What Is a Medium-Sized University?

What does it mean when a teenager says, “I want to go to a medium-sized university?”

In the last couple of posts I’ve been discussing the issue of college size. Kids often base a great deal of their decision about college on its size and I’ve been suggesting reasons why that can be a problem. Here are my past two college blog posts on the subject:

Do You Know the Difference Between a College and a University?

What is a Research University?

Today I want to focus on what students typically get when they set their sites on a medium-sized school. A medium-sized university will often be in the range of 4,000 to 15,000 students.

These medium-sized universities do not always offer PhD programs. The highest degree that a student can earn at some of these universities is a master’s degree. Some of these schools will also maintain a law school.

These schools have often been referred to as master’s universities. US News & World Report, however, recently began categorizing them as regional universities. Here is the link to lists of regional universities, broken down by region, at US News & World Report’s website. You can also find the lists in the print copy of US News & World Report’s America’s Best Colleges.

What’s a Master’s University?

Just like liberal arts colleges, these master’s universities offer the traditional liberal arts and science majors such as biology, physics, math, languages, economics, psychology and history. But these medium-sized schools also offer more career-oriented degrees such as business, engineering, nursing, kinesiology and law enforcement.

You will find many Catholic universities in this regional or master’s university category. Beyond the prestigious state flagship universities, many public universities also fall into this master’s degree category. A lot of people believe that the flagship universities offer the best education for undergrads among state schools, but it would be a mistake to assume that this  is always the case.

Because these schools don’t have the rabid focus on research as flagship institutions due to fewer or no PhD programs, professors at these universities could be more accessible. I think the quality and dedication to undergrads by professors is going to vary by school and academic department and that’s something that I think families need to try to assess.

Funding for Regional Universities

Here’s one worrisome feature of state master’s-level universities: less funding. The flagships often get to eat at the state budget trough first and the regional schools get the scraps. This is a major reason why regional state universities often have alarmingly low four-year graduation rates. Education snobs will say that flagships enjoy better four-year grad rates than the regional schools because they attract smarter kids, but studies have shown that funding (or lack of funding) is the main reason.

There are plenty of state flagship school that possess dismal four-year grad rates as well.  Before committing to any college or university, check its four-year grad rate at College Results Online.

Evaluating Master’s Universities

Evaluating master’s-degree universities, whether public or private, is going to be a bit trickier than evaluating liberal arts colleges. Because of their size and mission, liberal arts colleges routinely offer small classes that allow students to know their professors and have opportunities for undergraduate research.

When looking at master’s-degree universities, you’ll have to pay close attention to what typical class sizes are in general and in your expected major and what kind of access to professors you will have. At private universities, you should have access to smaller classes — you will be paying enough for this — but it’s not a given.

In seeking answers, don’t just ask the universities. For the real scoop, talk to students.

Lynn O’Shaughnessy is the author of The College Solution, an Amazon bestseller, and she also write a college blog for CBSMoneyWatch and US News. Follow her on Twitter.

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