As I often do, I checked out some new posts on www.financialsamuari.com and I came across a new post by a guest blogger from The Money Commando called Why Do Smart Kids Make Dumb Decisions About Private School. In a previous post of mine, I delved into where I thought much of the spending on schools is going and how people can save for college. However in this post I would like to share one area where I feel that I have some experience, whether to attend a private university or a public one.
As The Money Commando pointed out, many students will not end up paying the full astronomical price of private university college tuition. At Stanford and Harvard University if your family makes less than $65 thousand you will not pay any tuition and if they make more than $65 thousand but less than $150 thousand, then they will get significant financial help. So if you are a great student who got into a public school where you may still have to pay, vs. a private school were you won’t have to pay, the choice is pretty simple (see the example below of the grants and aid available at one private university based on income). However the reality is, most people will fall somewhere in between, they will have to pay something but this is complicated by the fact that not too many people have documented the difference between the college experience at a private and a public school.
My Experience at the Large Public University
Luckily, I have attended a wide range of schools across the country that have included community college, a top large public university on the West Coast, and a selective private university on the East Coast. Each of which had its own advantages. As I noted in my comment on the post:
I have attended them all, community college, a large public school and a small private university. I have to say that each had its advantages and disadvantages. I built a much better network and contacts at the smaller private school and the community college had professors who could focus individually on each student and seemed to really enjoy what they did. The large public university introduced me to the reality of being just another fish in the sea and that I would have to find my own path.
I took a psychological test the other day and one of the questions I answered “True” without delay was “Do you have absolute confidence in yourself and your abilities?” This confidence was honed at the large public university. I agree at the author’s description of people being relatively smart at all types of schools. However at a large school, we had what they called “weed out” classes for majors like engineering (which I started in) these were classes of 500 people that were graded on a curve. The students scoring on the lower half in too many of these classes were denied being able to continue in their major. I had always felt a sense of inferiority to the other students from the suburbs and rich cities because I attended high school in a poor urban community in New York. These classes taught me that I could compete with anyone out there. I had to do the hard work and build the confidence to walk into a room with 500 smart people and know that I could walk out with the highest score in the class. That coldness and dose of reality never left me and I always knew that I had to work hard but that I could compete with the best of them.
In other words, having to compete against a large group of people gave me the confidence to face anything. If you are from an urban area or a poor school district, it is easy to think that society has left you behind and thinks you are dirt. I was often dogged by self-doubt that once I left my incubator where everyone else was an underachiever, therefore making me look really studious and smart, that I would find I wouldn’t be that great and I may not make it. I will never forget that my guidance counselor, so jaded from seeing promising students leave school and fail over his career, told me I shouldn’t even bother going to the large public school once I was accepted, because I probably wouldn’t make it there.
Not only did I make it, but my self-doubt pushed me to challenge myself, taking what was considered one of the toughest majors (engineering) and some of the most challenging classes and being able to compete with some of the brightest people. I ended up switching my engineering major, not because I couldn’t make it but because I wanted to spend half a year abroad learning Spanish.
That would prove to be a fateful decision that would affect me to this day. This was the time of Ricky Martin and Salsa becoming popular and everyone seemed to think in only a few years Spanish was going to take over the US and we would all be speaking it in another decade or so. It is silly to think now, but at the time I thought “boy I better learn this because what if everybody is required to speak Spanish for work when I get out of school? I am going to need to learn it to get a job!” So in addition to all my calculus, physics and chemistry classes, I took every level of Spanish offered every semester until I was nominally fluent by my sophomore year. I spent about a year studying and traveling in Spain and Europe which I would not have traded for being able to graduate with an engineering degree and get a job more quickly. This proved to be fateful because when I was laid off in the midst of the mortgage crisis in 2008, I was able to find a job that required Spanish and the math background I had which helped to make me stand out from the crowd of applicants. In a way, the large public university allowed me to bounce around majors and disciplines and be able to take advantage of my various interests. If you do not have the drive this may not be the environment for you.
The Small Private University
I went straight to graduate school in finance from undergraduate at a completely different type of school, it was a small private university in the Northeast. The first thing I found is that there was much more individual attention and closeness of the student body. I took few if any courses that were graded on a curve and there seemed to be much more of an attitude of helping students along towards graduation rather than the sink or swim mentality I saw at the large public university. This has advantages and disadvantages. If I were say, an average to above average student who wanted go into a particular field but didn’t want to be subject to the heartless competition of a large public school, I may prefer to attend a small private university. However in certain subjects the sink or swim mentality of the large school worked well because it forced me to be more disciplined. Although the last Spanish class I took was 11 years ago, I still am fluent in Spanish while I still struggle with the French I learned from the small private university. This I feel was due to the “help the students along mentality” that contributed to grade inflation and lack of discipline in some of my studies there when it came to teaching French.
In their defense, due to the closeness of the student body, I still have a strong range of contacts from the private school and I think a contact from this school would be much more likely to assist me in getting hired than someone from the large public school I attended. Whether you want to pay 5 times the price of a public university to be able to have a stronger network of contacts from your school days is debatable but I personally would say it is not necessary.
The Community College
In my final year of high school, I spent a year going to community college. Community college offered a lot of flexibility in terms of times of classes if you were working and the professors seemed to like their jobs and care about the student’s progression. I found the course work to be much easier than that of a university (private or public) more on par with what I liked to call the 13th grade than that of a 4 year school.
In New York though, in terms of cost, the community colleges did offer a big advantage through what is called the 2+2 program. Something I think a lot of people would not consider just for the fact that it involves community college. In this program, students attend 2 years of community college and the final 2 years at a state university. The community college fees are much cheaper so there are savings in the first few years (not to mention the cheaper cost of living if you are staying at home with your parents). Looking back I found this to be an attractive option because once the degree is on your resume, there isn’t necessarily a need to explain where you got it or that you spent half the time at community college, you just name your graduation year, the university and the major.
Some people have also parlayed 2 years at a community college into finishing their final 2 years at a private college, in order to save money and maybe to enhance their profile if they didn’t get in the first time. This again, has it’s advantages and drawbacks, many private schools do not accept candidates 2 years in so it will depend on where you want to go. However it could significantly cut the cost of a private school as can be seen below.
So Which is Best?
Looking back and given my experience in the job market since then, I would say that the cheaper state schools are the way to go. Most employers know nowadays that there are talented students at a wide range of schools and it doesn’t make sense to pay many more times the price of an education for the connections of prestige that a degree from a selective university offers. I would say that every experience is what you make it. Use college as a time to get out of your comfort zone, learn another language, and learn it well. Take challenging courses, study abroad. These types of experiences will make you a much more well-rounded and interesting individual once you leave school, exactly the type of person that companies will want to hire.
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