Colleges range from the small (Drew, Colby, Kenyon, Pomona, Haverford, Stonehill), to the medium (Yale, Princeton, Lehigh, Boston College), to the large (Penn, Cornell, NYU), to the ridiculous (UT Austin, U. Michigan, U. Florida, Purdue). Small colleges are those that have fewer than 4,000 students. There are many colleges, such as New College (FL), that have considerably fewer than 2,000 students (your high school may have more students!). Medium colleges range from 4,000 to 9,000 students, large have 9,000 to 20,000 students, and the ridiculous have more than 20,000 students (sometimes more than 30,000).
The size of the college can be crucial as it may be the difference between a personal learning experience and an indifferent education factory. You will be a number at Michigan State – what else would you expect from a college with nearly 50,000 students? (The average town in the United States is smaller.) In fact, most small and medium colleges believe that the size of the student body is so important that they work very hard to keep their colleges small: Williams and Hamilton could admit twice as many students, but they don’t because they believe that a small student body is vital to their educational mission. If you don’t mind being a number and taught by graduate students, then save your money and attend a large public university.
At a large university, you will be responsible for educating yourself and will save a lot of money. But if you prefer small classes, interactive professors, and personal attention, then you should consider small colleges. Keep in mind that one of the primary reasons you wish to apply to a private college is to be a part of a community, which means that it makes no sense to apply to a large private college. The best way to get a feeling for the size of the college is to visit the campus during the academic year. It’s important to visit while the students are still there.
According to a recent survey, the top college selection criterion of college freshmen was “reputation.” What does these mean? No one knows. The reputation of a college is some witches brew concocted from your parents’ advice, your friends’ opinions, something you heard on the radio, something your older sister once said, a few reviews you read in books, a silly “Best Party School” survey, a comment made by your college counselor, and the record of the college’s basketball team.
There are no relevant measurements of reputation and no guidelines regarding this criterion that seems so important to high school students.
And yet sometimes, nothing else matters but the college’s reputation. Harvard is the no. 1 college brand name in the world, so Harvard does not need to be concerned with the quality of its undergraduate education because it knows the brand will sell. You will probably get a better education at St. John’s College or Washington & Lee, but it’s hard to turn down the prestige of a Harvard degree. If you’re going to college for an education, then be aware that sometimes the top “brands” have the lowest quality (because they’re not selling quality; they’re selling the brand name). If you’re going to college in order to go to grad school or get a high-paying job right after graduation, then the college’s reputation will be important. Think of blue jeans: if you wish to quickly impress someone, you will buy over-priced designer jeans; but if you want jeans that will last, you will probably buy less expensive but more durable jeans. The reputation of the label doesn’t necessarily correspond to the quality of the material.
Colleges have other types of reputations: male-friendly, extremist, low-school spirit, great parties, and so forth. Many of these reputations are earned. For example, colleges such as Antioch, Brown, Dartmouth, and U. Michigan (Ann Arbor) all have reputations for being antagonistic towards men. For example, Antioch has a campus rule that requires “willing and verbal consent” at each stage of intimacy (sort of like getting someone to sign a waiver as you round the bases). Such a rule results in a very stilted, abnormal environment for relationships. (Frankly, it’s just weird. And perhaps not unrelated, Antioch shut down in 2008 … they hope to re-open in Fall 2011.)
Other schools have reputations for being male-friendly (Davidson, Princeton, Vanderbilt, Washington and Lee). Some schools are known for poor (or no) school spirit (Emory), others known for being traditional (Hampden-Sydney), and still others get a bad reputation for banning file-sharing even when it’s legal (NYU). It’s worth noting and investigating these reputations; usually, they have a bit of truth to them.
There are two sides to your college experience: academic and social. This may seem obvious, but too many students (and parents) don’t fully consider the social side. College will be a place you will live for four years, learn a lot, and (hopefully) grow up. The environment that surrounds you is vital to your success – it should be a place you love and enjoy. It’s not surprising that students who don’t like the social climate of their college often do not perform very well academically.