One of the tasks I assign all sophomores and juniors who work with me is to visit a small college, a medium-sized college, and a large college. I want them to experience the difference, rather than making a judgment based on hearsay.
When I talk about size, I mean the number of undergraduate students at the school. I had a surprise insight last month when a student visited two colleges that I consider equal in size, but she said one was too small and the other was “just right”. (Yes, it did sound like a line from “Goldilocks and the Three Bears.”) She was comparing the actual physical sizes of the campuses—buildings; green space and quads; and distance from the academic building to the dorms, athletic fields, and gym. By that measure, the schools did differ greatly in size. While I think that the number of students has a greater impact on the quality of the academic experience, it was good for me to realize that the physical size and layout could be what a student takes away about “size” after visiting.
When it comes to college, size matters, and it is important for a student to learn about his or her preferences. Although I sometimes encounter resistance from students who claim they don't want to look at anything so close to home, I explain that if they tell me they love X local college, I can tell them about some similar colleges in alternative locations. The Fiske Guide to Colleges (available at your local library) shows common “cross-over” or “overlap” colleges—meaning that students who applied to X college also often applied to Y college. Many of the more subjective sites like College Confidential have long threads about overlap schools. Some of the crossovers are based on geography, but many are based on the campus culture, type of programs, and selectivity.
Many juniors who can afford to do so use spring break to take a trip to a distant geography to look at schools. By doing some college visits close to home first, it is easier to narrow the list of far-away schools to visit.
A family without discretionary funds probably shouldn't spend money to travel across the country to look at schools. That same $1,000-$2,500 could be saved for college tuition or reserved until April of senior year when the student has acceptances and financial aid packages in hand. That's a smart time to visit.
Please note that schools of similar size may be completely dissimilar in terms of other factors and the overall college experience. For example, I do not think that Lewis & Clark and Reed are alike. They attract different sorts of students. Size is only one of many factors to consider when looking for good match schools, and for many students it’s a good place to start the exploration process.