The Stakes Are Big: Choose Small

11/06/2012 09:53 am ET | Updated Jan 06, 2013

Millions of Americans are about to make one of the most important decisions of their lives. Their choice will greatly affect the next four years and ultimately determine the trajectory of their future. The undecided are getting bombarded with advertising, direct mail, and pressure from friends and family. Many find themselves adrift in a sea of information. No, I am not talking about the upcoming presidential election, but, rather, the need this fall for millions of high school seniors and their families to choose their path in higher education.

Unlike in the political arena, there are thousands of higher education candidates from which to choose. Deciding the right fit is a daunting task. A critical factor when assessing school options is size, and with size comes the distinction between colleges and universities. In the United States, we often use these terms interchangeably. Some say, for example, I go to college at a university. In fact, the two kinds of institutions are radically different in purpose and in the type of education a student receives.

Universities tend to be very large, in part because they offer graduate programs in subjects like law, medicine, and social work in addition to providing undergraduate education.

Because the primary function of a university is to conduct research to expand human knowledge, most faculty members are focused on and compensated for research, not teaching. Undergraduate classes tend to be very large, with 500 or even 700 students attending the same lecture. Students rarely have significant interaction with professors outside of class. Instead, graduate students do most of the grading and teaching. This works well for some types of learners.

Colleges tend to be very different. Schools like Amherst, Pomona, Bryn Mawr, and my own Reed College in Portland, Ore., are more intimate places. Class sizes are small, often involving 15 students or fewer who learn together around a seminar table. Students get individualized attention from the start of their higher education experience, regardless of whether they are a class standout, someone who is struggling with difficult material, or somewhere in between.

Since there are no graduate assistants, professors are the primary teachers and they know students on a first-name basis. Because college campuses are generally smaller, with fewer students, casual discussions over coffee and lunches happen much more frequently. This access can be very important. In my own case, for example, the most important conversations I had in college about my intellectual development and future career were held outside of class, with professors who knew me well enough as a person to provide thoughtful, insightful advice.

Faculty research is a vital component at both kinds of schools. College faculty members are often world-class researchers, just like their university counterparts. They are much more likely, however, to involve their undergraduate students in their research agenda. At Reed, for example, hundreds of students majoring in the sciences and social sciences assist faculty with lab work. This close collaboration between faculty and undergraduate students often leads to co-authored academic papers for publication -- a rarity at universities.

Institution size also has an enormous impact on social life. Some students may have found high school too small and cloistered. For them, a giant university with thousands of fellow first-year students may feel right. Other students, however, may prefer to live and study among peers who know their names and recognize their faces.

Finally, the emphasis on sports is another significant difference between colleges and universities. Major universities possess enormous sports complexes where a few elite athletes play before crowds of tens of thousands of fans. Many athletes are only there to showcase their skills for professional teams. Colleges, by contrast, value participating in sports as a player, not a spectator, because they believe sport is important to develop teamwork and leadership skills. College sports tend to be less competitive, and games are not typically televised. Players may be less skilled than university students, and much less likely to pursue sports as a career. But they are also true student-athletes, and their primary focus remains in the classroom -- and that's no small difference.