How You Should Judge Colleges: What Factors Should I Consider in Evaluating Colleges? (page 2)

By — John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
Updated on May 5, 2014

Public versus Private

There are definite differences in attending a public versus private institution. A public university is state funded and usually has lower tuition than a private university. A private university is privately funded, and usually has higher tuition than a public university. If you are a resident of a state, you save money by attending a school in your state’s university system. If you are out of state, prepare to spend more money on tuition; however, it usually costs less money than a private university. One of the biggest bargains is the State University of New York (SUNY) system, which currently does not charge significantly more for out of state residents. When a friend’s son in a neighboring state was looking for a quality but reasonably priced university, I steered his family toward the SUNY system. Other bargains can be found on Kiplinger’s list of “100 Best Values in Public Colleges” available at Private universities generally cost more than public universities, but with scholarships and financial aid, that may not always be the case. Many private universities have endowments, and they use these funds to attract students who are academically gifted or who will add to the diversity of their student population. It would be wise to compare the total costs of all colleges you are considering after you receive a financial aid package.

In addition to the financial aspect, there are other differences between a private and a public university. In times of economic distress, public universities may suffer from budget cuts from their state’s legislature, which could translate into fewer course offerings or larger classes. Private universities are not immune to budget cuts in economic downturns, but they may have more endowments to cover difficult times. Private universities sometimes offer more perks in terms of course offerings, food choices, dorm rooms, smaller class sizes, and more expansive celebrations. Open house receptions may be more lavish in private colleges, but that is a superficial perk which doesn’t affect the academic reputation of a university. Some parents believe a private university is superior academically to a public university, but that is simply not the case especially for the “Public Ivies.” Richard Moll created the term “Public Ivy” (Viking Penguin, Inc., 1985) to refer to public universities which offer an Ivy League quality education at a public university for a deeply discounted price. Moll’s original list of eight public universities has been expanded by Greene’s Guides (Collins, 2001) and others to include additional Public Ivies.

Some Public Ivies

  • Binghamton University, State University of New York (NY)
  • College of William and Mary (VA)
  • Indiana University–Bloomington (IN)
  • Miami University (OH)
  • Rutgers University–New Brunswick, The State University of New Jersey (NJ)
  • University of California (CA)
  • University of Colorado–Boulder (CO)
  • University of Florida–Gainesville (FL)
  • University of Maryland–College Park (MD)
  • University of Michigan–Ann Arbor (MI)
  • University of North Carolina–Chapel Hill (NC)
  • University of Texas–Austin (TX)
  • University of Vermont (VT)
  • University of Virginia (VA)
  • University of Wisconsin–Madison (WI)

Academic Programs

The areas of study or majors offered by a college influence your decision to attend a college or university. Although the terms college and university are usually used interchangeably, there are some differences between them. A college is typically a smaller school which offers various degree programs within one college. They offer degrees at the bachelor’s level, and some also offer degrees at the master’s degree level. A university has several colleges within the broader university that offer specialized programs of study, such as a College or School of Education, Engineering, Nursing, or Business. A university offers more degree programs as well as doctoral level programs, including J.D. (Juris Doctor) and PhD (Doctor of Philosophy).

A majority of students enter college unsure of their major or area of study. It is very common not to know what your future career will be at the age of 17 or 18. One of the goals of attending college is to explore different subject areas, and many colleges encourage exploration during the first two years of school through what they call a core curriculum—a series of courses designed to introduce you to courses in the arts, literature, social sciences, math and sciences, and other areas. Typically, you do not have to declare your major until the end of your sophomore or the beginning of your junior year. It is also not unusual to change your major one or more times. So, how do you take into account academic programs when selecting a college?

Most liberal arts colleges offer psychology, history, math, English, and other common majors. If you are thinking about education, engineering, or business programs, you may want to look at a university where more programs of study are offered. Within the university, they may have separate colleges for different areas of professional study, such as a School of Education, a School of Business, or a School of Engineering. If you are considering a very specific major, such as linguistics, creative writing, broadcasting, physical therapy, or speech pathology, you have to check the list of majors offered at each university to ensure they offer your potential area of study.

Keep in mind that if you are considering going into the medical or legal profession, there is no pre-med or pre-law major in college. Rather, you select pre-law or pre-med as an advisement option. What this means is that you can major in any program of study, as long as you take the required prerequisites to enter a professional program or graduate school. You will be offered an advisor throughout your college years, who helps prepare you for these professional programs after you complete your undergraduate degree.

Student Diversity

Colleges vary widely in the diversity of their college population. Most colleges offer a breakdown of their student population by geographic location and by student diversity. These statistics can be found in the college’s view book (marketing materials sent to students or found in high school guidance offices), on its Web site, or in college guides, which can be found in any public library.

If you are looking for low student diversity and you want to attend college with students similar to you, then you might be interested in a Historically Black college, a religious-affiliated university (Roman Catholic, Methodist, Baptist, etc.), or a women’s college or men’s college.

If you are looking for high student diversity, a larger college or university would tend to have more student diversity, drawing from all areas of the United States and other countries. Some students feel more comfortable living and learning in an environment with others who are like them. Other students prefer to interact with and meet people from a variety of racial, ethnic, and cultural groups.

Male/Female Ratio

The male/female ratio on university campuses has changed to the point where it has become a factor to consider when researching potential colleges. Colleges which have very imbalanced female to male ratios greater than the norm of 60 percent females versus 40 percent males may be in jeopardy of losing students. When our youngest daughter was looking for colleges, she expressed concern over this ratio and it did play a role in choosing which college to attend. She didn’t want to attend a school where the female to male ratio was too lopsided. On the other hand, when a friend’s son heard about the ratio issue, he wanted to apply to schools which had many more females, so it all depends on your perspective!

There are some colleges that work very hard to balance the male/female ratio. This policy, however, can backfire when recruiting students, as it is possible that some well-qualified girls could be rejected in order to attract more boys in order to maintain a gender balance. Other engineering and technical schools, such as Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI), California Institute of Technology (Cal Tech), and Harvey Mudd, struggle to attract more female students, so girls may have a slight advantage in applying to these specialty schools.

If the male/female ratio concerns you, then you should be aware of the ratio at a prospective college. The information about the gender ratio is usually available on a college’s Web site under the “Freshman Profile” or “Class Profile” of the entering class.

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