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Big School, Small School: What's the Best Fit?

Risa Nye

I have three young adult children. One went to a very large public university and the other two attended small liberal arts colleges.

How did it happen? Why did the oldest and youngest choose small schools and the middle one make the choice to go big? The reasons are as different as the kids themselves.

From oldest to youngest, then. My daughter was always a trailblazer. She was the first to do a lot of things, simply because she was “the first.” But beyond this, she also showed a fearlessness, starting on the morning she dropped my hand to march into her first day of preschool. No looking back, no hanging onto my leg. Her eagerness to take on any new challenge with perseverance has been a trademark, up to and including earning a graduate degree while working full-time and raising her two children.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. In our family, pretty much everyone had attended college in our home state of California. My husband and I graduated from UC Berkeley, and three of my daughter's four grandparents went to college in California, too. She agreed to apply to several of the UC campuses, but from the start she had her eye on the other side of the country.

After careful research, she and I planned a trip to look at some of the schools that appealed to her — a collection of small liberal arts colleges surrounded by trees ablaze with fall colors. We walked around historic campuses with stone buildings and charming duck ponds, following tour guides who walked backwards pointing out every important landmark while regaling us with quaint campus tales.

Some she found enchanting, and others not so much. She was looking for a school with no football, no fraternities, and small classes where she could wrestle ideas to the ground with fellow students and faculty. She could tell, after several of these visits, where she felt she belonged. As her driver and companion, I learned to stay in the back of the parent pack and watch as she peppered her hapless tour guides with questions.

She settled on a college with a student body of around 1,200. In the first week of classes, one of her professors asked if anyone was interested in babysitting. My daughter’s hand shot up, and so began a mentorship with faculty that lasted all four years and beyond. At this small school, it was easy to join in volunteer activities that took her to inner city Philadelphia and take advantage of the opportunity to study abroad. Except for the first time she got sick far away from home — and that first endless winter — she had no misgivings about her choice.

My middle child and older son also looked east, but his search was focused on a particular area of study: theater. Having done his due diligence, we visited schools known for their acting programs. We hit early snow in Chicago, but again saw the east coast in its most colorful season. We took a cross-town bus in Manhattan, got lost in Connecticut, and enjoyed a lovely train ride through the Hudson River Valley.

Back in California, we were overwhelmed by the size and scope of UCLA. How, then, did he end up there?

Now, this kid had a history of resisting change. We had to ease him off the tricycle when he got too big, and gently sort through his favorite t-shirts when they got too small. He was never keen on jumping into the next thing, no matter how exciting the next thing might be. But he did love performing and wanted a school where he could do that in a supportive (as opposed to cutthroat) atmosphere. His girlfriend at the time had some of the best advice: leaving a small, not very diverse high school for a large university would be enough change — heading to a large campus in another part of the country might prove to be too much change all at once.

His father and I tried to remain neutral while secretly hoping he would decide to stay in state and go to the big university an hour’s flight away. He did, and had the opportunity to perform, write, direct, do a radio show, and otherwise make the most of being in a place full of resources for honing his acting chops. He learned that, at the Big U, when you have an administrative problem, it takes two phone calls and a visit in person to get it resolved. No one holds your hand. He gained an important life skill which has served him well.

Finally, the youngest of the three. This time around, my husband accompanied "college trips" that combined major league baseball games with a campus tour or two. (With the Phillies, Red Sox and Yankees all conveniently playing home games, they got in more innings than outings.) We all toured the small liberal arts college in Oregon my second son eventually attended.

How did he decide? This was the child for whom grades didn’t really matter; or rather, he got good grades, but they weren’t a motivating factor. During a second visit on his own, he realized that he had “found his people” (his words). This small college allowed him to blossom and shine among a group of students who shared his interests and weren’t crushed by an intense academic atmosphere. I think he would have been lost at a big school. He might not have found the courage to try new things, find an on-campus job with no nudging from his parents, and make lifelong friends.

Three kids, three different approaches. I learned that there is no such thing as “one size fits all” when it comes to helping our children choose a college. Whether they go big or go small, the key is finding the right fit, and figuring out what they need to succeed at the school they attend.

Risa Nye is a California native. Her books, articles and essays can be found at She co-edited the anthology Writin’ on Empty: Parents Reveal the Upside, Downside, and Everything in Between When Children Leave the Nest. Her Ms. Barstool column and other articles appear in She also writes for After returning to graduate school in 2009, she earned an MFA in Creative Writing. Her memoir, There Was a Fire Here (SheWritesPress), was published in 2016. She lives in Oakland, CA with her husband.
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