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Small Liberal Art Colleges Vs. Big Universities

  1. May 3, 2012 #1
    Is it better to go to a small liberal art college or a big university for someone who is looking to pursue a research career in physics?

  2. jcsd
  3. May 4, 2012 #2
    A few members who have doctorates have mentioned a few times that going to both kinds of places is good. That is, attending one for undergraduate and the other for the PhD, as the way things work at either type of institution is very different.
  4. May 4, 2012 #3
    It is not an easy choice. I want to go to this big state university because there are 160 physics majors, and I feel like I would get to know more physics majors. Whereas a small liberal arts college won't have anywhere as much but they do give you more individual attention. And you might be more likely to land internships because they don't have graduate students to worry about so their focus is on the undergrads.

    I previously brought up the argument that being in a big state university would be more competitive and I want a competitive atmosphere and a friend replied: are you kidding me-- nothing is as competitive as having a small classroom size.
    Last edited: May 4, 2012
  5. May 4, 2012 #4

    Have you been admitted to both the liberal arts college and the large state U? Perhaps you should consider going to the "admitted students event" (some colleges have those) and see if you like the "feel" of either school?

    People often argue that small liberal arts colleges have a greater sense of community, that they are more close knit. This can actually be a bad thing. What if the school is located in the middle of nowhere (so to speak) and everybody's already in their own "clique"? The cool thing with mid-sized and large colleges is that if you aren't in whatever clique or a frat/sorority/athletic team, it doesn't really matter because most people probably aren't and you can still make friends elsewhere.

    I've never been to NYC but I get the impression that if one were to go to school in a city like that, it won't necessarily be a big deal if one can't find close friends on campus because of the sheer amount and diversity of people *off* campus.
  6. May 4, 2012 #5


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    One should also factor in the cost. There are small liberal-arts colleges here in Maine that are among the most expensive in the country. Large land-grant colleges with large class-sizes might save you a whole lot of money. Then, if you want to attend smaller colleges as a grad student and hope to defray the costs with stipends, you'll be in better shape. This assumes that your performance in the large college was exemplary (grades, special projects, etc), so you'll be an attractive candidate. I'd hate to put in 4 undergrad years at Bates college without a LOT of financial support.
  7. May 4, 2012 #6
    A few points to consider -

    - Many large public universities have honors programs of one sort or another. These programs may have separate "honors" classes which limit class size, as well as having graduation requirements involving an undergraduate research project & thesis. If you're worried about being lost in the crowd educationally speaking, or missing out on a more intimate educational experience, this is something to consider.

    - Liberal arts colleges have as their primary emphasis undergraduate education. While research can and does get done there, faculty are not expected to also run a cutting-edge research laboratory with a couple of federal grants funding a small empire like one will see at a large research-oriented university.

    - I would actually investigate the school social scene, as they tend to vary. There are a number of schools which have prohibited Greek social organizations, and while "rogue frats" can and do exist at such places, they are not necessarily that much of a factor in the lives of that many students. Some are basically nothing more than a loosely associated group that infrequently throw a party.

    I echo the suggestion to visit schools for yourself to get an idea of what awaits you - it's really a matter of individual fit. You might thrive at Big University 1 but flounder at Giant University 2, whilet completely bombing at Small College A but impress the hell out of everyone at Modest College B.
  8. May 4, 2012 #7


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    Sure, the small size can work either way depending on you and the other people there. I went to a small college (about 1000 students total and about 10-12 physics majors) in the middle of nowhere (actually only about 25 miles from home and 35 miles from a fairly large city but I didn't have a car and neither did most of my classmates). It happened to work out well for me because the other physics people were a pretty congenial bunch and we hung out together most of the time. I didn't have any personal issues with any of the three physics professors, either.
  9. May 4, 2012 #8
    I applied to Bates when I was applying to colleges.

    Even if you have financial support it could still be weird to stay at Bates if you are not from a very wealthy family. I have a friend at Bates and he is on FULL financial aid. He told me that a lot of students there are from wealthy in-state families and they never worry about internships or jobs, because they know they will get those using family networks. My friend said he felt like an outcast a lot of the times even though he didn't have to worry about his tuition.
  10. May 4, 2012 #9


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    I can't imagine coming out of a small liberal-arts college with over $200K in debt for an undergrad. Back in the 60s, I was accepted to MIT, MSU, and University of Arizona (I never even applied to the latter two) but none of them could manage to offer enough financial aid to make it affordable, even with loan packages that would leave me burdened for decades. In my case, a state land-grant university was really the only option. I worked during the school year, worked full-time (with overtime) each summer, and managed to come out of college with no debt. It wasn't easy, but it was do-able, with enough hard work.
  11. May 4, 2012 #10
    I have a mixed feeling when people tell me 'I got into such and such university/college but I can't go because I cannot afford the tuition'. This should not happen yet this always happen. I mean, I went through this myself. When I applied to colleges, financial factor was my major concern. Now I'm at a college where 2/3 of my tuition is covered by my financial aid. We are not talking about $5k here. 2/3 of my tuition is $33k per year. I was also lucky to have supportive parents. They are still paying $20k per year for my education despite the financial aid. I always thought parents would pay whatever they could afford to get their children the best education they could get. Only recently I found out that this was not nearly the case for a lot of families.
  12. May 4, 2012 #11


