Grant’s Angle: Considering US College & University Sizes

13 October, 2022
Considering small, medium, and large US colleges as a student.

Small, Medium, or Large?


U.S. colleges and universities come in a breathtaking variety of types and settings. There’s a college whose campus is a working cattle ranch, another that specializes in mining engineering. There are maritime colleges, colleges of pharmacy, arts colleges and colleges of forestry. There are thirty-odd tribal colleges. There are women’s and men’s colleges. There are Christian, Jewish and Islamic colleges and universities. Some institutions are entirely residential; some serve commuters.
For many students, however, the two characteristics of primary interest are size (number of students) and location (city or town). For that reason, dividing colleges into three rough categories by student population with a few sub-categories for location provides a useful way to think about their distribution.
The U.S. is home to hundreds of small, private colleges. The large majority of them enroll between 1000 and 3000 students. They are primarily undergraduate institutions. They focus on providing the first four years of postsecondary education and award so-called bachelor’s degrees in a range of standard academic fields. They generally offer smaller classes and a more supportive, personalized style of instruction. They tend to be located in towns rather than cities.
These institutions are almost all universities. They offer so-called graduate programs in various academic and professional fields, conferring masters and doctoral degrees, in addition to providing undergraduate programs. They typically enroll between 3000 and 15,000 students. Many students find this not-too-big-not-too-small category very appealing. The private ones tend to be located in cities. The public ones are more often scattered in towns around their respective states.
Private universities in the 15,000 to over 30,000 range are all in larger cities. There are many public universities in this size range and they can also be much larger. Several enroll in the neighborhood of 60,000 students. The big public university campuses, with a few important exceptions, are generally not in large cities. In many cases, they were founded in the 19th century as land grant institutions and intentionally planted in rural but geographically central locations within their states. Many of these primary (or “main”) campuses have spawned substantial towns and combined with their student numbers have total populations equaling small cities.
Some things to consider.

Grant Calder, a distinguished college counselor & consultant, calls them like he sees them. In his words, “I consistently read ‘in the field’…and the pieces I’m working on are not ones I have seen in mainstream publications (the Times, the Chronicle of Higher Ed, etc.). Bennett has always been the channel for me to voice them, and they may offer another way of thinking about opportunities in colleges/universities in the U.S. and internationally. It is, after all about education for the kids and enriching their lives.”
Grant Calder has worked in College Consulting and Admissions Counseling for over 30 years and is Director of College Counseling at Friends’ Central School in Philadelphia, where he also teaches American History and German. In the past, he has taught at the University of Pennsylvania, Temple University in Philadelphia, and the Middlesex and Choate boarding schools in New England. Additionally, he was a guest teacher at the Evangelisches Gymnasium zum Grauen Kloster in Berlin, Germany.
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