Understand College Campus and Student Body Size

Find the right college for you.

How the Size of a College Impacts Your Experience

College is often the first time students like you are away from home and living on their own. You’ll meet people from countless cultures, different backgrounds, and every age group. And with just a little bit of openness, you can make lifelong friendships.

A key factor in your college experience could be the size of the student body, as well as the campus size. These factors directly impact everything from the social scene to available programs and even the people you meet.

Large universities may have a wide variety of programs and activities to participate in, but at a smaller institution you’ll benefit from the more intimate experience of a tight-knit community. You can also take advantage of more advisory support. Carefully consider which option might be best for you.


How Many Sizes Do Colleges Come In?

Colleges in the U.S. range from 5,000 to 15,000 enrolled students. Moreover, some institutions have just a few hundred students while others have more than 60,000. The average college size is 6,354 students, according to a 2020 survey by the U.S. News & World Report. Let’s take a look at how population size varies across different types of schools.

How Big Are Universities?

Though the terms “university” and “college” are used interchangeably in the U.S. (and in this article), a university technically refers to a larger institution that offers a variety of undergraduate and graduate programs. You’ll often see individual departments within a university referred to as colleges, such as the “College of Education.”

As such, a university is usually larger than a college that focuses on a few areas. For both universities and colleges, a population size is considered small when it has under 5,000 students and large when it has over 15,000 students.

Are Private Schools Smaller Than Public Schools?

Because private colleges or universities tend to have more focused curricula and higher tuition costs, they're usually smaller than public schools. Public universities and colleges receive government funding, offer more programs, and have a larger student population.

Do State Schools Have Larger Student Populations?

Although the student population varies from school to school, public state colleges have larger student populations than their private counterparts. Of the top 10 colleges that enrolled the most undergraduates in 2020, only one was a private institution.

How Does College Size Relate to Class Size?

The sizes of your classes in college will have a significant effect on your overall learning experience and social life. If you're attending a large university, you can expect to have some classes in lecture halls, sometimes with well over 100 students. Think about the type of environment you prefer to learn in. Consider how college size might impact that. If you prefer smaller classes, a small college is right for you. Learn more about campus size by reviewing each college profile on BigFuture.

Regardless of the college you attend, your classes will be larger in your first few semesters. Class sizes shrink as you move into higher-level, major-specific courses.

Class Size Can Be Misleading.

Trying to quantify the average college class size can be misleading. In truth, no matter what the size of your college is, you’ll have a wide range of classes sizes during your college career. The “average class size in college” is simply a median of all classes across different programs. The average class size you’ll personally experience probably won’t reflect this median. Even students within the same major can take the same classes and still experience a noticeable difference in size. Say, for example, that a student takes classes for their major later in the afternoon or evening because of a daytime job. They’ll have fewer students in their class because more of their peers will attend during the day.

The larger the population of your school, the larger your class sizes will be. The benefits of small class size in college are more hands-on learning, a stronger relationship with your professors, and the opportunity to stand out.

How Does the Size of College Impact the Social Climate on Campus?

A big campus often means a big social life. Large universities will be teeming with activities during the semester. From Greek life to sporting events, there won’t be a dull moment.

Want to take up indoor cycling in your spare time? Trying to find a club that celebrates your cultural heritage? A large campus has a larger selection of activities to choose from, but that doesn’t mean you won’t be able to find a community at a small institution.

Because smaller colleges have fewer students, you may find that classmates are closer to one another and have a stronger sense of community. Campus activities can often overlap, and you may see the same faces. Regardless of whether you attend a large or small institution, you’ll find ways to build community through shared interests or common majors.

How Does the Student Population Affect Your Social Life?

Social life at school is all about what you make of it regardless of population size. Think about the ways you make friends and engage with others. Consider whether a small school or large school could be a better fit for you. Maybe you like to participate in a dozen different clubs and activities to find friends. Perhaps you prefer being part of smaller campus with more opportunities to stand out among your peers. Regardless of campus size, you’ll have the opportunity to build deep friendships and explore various activities. But keep this in mind when making your choice: Campus size can inform your overall college experience.

Does the Size of a College Determine the Activities Offered?

You’ll often see a seemingly infinite number of activities offered at colleges, and some of this is because of the large size of the campus. However, smaller institutions can have more freedom of choice. Students have autonomy. They’re able to create clubs and activities that interest them.

Do Larger Schools Offer More Intramural Sports?

Most colleges will have intramural sports, but a larger school means more sports to choose from and more events. If you’re enthusiastic about playing sports recreationally and you want to make friends through sports in college, then the population size is definitely something to consider. It’s a good idea to check with the institutions you are applying to see if there’s a particular club or activity you hope to participate in.

Do Smaller Schools Offer More or Fewer Clubs Than Larger Colleges?

Smaller schools will usually offer fewer clubs than larger schools, but that doesn’t mean you can’t participate in things that interest you if you attend a small college. If you can find enough students who share your hobbies and passions, start your own club.

Finding the Right College

When choosing the college that’s right for you, population size matters. It’s important to consider what type of environment and location you’ll be happiest in. The number of students will shape the way you make friends, learn in class, and get involved in activities. Use the BigFuture college search feature to make sure the size of your chosen school lines up with your goals and aspirations, or learn more with Sizing Up Colleges: Big vs Small.