Big HS into small LACs

My daughter is weighing the options regarding playing at few top tier LACs for her sport - OR opting to forgo the athletics and head for a larger campus (but, not as academic/prestigious). I know they are so different. This is a happy easy going athlete from a very competitive affluent public school. She has 3.8 GPA - but, is CP kid - her sport is for sure the “hook” into the competitive schools -but, wondering if anyone has experience with this type of decision.

How interested is she in playing the sport for the college team?

What is the attraction to the larger campus? Is it due to greater range of academic majors and upper level course offerings, or a specific major or type of major not available at the LACs?

From your (parent) point of view, would costs be significantly different, and how much does that matter?

I went from a large public h/s (~5000) to a LAC that was less than half that size. The irony was that both schools had the same number of college-bound kids once you subtracted the commercial and technical track kids. So, the pool of potential friends wasn’t that different. Foot traffic? Density of the halls and stairways? That was different and kind of welcome.

S19 wasn’t from a 2800 student public high school to a 1850 student LAC. He would say college is more interesting even though it’s smaller. Kids from all over the country (and the world) compared to going to school with kids in our neighborhood he’s known since preschool. Lots of different backgrounds, etc. If he had gone to our state flagship, there would have been a lot more students but almost all from the Chicago suburbs.

D19 had a similar experience going from her HS of 3,500 kids to a LAC with about 2,500 kids. I would also say the same thing as @homerdog about our state flagship, which is not at all surprising, seeing that it’s the same one…

I don’t know about the athletic aspect of your D’s decision, but my D17 went from a large (3500) public high school in the south to a selective LAC in the northeast (about 2500 students). While her high school was very diverse, like the comments above, she has enjoyed meeting kids from all over the country and it is definitely the academic experience she was looking for (small classes, lots of interaction, close relationships with professors). In reality, during high school she really was only in class consistently with 100 of the 3500 students. So, in college she is interacting with a much larger number of students. She thought about the honors program at our state flagship but her school has been a much better fit for her.

Agree with other posters, my LAC kid went from roughly 2200 person, urban, diverse public school to 2300 person LAC (so not technically smaller).

Very different experience as his public school was fairly segregated by class and ethnicity in terms of who took advanced classes. While he played on sports teams with a diverse group of students, his classes were with the same 100 kids, for 4 years. At his midwest LAC, he had class with, and was friends with, kids from everywhere and every background, 1st gen to old money, both coasts and all over the world, liberal, conservative, everything.

Top tier LAC athlete IMHO is next level. D18 gave a hard pass when she heard from college coaches. She did not want to be a collegiate athlete. Why? Easy going kid (maybe a bit more so than most?) and felt it would compete with her desire to fully engage academically and socially at a top tier LAC.
Does she miss her sport three years in? Yes! We were just talking about this, but for her it was the right decision. Her easy going schoolmate though just took a Covid semester off because playing a sport is life and they couldn’t see missing a season, but no big deal on a December graduation with another class. To each their own.

Typically students who go to LACs from large high schools do very well. You have to remember that college is largely comprised of a group of self-selecting students, especially at LACs. That in itself is a good way to ensure that most students are going to find like-minded peers. Who a kid attends high school with is the luck of the draw.

One of my D’s friends at an LAC of 1800 attended a high school with over 3000 kids. She loved the small school vibe. There are many students from large urban high schools who thrive at LACs. Your daughter might want to focus on the kind of atmosphere she is looking for and not the size of the school.

This is very true - in high school, despite having friends who she knew since daycare, my kid never had the opportunity to be surrounded by “her people” until she was in college. Well a bit during her CTD summer camps.

Most of the students at our almost 4000 student LPS choose larger universities. They figure that moving from a smaller elementary school into a larger middle school and then into a gigantic high school somehow dictates that the next step must be an even bigger college.

Those who choose LACs are often surprised at how different the academic environment is at a LAC compared to their LPS. Many classes are smaller, it’s easy to engage with profs, class participation is expected, students are involved in a variety of activities, etc. BS students, who come from smaller schools, seem more likely to complain that it feels like 4 more years of the same! What I am trying to say is that the LAC environment is likely to be every bit as novel as the school with 40,000 undergrads!

I totally agree with @Lindagaf on this – she should figure out what kind of classroom and social experience she wants. The size piece will probably follow.

This is all so very helpful! Oh, thank you. She was not interested in exploring athletic opportunities in a D1 environment - So, the balance of academics, athletics and social is a big draw for her. I know it sounds CRAZY - but, she is very tall and I think she is thinking a larger school will offer more opportunity to be exposed to a larger pool of… shall I say… tall peers? Ha. I know, it’s a unique challenge - but, it’s a real one. :wink: I went to a small LAC in central PA and loved it - met my husband there - was a wonderful and supportive experience. Now, the pull of the Instragram Big 10 “White Out” game day pic influences the HS kids more than it I wish it did.

When our D21 first started looking at colleges, she said she didn’t even want to look anywhere smaller than her HS (just under 2,000 students). Over time she realized that she loved the idea of a small community and has cut schools on her list because they’re “too big,” with 2,500 students. I personally went from an enormous high school to a college of around 1,500 and never looked back!

