comparing colleges and universities

As a college admissions consultant with College Coach, I’m frequently asked to compare academics at two different institutions. “Which school offers the better academic experience?”  This is an impossible question to answer because of the incredible variability between institutions and their offerings, not to mention the incredible variability between students (goals, talents, abilities, learning styles, comfort zones, etc.). Nevertheless, it is a question that is asked and so I thought I’d provide an answer… at least to a part of it.

Below is my nearly verbatim response to a student who asked me to compare academics at a large public research institution (call it Big U), a medium-sized public liberal arts and science hybrid (call it Hybrid State College), and a small, niche liberal arts college (call it Lakeview College). Names have been changed to reflect the generality of the discussion:

The academic quality of an institution can be measured in two ways. Firstly, you can look at the highest level of education attained by any single student at that institution. In other words, what’s the upper limit of what you can experience there? If you are driven, motivated, hardworking, and talented, what kind of an academic experience will you have? How good will it be? Secondly, you can look at the range of educational experiences. What’s the difference between the best education a student can get and the worst education a student can get? What happens for students who just show up to class and get by with minimal effort? What do they leave with? (Note here I’m talking about students who graduate, not students who flunk out.)

In terms of the first view of academic quality, the “highest” quality education, Big U is probably best. It will attract the best students in the state, will provide Research I University resources to those students, and they will be able to find tremendous success among their peers. Part of the reason for that success, however, is that they are excellent students who are much more motivated than the other students who attend Big U. I would guess that Big U is the worst of your three options in the measure of the “lowest” educational experience—there are students who show up to class, barely do their work, receive passing grades, and get by without learning much of anything.

Lakeview College will probably have the narrowest range of educational experiences (largely due to its size and community), but will have a lower “high level” of educational attainment. Hybrid State College won’t quite have the resources of Big U, but it is a good public university with enough offerings to give opportunities to students who are motivated to take advantage of them.

What this means for you as a student is that you need to think about the degree to which you will aggressively pursue academic opportunity. If you’re ambitious, a good self-advocate, prioritize academics, and will be a star among others, Big U could be the best experience overall. Hybrid State College is a place where there is more diversity of experience and perspective, where you could be successful with a certain degree of focus but don’t need to be on point and competitive at all times to get the best of all possible worlds. Lakeview College is a place where your experience will likely be good—and probably just good—no matter what kind of effort you put into it. There are safety nets to keep from doing too poorly but a lack of real motivation from peers to accelerate students into the higher end of educational achievement.

So there you have it. Of course, there are always ranges of quality within institutional types, but this is one way to understand the comparison between universities of varying size, scope, and influence.

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Written by Ian Fisher
Ian Fisher is an experienced educational consultant, part of College Coach’s team of college admissions experts. Ian received his master’s in policy, organization, and leadership studies from the Stanford Graduate School of Education. Prior to joining College Coach, Ian worked as a senior admissions officer at Reed College.