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    The college where I work now is roughly comparable to the one that I attended about 40 years ago, in terms of size and selectiveness. The total "sticker price" for room, board, and various fees is about ten times what my parents paid to my alma mater. How many people today make ten times as much as their parents did? [comparisons not adjusted for inflation]

    In fairness, the current figure should be reduced by the average amount of financial aid, which amount I don't know. Forty years ago, large financial-aid packages were not common, at least not where I went to school, except for students whose families were "poor" which we weren't.
    Last edited: May 4, 2012
  13. May 4, 2012 #12
    It actually still isn't common, especially with this economy. However, elite liberal arts college are still more generous in terms of financial aid when compared to the Ivies.
  14. May 4, 2012 #13
    He is a retired professor and professional counselor. He is a very good friend of mine and a great guy.

    The thing that scares me is being around a bunch of financial egotistic elitists.
  15. May 4, 2012 #14
    I am a student at a small liberal arts college, but I'm in math, not physics. Our math department is small, but the professors are really on top of things and super engaged. You can go to their offices if you have a question, they'll do independent studies with you, they're always willing to offer advice. I know there are fewer options here than at a big school, but I love it.
  16. May 4, 2012 #15
    How many students are usually in your class? Do you like having a small base of math majors or wish there was more people to know?
  17. May 4, 2012 #16
    I had to make a similar decision a few weeks ago. I will be attending a small engineering school in NYC (<1000 students). I had other options, including a medium sized school (>2500 students) and an even larger state school (>10000 students).

    Things you want to consider (in my order of importance):
    - Financial aid
    - Does the school offer the major in which you are interested
    - Rigor of academic programs
    - Opportunities to do research and intern
    - Are students competitive but at the same time help each other
    - Student to faculty ratio
    - Prestige of the school
    - Location (this may or may not be offset by the next factor)
    - Size
    - Peer pressure (why go to a school where everyone is a drug addict?)

    I myself based my choice on engineering vs. liberal arts and hard working down to earth vs upper class elitist, but many other factors are also important to consider.
    Different people will value different components of these metrics more than others. The key is to picture yourself at both schools, either by sitting in on a class, or by talking with the professors from the school. Professors + Peers matters the most. If you are in a university town and you don't get along with them, then there is no one left to support you... so make sure it's a school where others share your interests.

    In my high school, only 2-3 graduates out of 200 pursue engineering each year. 0 graduate to do math/physics. You don't want your college to be like my high school. You want at least 3% of the class size to be in your major.

    One liberal artsschool I got into was kind of weird: it only had 8 majors in CS each year, but 11 CS faculty. This was both good and bad, but I sadly turned down the school. It would have been seriously weird to be in a school where faculty outnumber the students in a particular field, but it would have been an exotic experience.

    Last edited: May 4, 2012
  18. May 4, 2012 #17
    In intro sequence classes like calculus, maybe 20 or so? As you go up it drops off. There are seven people in my Diff Eq class, and I think last year when they offered Complex Analysis only two people were qualified to take it. There are like 3 math majors in my graduating class (the school has about 1400 students). It is really great that you get to know the other students and become close, but it does feel a little bit too small sometimes.
  19. May 4, 2012 #18
    I don't think I would enjoy having three majors in my graduating class. I like to make as many connections/networks as possible, one because I'm social and two because I like meeting others who enjoy the things I do, and three because it is good for employment later on in my career.
    Last edited: May 4, 2012
  20. May 4, 2012 #19
    There are just so many variables involved that I get a headache trying to choose what school to go to. And I'm a very indecisive person as it is. It can take me minutes to decide whether I should eat an apple or an orange sometimes lol. I tend to be too critical.

    The variable with the most weight is coverage-- I plan to go to a school where I'll be fully covered through grants and scholarships. I'm going to apply to Rutgers Brunswick for Spring 13' and a couple of other small to mid sized schools.

    An aside: Personally, I didn't want to stay in NJ, the cold drives me insane for some odd reason. I wanted to apply to some far away schools with warmer weather conditions but I can't afford to pay for round-trip airplane tickets X times.
    Last edited: May 4, 2012
  21. May 4, 2012 #20
    Yeah, that's understandable. I don't know if our department is typical for schools of our size or not. We definitely have other departments that are much bigger, but they're mostly social science or humanities.
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