affiliated with a particular religious denomination at the time, with nearly half of its students belonging to that denomination, and I was always surprised by how many people complained about weekly chapel and the disciplinary policies based on the teachings of that church. It wasn’t like they had been tricked.

The culture may be less of a factor at larger schools, where multiple cultures abound in the same place, as in a big city. I attended that church-affiliated school after transferring from a nearby state school that had black fraternities, white fraternities that chanted racist slogans in parades, a speakers’ bureau that invited Jerry Falwell to campus, and a 300-pound mustachioed male student who donned a dress and high heels and campaigned for homecoming queen. Truly there was something for everyone—except the major I decided to switch to as a sophomore.

Not that state schools are always dependably diverse. My friend Tom graduated from a large state university that prides itself on its diversity and where, according to him, there were a surprising number of people of a certain political persuasion. Not many, but enough for them to be a surprise. It tells us something about the actual diversity of the place that Tom was surprised.

In the last analysis, students shopping for colleges should pay attention to the general guidelines we have elucidated, then make their decisions on the basis of careful research into individual schools. Actually visiting a school, preferably when everything is in full swing, is always a good thing to do when you can. Most campuses are pleasant in the summer, as are what teachers and administrators are around at that time. Come fall, the place and the people may be very different.

We at The Coaching Educator are proud of the students who have gotten into and succeeded at the right college with our help, and we offer services ranging from preliminary research to the nitty-gritty of the application processes for admissions and financial aid. To learn more about our philosophy and capabilities, be sure to watch our free webinars, listen to our podcasts, sign up for our four-week College App Boot Camp, consider our Ultimate Programs and our special services for athletes and performing-arts students, and book a consultation to hear what we can do for you and how we do it. Keep reading this blog, and look for us on social media (see links below) as we keep our clients and admirers advised of new developments in our effort to help students get into and succeed at the right school.

Paul Culp is certified as a global career development facilitator and writes about college admissions, college costs, financial aid, and college life in general for The Coaching Educator team. A former journalist and corporate ghostwriter, he has also been a humanities teacher at all levels from university down to sixth grade. Paul has degrees from Oxford University, Jacksonville State University, and Samford University, and also is certified as a fitness trainer. When not involved with The Coaching Educator, he stays busy plying his trade as founder and president of Shenandoah Proofreading, Editing & Composition Services (SPECS).

Recommended Reading About College Admissions

Culp, Paul. “Five Favorite Unusual Colleges,” The Coaching Educator, 1 April 2019,  http://tce.local/2019/04/01/five-favorite-unusual-colleges/?fbclid=IwAR1cnOiP5rVLug_sQdSubRprfZAtq-t73ojWuKGmP3F_fqBErEIxwXUiCj0

Culp, Paul. “How to Get the Most Out of a College Visit,” The Coaching Educator, 8 February 2019, http://tce.local/2019/02/08/how-to-get-the-most-out-of-a-college-visit/

Culp, Paul. “The Prez, the Prov, the Profs, the Veep, and the Redge: Who’s Who on Campus,” The Coaching Educator, 17 December 2018, http://tce.local/2018/12/17/the-prez-the-prov-the-profs-the-veeps-and-the-redge-whos-who-on-campus/

Culp, Paul. “Remedial Nation: The Ghastly State of College Preparedness,” The Coaching Educator, 19 January 2019, http://tce.local/2019/01/19/remedial-nation-the-ghastly-state-of-college-preparedness/

Culp, Paul. “Ten Common Mistakes You Must Avoid in Applying for College,” The Coaching Educator, 31 August 2018, http://tce.local/2018/08/31/ten-common-mistakes-you-must-avoid-in-applying-for-college/

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