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Liberal arts colleges vs large universities?

elsaannaelsaanna Registered User Posts: 29 Junior Member
I’m a rising senior I’m struggling to determine whether I’m better suited for a LAC or a large public university.

I’m hoping to major in a field such as psychology, education, or child development. I go to a pretty large high school, so I think I might prefer a larger school, but I’m also pretty shy, so I think I could also prefer a smaller one too.

What are the major differences between the two? What types of students typically end up at each?
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Replies to: Liberal arts colleges vs large universities?

  • ahardboiledeggahardboiledegg Registered User Posts: 64 Junior Member
    I'd suggest you visit each and see which one you'd like better. LACs have smaller, more personal class sizes (look at the websites of various colleges too see how small), while larger universities will have larger classes and lectures (although classes can get smaller as you increase in level). I like engaging in classroom discussions and being able to participate, so I prefer the small class sizes of LACs. If you find that you like aspects of both, it's possible to get the best of both worlds and find larger LACs or smaller universities.
  • QBeeMomQBeeMom Registered User Posts: 2 New Member
    My son is a rising junior with the same thoughts as you, and we just completed a week of tours of schools ranging from 2000 - 20,000 students. Surprisingly, the size did not seem to matter as much as he thought but he did learn that it was the setting (urban/suburban/rural) and a well-defined campus that impacted his comfort level. Visiting was very helpful for him in understanding the pros and cons of each type of school and weighing the importance of things such as class sizes, availability of majors, educational opportunities, dorms and how many years students live on campus, and community/school spirit. I hope you have a chance to visit some schools - good luck in your search!
  • washugradwashugrad Registered User Posts: 466 Member
    There was a recent thread on here about advantages/disadvantages of each. I couldn't find it in the 15 seconds I looked but will try later or maybe someone else will link it. But here are a few -

    Large Universities will have more majors and more course options. Specificially if you are majoring in education or child development, a lot of small private LACs don't have those as a major (but you can find them at smaller public universities, or if you want to teach elementary, you can always major in psychology or something else for undergrad and then do a one year credential program, depending on what state you plan to work in).

    Small LACs usually you will have smaller class sizes and more direct contact with your professors. At a large uni, your first year or two of classes will often include a lot of large lecture courses with maybe 200 or more students, where you then have a discussion section with a graduate student TA.

    At the large universities, it might be possible to take graduate-level courses in your field as an undergrad. If you have taken some college courses already in high school, this can be an advantage (comes up more often for majors like math where strong kids are often a year or two into undergrad courses when starting university).

    Small LACs often (but not always) have better advising. At a larger school you can get good personal contact with professors and advisors but it might take more effort to go to their office hours, seek them out outside of class, etc.

    Personally I actually like medium-sized the best (around 6000-8000 undergrad with some grad programs but undergrad focus). But everyone is different and of course, there are many other factors to consider as well. Hopefully you'll have a chance to do some tours to get a better sense of what works for you.
  • PublisherPublisher Registered User Posts: 2,965 Senior Member
    edited July 11
    Small LACs do NOT offer better advising. An individual LAC might be strong in this area for a particular student with specific interests, but there is no standard rule. Of course, everything is relative, but I find the opposite to be true.

    OP: If you qualify for an honors college at a large university, you will have the best of both worlds.

    An LAC is good for a year, possibly more, then you will get tired of seeing the same faces everyday (even though new freshmen appear, you won't, and shouldn't, care).

    If you go to an LAC, plan to study abroad for at least one year to enable yourself to grow beyond the limited environment.

    P.S. Please understand that large National Universities have many graduate schools, therefore the profs are much more able to offer accurate advice as they deal with graduate programs, graduate students, undergraduates & employers for both in addition to being involved with cutting edge research.
    Your prof might be a better friend at an LAC, but that may be due to boredom & a lack of other activities to occupy one's time.

    I have attended & have degrees from both types of school. If I could redo my life, I would not attend an LAC. But, it does depend upon one's personality, needs & development.