I agree with @Lindagaf that students self-select. Our D21 loves the photos of a few people chatting on the quad or in an 8-person seminar. D23 thinks that looks SO boring and too quiet and wonders how those people can even go to schools with no football! If your daughter wants to be cheering in the stands (with students of all heights!), it sounds like that’s the kind of school where she’ll thrive.

Regarding the sports piece, there is also the club sport option. S opted for the complete college experience (social and academic). He knew he wanted that from day one and never really considered playing at the college level (although could have easily played on many D3 teams). He has really enjoyed playing a club sport. I guess they range in terms of competitiveness and ability. He found his school (and his sport) to be plenty competitive and full of really good HS players. It gives him enough of that team component, practice, games, travel, etc. Still loves putting on the uniform.

I think club sports are a great option for those who still want to compete at a high level but don’t want to live, eat and breath it. College sports takes a serious commitment. I’m sure he would not have been able to do many of the activities he does had he gone the college athlete route.

Six of my seven kids have gone to 5 different colleges so far–after attending larger public high schools (1600-3000 students). Three have gone to small, even tiny, LACs (200-1500 students), and three to big state universities (25K). The difference was being treated like a person instead of a number when dealing with professors and administration. The depth and quality of friendships has also been better at the small schools for my kids. Though none of my big state u. kids was unhappy or had any problems, and one (very unathletic D) did enjoy the football/basketball games and big u. spirit, there was just something more caring and humane about a small community.
I went to big universities myself. But from my kids’ experiences, I would recommend the small school–unless there a special program your kid is set on that is only found at the big school.

I went to a LAC as an athlete rather than attending a D1 school. High school and college were about the same size but college still felt bigger. There were also opportunities to take classes at neighboring consortium colleges. One D3 advantage was that I was a starter all 4 years and was able to balance academics and sports. I even tried two different sports in the off season and competed in one of them.

I have to object to the idea that friendships made at LACs are universally deeper and of better quality than those from big State Us. Two of mine went to State Us and have lifelong, strong friendships from those colleges. My one private college student has not kept up his friendships as well, but that is due to his personality, not the college experience. Neither of my big State U kids were into the football and rahrah culture. My youngest was in an unusual major and had small classes and good research opportunities. He considered smaller schools but even though there were undergraduate research opportunities, the areas the professors working in did not match his interest.

Most kids bloom where planted. Most kids love their small LACs and the stimulating academic environment , but there are certainly some who find the experience too much like HS and, especially if in isolated areas, find the area limiting in terms of activities or internship options. Some also find that while the classes are small and they get to know the professors well, there can be limited advanced classes in their field and limited research opportunities in their area of interest. Kids that do not fit in with the LAC culture may have a harder time finding their “people”.

Bottom line is that she has to make a choice. Beyond the big vs small atmosphere, I would look at course offerings in her area of interest and presumed major. If it is a popular major at the big school, she may feel somewhat anonymous. However, in many less common majors (and in even in specialized areas within a big major), advanced classes are small and personalized. Then she has to think about her sport and how much she wants to play. My athlete chose not to pursue D3 as he didn’t want to have to practice every day. Club worked out, but he didn’t make the team until junior year, so played intermurals which was not challenging but fun for the first two years.

Love the suggestion of the club sports - I am needing to explore the schools that offer thriving club opportunities. Thank you, this is valuable information for sure. As much as it’s easy for “me” to give her information - It is much more valuable when I kinda wrap it up around other families experiences.

OP’s daughter is considering “a few top tier LACs for her sport”. Much depends upon the individual student and the particular LACs under consideration as LACs tend to have a strong dominant personality.

I agree with @mom2and’s post above.

Moving from a big high school to a “small LAC” (presumably fewer than 2,000 students) can be a suffocating experience after the first three semesters.

Mid-size & large universities give one room to grow in all aspects. An LAC can be a limiting experience.

Large university honors colleges offer the best of both worlds, in my opinion & experience.

P.S. Privacy can be an issue at small schools. For those who prefer the opportunity for a degree of anonymity, LACs may not be the best option.

Getting to know professors at universities is quite easy although it may require initiative on the student’s part unless in an honors college.


My experience and belief on small LACs is completely different. I had friend’s that chose the honors program at large publics and their experience was not nearly as positive as mine.

I can say that for the folks I knew, it wasn’t suffocating or limiting. I believe my kids would say the same thing. All 3 of us went to schools significantly smaller than our high school.

At the time I attended, my school typically had right around 900 people on campus at a time. I spent fall of junior year at an off-campus program and when I came back realized how much I had missed the closeness of campus. Also that semester, I couldn’t live with my main friend group but it didn’t matter because I knew the folks that I did live with and it was great.

Not that I focus on outcome but since there folks here the have almost a fetish about them, but my HS HS friend group (fairly homogeneous in terms of HS achievement, family background) can serve as a natural experiment. We picked a variety of schools and I think those that went to LACs had better undergraduate experiences and more career success