The Real Differences between Big and Small Universities

Now that I have transferred many more times than I would have liked to, I’ve figured out the real differences between small schools and big schools from some real hard investigation and firsthand experience. Yeah, you probably visited some different colleges and saw different sized schools, but you can’t compare it from one visit. Some colleges don’t even show you the whole campus!

 I hope this article provides some unique insight for upcoming college freshmen or people like me who decided their first college was not the right fit. 

Small schools

When I thought of small schools I would think of community, pride, connections and bonds. The campus may feel big or small, that’s not what a “small” school means. I thought, for a small school, my first college was really big! It was spread out, I had to walk uphill both ways to class, it wasn’t crowded! Unless the physical size of the school reflects the population size, the school will feel very spread out.

When all my friends at big schools said the food sucked, I never really thought much of it. Our food wasn’t great. However, I did have major food allergies and about half of my meals were made by the staff upon my request, which could be a small school thing, or just a good school thing. That being said, my meals wouldn’t have been made upon request all the time if 90% of the food wasn’t unsafe for me to eat. We had one dining hall, a pub and a convenience shop with the best smoothies ever. The dining hall food was good for a month, and then it was not. We did learn that on special days, the food was really good. When we had open houses, the brunch was so good we would sneak it out to have the next day (or three). 

You get to know everyone. Really. I may not know everyone by their name, but there wasn’t a single person I didn’t recognize. On one hand, it’s really nice. But, if there’s people you don’t get along with or don’t want to interact with, it’s just not possible to avoid them entirely. 

The professors are really great. It’s not that the good professors go to small schools, you just have the chance to really know them at a small school. I’ve had a few professors at Towson that are phenomenal and I’ve gotten to know just from a semester of working with them. However, at St. Mary’s, I have been able to stay connected to some professors long after I’ve left. I had professors that I could talk to about anything, even professors who never taught me. My advisor was an art history professor but he was so great I didn’t want a new advisor, so he just kept me and made sure I met with professors in my department. When my appendix ruptured, my professors sent me their phone numbers in case I needed anything. A small community can be a really great thing. 

Big schools

Big schools are associated with sports, tailgates, school spirit, greek life and partying. But there’s more to it than that. 

Since I was homeschooled, I didn’t get the fun school pride, sports games, etc that you get at a small town high school. And I was fine with that knowing I would go to college and have something like that. I’m sure that some schools have typical school pride, but for me, I didn’t find it. People loved the school, but they didn’t care about the sports teams. They loved the community at the school and the kind of people that were there. But for the people who didn’t feel exactly like everyone else at the school, it was really isolating. I love being at Towson where there are big sports games and tailgates to go to. 

A lot of times, bigger schools have more opportunities. While it’s easier to get into internal research opportunities at small schools, big schools usually have more external connections that can help you find opportunities on and off campus. If you’re very interested in doing directed research at your school, that’s much easier at a smaller school. There’s less students trying to get into spots and it’s much easier to get into research if you have a professor you know well that’s looking for students.

Depending on your major, you may prefer the course options offered at bigger schools. I had to give up my neuroscience program when I left my small school, but I still believe I made the right decision and I have been so grateful for having that knowledge to carry into my advanced courses at Towson. Intro to helping relationships is a unique class at Towson that I took and I can honestly say that it’s the most worthwhile class I’ve ever taken. Some other classes offered at towson that weren’t offered at my previous school include “science, pseudoscience and superstition”, behvior modification, industrial and organizational psych (also incredibly useful), environmental psychology, diverse perspectives (existential, positive, transpersonal and mind-body psychology), psychology of lesbian culture, the exceptional child, gender identity in transition,and the psychology of language. 

All schools

Parking sucks. The only difference is that at big schools there are about fifty times more people to fight for a parking spot. Also, parking fees at big schools are monumentally more ridiculous. I spend about $300 a semester for my towson parking pass, when I spent less than that all year at St. Mary’s. I also spent at least a hundred dollars in the fall semester parking in visitor spots on campus at Towson because the parking options for my pass are full. Some students have said that they don’t even buy a parking pass, they just pay for a visitors spot every time they have to be on campus, and it’s usually less expensive overall. 

The food will never be great. Really. Maybe the first few weeks because they try hard for a minute. But small schools aren’t going to have great food either. Bigger schools will have more options to choose from, but that doesn’t mean any of them will be good. 

Ultimately, neither type of school is better than the other. Every single college and university has its share of problems and every place has something special and unique. You’ll find your place, even if it takes a second (or third, if you’re like me) try.