    P.S. An advantage to attending an LAC is that the quarterly alumni magazines are interesting because you will know & recall a lot of people within a 4 year time frame & the schools just do not have many folks to write about. In short, better alumni magazines for LACs.

    It's a little like coming from a small town environment versus big city excitement.
  • PublisherPublisher Registered User Posts: 2,965 Senior Member
    If life was lived in reverse and we attended college starting at age 65 rather than at age 18, I would prefer an LAC if it bordered the ocean, of course.
  • circuitridercircuitrider Registered User Posts: 2,824 Senior Member
    edited July 11
    An LAC is good for a year, possibly more, then you will get tired of seeing the same faces everyday (even though new freshmen appear, you won't, and shouldn't, care).

    If you go to an LAC, plan to study abroad for at least one year to enable yourself to grow beyond the limited environment.

    I attended both an LAC and a law school located on a prominent research uni campus and my experience was completely the opposite. I knew people from adjoining classes and was happy to meet new "recruits" if only to compare them with the class before (the verdict was always the same, "they're only letting in straight-edged kids!", overlooking how "straight-edged" we were as freshmen.) I did take some time off after junior year, but, was absolutely thrilled to rejoin my class in time for graduation.

    P.S. Please understand that large National Universities have many graduate schools, therefore the profs are much more able to offer accurate advice as they deal with graduate programs, graduate students, undergraduates & employers for both in addition to being involved with cutting edge research.
    Your prof might be a better friend at an LAC, but that may be due to boredom & a lack of other activities to occupy one's time.


    If anyone is sitting around with time on their hands it's the research uni professor who only teaches one course a year, never grades papers and is strictly on their honor as to how he or she spends the rest of their time. In fact, we know how academic stars spend their time: off-campus, earning consulting fees and promoting themselves as much as possible. Actually, it's tje LAC professors who tend to be younger and much more recent PhDs, and therefore more likely to be in touch with current trends in their fields.
    I have attended & have degrees from both types of school. If I could redo my life, I would not attend an LAC. But, it does depend upon one's personality, needs & development.


    YMMV. Mine did.



    Post edited by MaineLonghorn on
  • PublisherPublisher Registered User Posts: 2,965 Senior Member
    edited July 11
    I think that you reinforced my point "I did take some time off after my junior year...". Also, I suspect that you went to Wesleyan which is among the largest LACs at about 3,000 students. To me, that is borderline tolerable, but, like you, I would still need to escape for junior year.


    Another aspect of Wesleyan that is noteworthy is that it is not dominated by Greek life with 4% in frats & just 1% in sororities. To me, this would make an LAC more tolerable.

    I like the concept of an LAC, but not the reality. Just like small town life is often portrayed as simple & ideal, the reality is quite different.
    Post edited by MaineLonghorn on
  • happy1happy1 Forum Champion Parents, Forum Champion Admissions Posts: 21,144 Forum Champion
    Back to the OP......There are many many threads on CC that discuss the differences. Do a search and you should be able to find them.

    Really it is a matter of fit and each person is different. They all offer excellent educations. I know many who have thrived at huge universities, my S (who was shy in HS) absolutely loved his mid-sized university, and my D had a fantastic expereince at a LAC.

    I'd strongly suggest you visit some different types of schools and get a sense of what types of place/places seem to suit you.
  • MaineLonghornMaineLonghorn Super Moderator Posts: 34,955 Super Moderator
    MODERATOR'S NOTE: Please note that debating is not allowed by the Terms of Service. Please be careful or this thread will be closed.
  • oldfortoldfort Registered User Posts: 21,807 Senior Member
    This is my prospective based on my own experience and my kids'.
    I went to a small LAC (2500 students) upstate NY and my kids went to a large U with 13k+ students. They had larger classes at lower level classes, but as they moved up the class size got smaller and they got to know most students in their majors. My class sizes were smaller, but fewer majors/classes were offered. My kids went to an U with 7 different colleges and they were able to take classes at any of those colleges.

