In this article, I will be discussing the advantages and disadvantages of large universities versus small liberal arts colleges (LAC's). Through my recent college search, I have researched many of the aspects that I will hereby be discussing. As a disclaimer, not all universities or LAC's are the same, so take my generalizations with a grain of salt.
The Strengths of a University:
To first know the strengths of most universities, we must first know what a university is. Dictionary.com defines a university as "an institution of learning of the highest level, having a college of liberal arts and a program of graduate studies together with several professional schools" authorized to confer both undergraduate and graduate degrees. Duke is classified as a university, not a LAC, because it has multiple graduate programs.
The first major strength of a university stems from its definition: size. Universities are often significantly larger than LAC's, which leads to much broader name recognition. Of the most notable and recognizable institutions in American higher education, universities top the list. Harvard, Yale, and Princeton are widely regarded as the best of what an American education has to offer.
Secondly, also a byproduct of their size, universities tend to be more ethnically, religiously, and politically diverse than LAC's. Having an undergraduate population of often more than five times that of an LAC makes it so there is a wider array of both national and international students, and many different beliefs represented. Students at universities often have little trouble finding their niche in such a diverse atmosphere.
Universities, in addition to being more ethnically diverse, often have more opportunities available to their students. With locations usually in (or very close to) big cities, universities enable students to easier pursue internships or similar experiences during their time there. Students are also able to, if they take advantage of it, conduct groundbreaking research with professors. Because of their large sizes, many universities attract very notable professors from around the world, allowing students to meet pioneers in their respective fields.
Lastly, universities encapsulate an environment very different than that of an LAC. Often hyper-competitive, students are truly pushed to their limits. With such a large number of undergraduates, students continuously strive to be the best of the best.
Overall, universities are perfect for people who enjoy competition, lots of diversity, many different opportunities, and strong name recognition.
The Strengths of a LAC:
Many of the advantages of a university stem from its size, and a LAC is no different.
Because of LAC's small sizes, usually between 1,500-3,000 undergraduates, class sizes tend to be significantly smaller than those of a university. These small class sizes lead to a more inclusive classroom environment, tied with more active engagement with the professors. Very few, if any, teacher assistants exist at LAC's: leading to the rendering of positive individual attention from professors.
Along with their small class sizes also comes a tight-knit community. With a graduating class similar to that of your high school, students at LAC's often know each other better and interface more often, leading to a collaborative learning environment. Sports and clubs tend to be more personal, relaxed, and carefree.
LAC's also take a different approach to education. LAC's tend to encourage students to take a wide swath of classes, leading them to become well-rounded students. Classes are often interdisciplinary and holistic: aimed to boost the quality of education. Paired with small class sizes and a supportive community, it is hard to beat a liberal arts education.
One large difference between the typical LAC and the typical university is location. Different from universities, LAC's are often located in rural or suburban communities, not big cities. This leads to more outdoor activities, campus events, and unique pastimes (such as skiing, Frisbee, and guest speakers).
Overall, LAC's are perfect for people who enjoy an inclusive community, small classes, closer interactions with professors, and a rural/urban location.
The Weaknesses of a University:
Many of the advantages of a LAC, by nature, will be a university's disadvantage. At large universities you are less likely to (but still able to) find small classes. For example, at UNC Chapel Hill, about 40% of classes have 19 students or less. While at Williams College, 77% of classes have 19 students or less. So if you are hell-bent on finding a college where the large majority of classes will be small and very inclusive, a university might not fit you the best.
Another problem found at some universities is the lack of interaction with the professor, especially in larger classes. TA's (teacher assistants) often will teach the introductory/base level courses. Professors spend much more time and place a greater emphasis on research at universities than at LAC's. This can be a distinct disadvantage, especially if one is missing out on a professor who is truly exceptional. At LAC's, on the other hand, there are almost no TA's, and professors are there to mainly do just one thing: teach.
The degree of competitiveness at universities, depending on the viewpoint, can be a disadvantage. If you strive on competition, than university might be what you are looking for. But if, instead, you prefer a more collaborative environment, than a LAC should pique your fancy.
Financial aid can also deter one from attending a large university. Because a significant portion of their endowment goes towards paying for/sustaining their graduate programs in addition to their undergraduate programs, universities often cannot give out as many grants as LAC's. LAC's also tend to produce alumni who are more willing to give back, thus making LAC's (generally) more affordable than larger universities. Universities with very successful alumni (who thus give a lot more), however, can sometimes trump the package offered by LAC's (such as Princeton).
Keep in mind that many of the disadvantages listed here are based on a personal viewpoint. One person might not mind having a TA teach for their first couple of courses, while another one might find it very negative. This is the same for large classes: some might dislike being taught along with 50 or more students, while others might even prefer large, lecture-style classes. Same with competition.
The Weaknesses of a LAC:
The biggest hurdle for many students who are considering LAC's is the lack of name recognition. Telling someone you went to Bowdoin or Carleton and not Duke or Yale will lead to a lot of "oh"ya"where's that college at again? type of questions. Do not fret, though. Just because some LAC's might be esoteric to most does not mean that their quality of education is any lower than that of a university. Amongst those who are familiar with top colleges, they will readily recognize the top LAC's. And most importantly, don't choose a college because of its name recognition â€“ pick a college because it fits who you are as a person.
Another disadvantage of LAC's is their lack of diversity. Universities tend to have about half of their students be of color, while LAC's usually have a clear majority of white students. While race hopefully isn't a major factor in your college choice, it is something you might want to consider.
Each LAC often embodies a different culture. While universities tend to welcome anyone and everyone, some LAC's are just not meant for certain people. Swarthmore is not for those who aren't willing to work hard. Amherst is not the best for those wanting to study engineering. Claremont McKenna College is focused on business and politics, while Harvey Mudd is very STEM based.
Possibly the most damaging aspect of a LAC is their seemingly lack of opportunity. While at large universities you have a million things happening all around you and countless opportunities able to be taken advantage of, LAC's tend to not have all of that. Because an LAC's population is significantly smaller, there is just frankly not as much going on. Sure, they still have clubs and sports and internships, but not to the degree of larger universities. And since the majority of LAC's are located in rural cities, there isn't as much opportunity to get internships or jobs close by during the school year.
Overall, large universities and small liberal arts colleges are very different, but also very similar. They both will give you an education worth the money, just in different ways. Some universities have successfully bridged the gap between the massive university and tiny liberal arts college, such as Tufts and Dartmouth. Depending on your path, it is likely that one type will fit you better than the other. But to truly know at what type of college/university you should go to, make sure to visit them. And remember, your education is what you make of it. If you need help choosing and selecting a college, check out TCE's college search and selection service.