Thu, 29 Sep 2022

A private advantage?

Posted on Monday, July 21, 2008

A private university often figures high on the list of students opting to study in the US, often at the cost of disregarding reputed public institutions. Niyati Chheda-Gala elaborates on the pros and cons of private and public higher education in the US

You might have thought that the higher education sector is one area unaffected by the hoopla associated with ‘snob’ value, but for many students, who will soon be applying to universities abroad, the decision-making process does not depend on the ranking/ rating of the university or the scholarships available alone. A large part of the decision is based on whether the university in question is a private school or university.
Private schools carry tags of ‘exclusivity’, ‘privilege’, and of course, ‘snob appeal’. While a lot of the top-ranked universities across the globe are private schools, a student should ideally choose a private school for academic or career-related reasons only. A student should lay far more importance on the course curriculum, programme rankings, quality of research, and his future prospects once he graduates.
Cost concerns

With private institutions, the first thing that comes to mind is the steep tuition and funding. State schools are not only less expensive, they also have a good deal of funding. Robert Birgeneau, Chancellor, University of California, Berkeley, a flagship state university, reveals, “Typically, about 75 per cent of all undergraduate students receive one or more types of financial aid - grants, scholarships, loans or work-study. Usually around 53 per cent of students receive need-based aid, and 95 per cent of those students receive a grant or scholarship that covers part or all of their fees.” Chancellor Herman from the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign, shares a similar view. He says, “77 per cent of our students receive some form of financial aid. This is applicable to all students. The percentage for undergraduates is slightly lower and the percentage for graduates or professionals is slightly higher.”
Nikhil Nilakantan, a student pursuing an MS in electrical engineering at the Missouri University of Science and Technology, says, “The reason I chose Missouri was the great funding opportunities available, excellent research facilities for my area of interest, and low tuition fees. The course fee was approximately $7500 for nine credit hours for a semester and I received a teaching assistantship, as well as a research assistantship after one semester.”
Students at private universities, however, have a different tale to tell. Divya Venepally, who is pursuing the MS biotechnology programme at Georgetown University, not only had $24,000 going towards tuition fees, but had no tuition or fee waivers to help her along either. “There are no waivers or scholarships given out for a one-year programme,” she laments. This, however, may change according to Chancellor Herman, “Private universities are trying to bring down the cost of their education. The rising cost of higher education at both private and public universities is having a noticeable effect. These annual increases are making it increasingly hard, if not prohibitive, to send students to college.”
An elite club?

Is it true that private universities are increasingly choosy about whom they admit when compared to a state university? Chancellor Herman offers, “The difference between the two is the selectivity. Although we are a select public research university, the privates, the very elite privates, tend to be much more selective in terms of ratio of acceptances to applications. The elite privates have much smaller class sizes.” Chancellor Birgeneau adds, “First, it is important to acknowledge that there is great diversity in private education in the United States. So we will answer this question keeping in mind private institutions that are our peer schools - essentially the Ivy League schools along with Stanford, MIT, Duke and other select institutions. Private institutions naturally receive fewer applications than UC Berkeley. We are a state school, and as such, enroll more students and are much less expensive than all elite private institutions.”
“There is no doubt that cost-of-attendance has the effect of generating more applications for public universities; the availability of financial aid notwithstanding, many students do eliminate the option of applying to very expensive private colleges/ universities. Public institutions also enroll more students per campus than almost every private institution, and that limited supply at private schools affects demand,” adds Chancellor Birgeneau.
Strength in (smaller) numbers

Another advantage with private schools is the class size. The better and more prestigious the institution, the smaller the class size, and the easier it is for students to have direct interaction with their professors. Arguably, private schools have a smaller class size and a more favourable teacher-student ratio. So what are the class sizes at public universities? “At University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign,” says Chancellor Herman, “30 per cent of our undergraduate classes have between 20 and 29 students. 25 per cent have between 10 and 19 students”.
Work wise

How do prospective employers perceive students from public or private colleges? Most universities have recruiters swarming their campuses to interview and hire students. “We have regular job fairs for our students and many corporate recruiters come to our campus searching for talent. Also, our Research Park features many global corporations such as Yahoo, Caterpillar, State Farm, John Deere, as well as start-up companies whose seeds were sown by students and faculty at our university. The Research Park is a vibrant training ground for our students and allows corporations to recruit and, in many cases, hire our graduates,” explains Chancellor Herman. Adds Chancellor Birgeneau, “Employers are more concerned with the reputation and quality of faculty and less with tags of ‘private’ or ‘public’.”
All in all, to an employer, it does not matter what kind of institute you graduate from. Confirms Chancellor Herman, “I very much doubt it does. We have a great reputation for graduating young women and men who go on to launch PayPal, YouTube, Eudora, and who go on to head Fortune 500 companies, win Nobel Prizes and Pulitzers.”
Employer insights

What do recruiters themselves have to say about this? We spoke to Mark Zozulia, Principal, Deloitte Consulting and Partner Sponsor for Technology Recruiting at Indiana University. Says Zozulia, “Last year, we were one of Indiana University’s (IU) largest employers with 70 students. This includes full-time hires and internships across all of our functions (audit/ risk, tax, consulting and financial advisory), with the largest number going into consulting. We hire from the Kelley School of Business Undergraduate and Graduate programmes. We also recruit from the School of Informatics and Computer Science and have recently made in-roads into the School of Library Sciences.”
“Our stringent selection criteria spans across all schools that we hire from nationally. We also ensure that all of our individual recruiting teams for each school have a consistent level of training and understanding about the selection criteria. This ensures we hire the most talented students, regardless of public versus private institutions. From a personal perspective, I do recognise that there is an inherent prestige in graduating from some private schools and that there might be additional opportunities in the marketplace provided to those students. However, from a Deloitte perspective, I feel we look at public and private schools in the same light. It is based on school culture, programme curriculum and ranking,” adds Zozulia.
In conclusion

So what do we make of the buzz surrounding this new trend? Says Chancellor Herman, “With such high stakes, the private and public entities are now in fierce competition for dollars and brains. This competition manifests itself most dramatically in an arms race to claim the largest endowment, relying on that old adage, that when it comes to endowments, size does matter. This sadly can drive a wedge between public and private institutes, and this division ultimately serves no one well. And, there is a chance that public universities will have to contract to maintain that comprehensiveness in the face of decreasing state support. This will be difficult. This would be a shame given the great strength and tradition of American public education. In the end, it’s about access to the American higher educational experience.”
Adds Nikhil, “Public schools do tend to be a lot cheaper than the private ones. Funding opportunities also probably increase. But, job prospects might not be all that great. If you really are interested in research in a certain area, please go through the university’s web page for projects. You get better jobs if you have research under your belt. A thesis student does better as compared to a non-thesis student. But if you are unable to take the load of course work as well as research, then probably just look for a well-ranked university with lots of field-related companies in the area.”
Confirms Divya, “I think that the focus should be on the kind of course and experience that school has to offer. There are a lot of private schools with excellent brand value, but that should not be your only reason for choosing that school. And on the flipside, if a private school offers excellent course structure and charges a higher fee for the same, one should not back off just because of the monetary issues.” During the admission process, Divya had offers from Georgetown University (private), University of Houston – Clearlake (public), University of Alabama – Huntsville (public). The course duration at both the public schools was two years and the fee was around $10,000 per year and the course structure was ordinary at best. But when it came to Georgetown, the fee was twice that of the public schools and the course was about one year long. “For me, it made perfect sense to choose the university with an excellent course structure, and complete my degree in a year, though I had to pay a higher fee,” she concludes. 


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