    Socially...At the smaller LAC if you like your friends and general population then that's great, but if you should have a fall out with your group then it may be harder for you to move to another group. At a small LAC, you would forget about dating. If you went on a date then everyone would know about it. I still remember we used to go out of town for our few dates before we would be seen around the campus. At a large U, it may be easier to meet your tribe and then change if you want/need to. At a large U there would also be more clubs for you to join and try out. Personally, by the time I was a junior at my LAC I felt like I have outgrown it.

    One other benefit at a large U is more companies would come on campus to recruit because they could get more bang for their bucks at a large U. Unless the LAC is at Williams, Middlebury (or other top LACs) level, the recruiters may not be s willing to come on campus.
  • twogirlstwogirls Registered User Posts: 6,489 Senior Member
    OP have you visited both kinds of schools? That might help you decide. You will get an excellent education at both types of schools.... it really depends on fit.
  • 1399HdJ1399HdJ Registered User Posts: 88 Junior Member
    At a LAC, you explore different types of classes to satisfy the Liberal Arts curriculum they set up. Each college is similar yet different in their core curriculum - investigate that online, also the list of majors at the schools of interest. Psych and Education should be options at most LAC's.

    So at a LAC you could take a few Psych classes and if you decide it is not for you, the credits could apply to the "Social Science" requirement and you will move on. On the flip side, you may take a class solely to satisfy part of the Liberal Arts curriculum and decide that you love it and want to take more. At my son's LAC - he is starting in the fall - they encourage students to major and minor in different diciplines. He is considering Business and Psychology.

    Both my kids chose LAC's, and they graduated from a very large HS. The LAC's fit their personalities. My daughter will be a junior next year, and enjoys her small class sizes, accessible professors, and the close community (2,500 students). She changed her intended major after freshman year, and will graduate on time. She has made a bunch of close friends and can't wait to go back.

    Her best HS friend chose a huge state flagship. Her friend is outgoing and makes an effort to know her professors - she is building those relationships and it is working out well for her. There is "community" in her school of study, but it has been harder for her to make friends (that is not to say it is solely due to being at a big school).

    If you can visit both types, you will have a much clearer idea of what may be right for you!
  • elsaannaelsaanna Registered User Posts: 29 Junior Member
    Thanks everyone!
    I haven’t visited either kind of school yet, there are no colleges near me and my parents want to wait to do visits until after I’ve been accepted.

    It sounds the answer to which is better really depends on the individual though. There are obviously a lot of benefits to either type of school, so maybe I’ll just have to apply to both types if I can’t figure out which would be a better fit for me.
  • PublisherPublisher Registered User Posts: 2,965 Senior Member
    edited July 11
    @elsaanna: An interesting option would be to attend an LAC that is a member of a consortium. There are three that I know of: Claremont Schools in California = Pomona, Claremont McKenna, Scripps, Harvey Mudd & Scripps.

    Then outside of Philadelphia = Swarthmore, Haverford & Bryn Mawr

    Then in Amherst Massachusetts area = Mount Holyoke, Smith, Amherst College, Hampshire & UMass Amherst.

    Students are allowed to cross enroll at other consortium member schools. But even without cross registration for courses, one can just walk to town or to another nearby campus & have a different experience.

    Again, the development & proliferation of honors colleges at large state universities have created an option to enjoy the best of both worlds, in my opinion.

    LACs are important for 2 or 3 sport athletes who do not want to give up a sport in college.

    Agree with @oldfort that dating at an LAC is everybody's business. Plus, if you break up, there is nowhere to hide. Only option is to transfer, maybe study abroad but you might get followed !

    With respect to number of students, most LACs have fewer than 2,000 students. A large LAC has 2,400 or more students in my opinion. Also, the best LAC is actually classified as a National University, Dartmouth College (has about 4,300 students, all smart & all accomplished & ambitious).

  • happy1happy1 Forum Champion Parents, Forum Champion Admissions Posts: 21,144 Forum Champion
    FWIW my D dated at a LAC and they broke up after two years. It was just fine. I would not consider that to be a deal-breaker at a LAC.
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