The first main difference is the cost. If you are attending a large, state school, chances are your cost for tuition and room and board will be significantly lower than if you were attending a small liberal arts school. The reasoning is simple, large public universities get financial support not only from alumni, students and commercial partners, but from the government as well. Small liberal arts colleges must rely heavily on alumni donations and student tuition and fee money to run their school, thus increasing the need for tuition to be higher.
Another big difference is class size. Although as a senior in either case you will have small classes, with lots of one on one time with faculty members, there is a big difference in the class sizes you will see in these two schools as a freshman. Large public schools will often offer classes with up to 100 students, in large lecture halls, taught by TAs (teaching assistants who are graduate students) for introductory classes. Small liberal arts schools pride themselves on keeping classes small, allowing student more individual attention from their teacher.
Curriculum also has something to do with it. While you can get a great education that will land you your dream career at either school, there are some differences to be aware of. Liberal Arts schools tout seminar-style classes, based on discussions and student dialogue. They provide a student with a well-rounded education focused on critical thinking, global awareness, and practical learning. (Which makes you marketable for a wide range of career opportunities.) Large schools also have these style classes, but they have a more limited general education curriculum and wider range of major classes to choose from. It is also true that larger schools will have a wider variety of major and degree programs, so if you are hoping to study something very specific, a larger school may be able to accommodate your needs better.
Then there’s employer visibility. Large schools attract a lot of employers. It’s just a fact. With a much larger pool of students to recruit from, companies tend to focus their recruiting seasons on larger schools. Larger schools often come equipped with more facility space too, so on-campus interviewing is a perk of recruiting from a large institution. And with corporate partnerships and state-sponsored internships housed at these schools, students will have a lot of opportunities to get their resume in front of employers. Smaller schools will still attract employers, and internships are still a vital part of a liberal arts education, they just often don’t hold the perks associated with a larger career center, and students may be required to do more leg-work. However, you are more likely to stand out to an employer if you are seeking out an internship or are able to showcase yourself better at a job fair (easier to do in a crowd of 500 rather than 5,000), which a small liberal arts school allows. Plus, with smaller schools, faculty and staff are more aware of each student’s career aspirations and often can provide students additional assistance finding internships or fellowships, because they have a personal connection with the student. (Since classes are smaller and faculty can spend more time working individually with students.)
The last main difference is student life. These two schools offer different campus environments. Both will have athletics and student clubs and dining options, but everything at the large, public school will be on a grander scale. Sports games will attracts tens of thousands of students and alumni, adding great school spirit to a student body and passion for a school, but clogging traffic and creating a tailgating climate on the weekends. There will be hundreds of clubs to choose from, allowing students to follow any interest they could dream up, but it will be harder to crack in to a leadership role in these groups. Smaller schools will have lots of clubs and organizations to join with less competition for leadership roles, but there won’t be the wide range of clubs to join and you may have to actually start a club to participate in the one you want. Sports are still a vital part of a small school, but they are not the main revenue-generating force of a school, meaning facilities will be smaller and the attention-grabbing headlines fewer. You will also find your social life could be very different between the two schools, as you will be a little fish in a big pond at the larger schools, and a big fish in a little pond at smaller schools. So you may be more recognizable at a smaller school, and have an easier time retaining your anonymity at a large school.
While you can see there are a lot of differences between large and small schools, it is important to note that both types will give you a great education, with lots of career opportunities, and a college experience you’ll never forget. While they are different from each other, neither option is better than another. It really is up to you to figure out which type of campus works well for you.