Is Bigger Really Better?

Stacey Wetmore
University of Alabama Huntsville

There is a common misconception that bigger is always better. This idea, however, may not be the best advice when choosing a college. Of course the big schools get most of the attention with well-funded sports programs and research hospitals, but there are many pros and cons for both. The most important thing is to find the environment in which you will fit the best. When entering a psychology program at the undergraduate level, overlooking the smaller programs could be a big mistake. Small programs, just like the big programs, can give their students the advantages that are really necessary for success in the future.

A great advantage to attending a smaller program in psychology is the average class size. Stepping into a huge lecture hall with 200 students or more for a lower-division class can be daunting. In that large setting, if you are the type of student that would be afraid to ask a question about last week's assignment or about a concept that was just introduced, a large institution may not be the best choice for you. In a smaller program these types of huge class situations rarely exist. Having smaller class sizes allows for more interaction between students and professors. With fewer individuals in the class it is more likely that the professor will remember your name and get to know you much earlier in your college career. Forming good rapport with professors is really important, and at a smaller college this is much easier to accomplish. Larger institutions typically have many graduate students, as well. This can mean that the faculty are more involved with graduate thesis projects, dissertations, and their own research; they may not have enough time to really dedicate to undergraduate students.

Another benefit of attending a smaller program is the individualized attention you can get from professors. With a smaller class size each professor can dedicate more time with each student that seeks his/her help or guidance. If a professor has two office hours it is more likely that he or she will be able to help more students from a class of only 70, as opposed to 200. A smaller program also enables you to network with the professors and fellow students creating a tight knit community within your department. At the graduate level this networking is invaluable. Being able to contact professors or fellow student is the best way to better your own understanding.

Early in any undergraduate's career it is reinforced that participation in a research laboratory is vital to future success. Whether you enter a large or small psychology program, this element remains key. A small program is advantageous at the undergraduate level because those students can become involved at a much deeper level and be recognized, possibly even through publication, for their work. Even though the choice of what type of research lab you can enter may be limited at a smaller institution, the experiences and hands-on work are priceless. At smaller universities there are many more opportunities for lower-level students to take advantage of, whereas at the larger institutions those opportunities would be given to the most advanced junior and seniors.

Large psychology programs can have their perks but it is not say that small programs should be overshadowed. Small programs oftentimes allow for a more personal experience. In general, many people are successful thinking small for undergrad and big for grad. At the undergraduate level it is more important to get best foundation for future learning and research within your field; it is at the graduate level where you get to add to the field from what you have already learned. The best thing is to identify where you would fit. So after a tour of that big school, do not be afraid to check out some smaller colleges. Bigger may really not always be better!

Author Note:

Stacy Wetmore graduated from the Univeristy of Alabama in Huntsville in December and plans to enter the Master's program there this upcoming fall.  She plans to continue working within the field of Law and Human Behavior, focusing on forms of Post-Identification Feedback effects.