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How to Compare Research Universities and Small Liberal Arts Colleges

How to Compare Research Universities vs. Small Liberal Arts Colleges:  A guide for applicants

   You’re a student or a parent weighing the merits of applying to small liberal arts colleges or larger research universities. A campus visit is crucial as you narrow down your application list. If watching Division I football or finding a campus you can stroll across in a few minutes isn’t your main concern, you should consider the following factors.

1.  Size of Classes

   The amount of individual attention you receive is influenced by class size. Research universities often have honors programs which may include intimate classes. Liberal arts colleges may have popular majors favored by those with pre-med or pre-law aspirations. Their classes may have more students than the published institutional student/faculty ratio would indicate. Talk to departmental representatives and find out how many classes have enrollments under twenty and over fifty. In addition, make an inquiry about the percentage of full-time faculty, and at research universities about the role of teaching assistants. If teaching assistants are widely used, ask yourself if you are comfortable being evaluated or taught by another young person. For instance, at Carnegie Mellon, a well regarded research university, 62% of classes have less than twenty students and 11% surpass fifty students according to US News and World Report’s 2011 “Best Colleges” edition. At Swarthmore, a strong liberal arts college, 78% of classes have less than twenty students and 2% of them have over fifty students. The overall institutional percentages at these institutions are enticing, but parents and students should make inquiries with departmental representatives to see how they do in terms of class size and full time faculty.

2.   Available Majors

   Large research universities generally have more listed majors than small liberal arts colleges.  Contact the Admissions office or Dean’s office about whether the institution provides options for students to create multi-disciplinary majors or pursue joint studies with other schools, a growing trend at liberal arts institutions.

3.  Research Exposure

   Professors who can effectively bring research into the classroom are an asset to the school. Find out from departmental representatives to what extent you are exposed to full or associate professors in the class-room.  Keep in mind that faculty at both research universities and elite liberal arts colleges are researchers.

4. Student Support Programs

   Most of us can use academic and career planning support as undergraduates and possibly personal counseling. Explore these crucial elements of a school’s support network. Moreover, examine student graduation retention rates in US News and World Report’s annual “Best Colleges” issue as an indicator of the effectiveness of a school’s support network.

5. Extracurricular Opportunities  

   All work and no play doesn’t make for happy or successful students. Look into extra-curricular activities, which have expanded at undergraduate institutions. If your interests are in musical performance or acting, however, ask whether non-majors can participate.

   Research universities and liberal arts colleges each have their own merits.  Appearances can be deceiving, however, when you initially assess class size, teaching, majors, research exposure, student support, and extra-curricular activities. It is imperative that students and families take the time to visit the institutions and separate fact from fiction by asking the hard questions.


David Dickson wrote this article for Top Test Prep.  He is completing his certificate program in college counseling with UCLA's graduate programs.

For more information about Top Test Prep's college admissions counseling programs, or test prep and tutoring, call (800) 501-Prep.


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