Before we dig deeper into this fascinating question, let’s first clarify and define the options:
A university is an educational institution that is typically larger than a college and offers both undergraduate and graduate degrees. Some universities also have professional schools in law, medicine, and business. Universities are typically divided into smaller academic units, often called ‘colleges’ or ‘schools’. Examples include a College of Arts and Sciences and a College of Engineering. The title of the college clearly defines the range of majors found within those units. Others offer a School of Business or a School of Nursing. A university may also have a strong focus on research with opportunities for undergraduates to participate in faculty-led research.
LAC is the abbreviation for a Liberal Arts College. Because a college is usually smaller than a university, smaller class sizes are the norm and a strong focus on student/faculty mentoring and academic relationships is typical. Undergraduate education is at the forefront with less emphasis on research, but this does NOT mean that research has no place in a LAC; many have very strong and robust research programs. They may not, however, offer professional track undergraduate degrees such as engineering, business or nursing.
Some colleges offer graduate and professional degrees but have not changed their name because of tradition. These include The College of William and Mary, Dartmouth College, and St. Joseph’s College in New York. Others maintain the College name simply because a university already exists with that same name.
For students seeking a tightly knit academic community, one where you are probably going to walk to class and meet someone you already know, enjoy small group seminar classes and discussions and are unsure about a final choice of major, a liberal arts college might offer you a better experience. But, if you are someone who loves to meet new people on the way to class, are happy
to be part of larger classes, have a strong sense of independence and resilience, and already have a good idea of your academic goals, you may find the size of a university more to your liking.
You will note, I’m sure, that I have just made some sweeping generalizations. It is just as possible to be seated in a senior class of 8-10 students in a university as it is in a college. You’ll make friends in so many ways, on any type of campus, through clubs, organizations, academic groups, and residence hall activities. The overall size of the student body won’t impact you, if you don’t want it to, so keep an open mind to both options. You must always start with knowing who you are and what you want. Then, when visiting a campus, seek out answers to those questions of fit, ethos, opportunity, and academic choice. Analyze the latter very carefully. Are there sufficient choices of major in your areas of interest? Review the numbers when it comes to both average class sizes overall and average classes with fewer than 50 students – how do you learn best? What about academic support? How important is the student/faculty relationship to you?
We have noted that students thrive when they are surrounded by engaged students and faculty who nurture and encourage students in all aspects of their undergraduate experience. You may find that this relationship will be key to your success and you may feel more connected in a smaller LAC, but more actively engaged in research in a larger university. Both colleges and universities offer some kind of career guidance. This will take on a far greater import as you move further and deeper into your major. Some universities offer internships to students in their likely field of employment, on a broader scale and with more choice than a small college. Colleges, however, thrive on the very close relationships they build with their alumni, and these connections can often lead to internships and/or first jobs.
The social scene also matters when it comes to your final selection. Knowing that your small college has limited options may be comforting, but the huge array of opportunities at a larger university could be just what you need to propel you forward, learn more about yourself and grow in so many ways. Don’t be guided by rankings, your parents’ hopes and dreams, or your fears – know what you want for yourself. Costs may well be lower at your state university but colleges may offer more financial aid; having the option of studying abroad may be high on your list but a diverse campus community may be just what you need from a larger institution.
So, first, list what you need to meet your academic and personal needs and review answers to your questions after visiting both a small college and a large university, and remain open to both options.
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