Considering Public Colleges & Universities: Why Go Public?

by
Associate Vice President of Planning, Enrollment Management, and Student Affairs, California State University, East Bay

Why should you study at a public college or university? In short, they offer a huge variety of experiences and unparalleled opportunities for learning, career preparation, and meaningful social and cultural development—all at an affordable cost!

The variety of educational experiences available at public colleges and universities is too vast and varied to summarize. With a public university education, you can pursue any career, but also at a school that specifically fits you—in fact, the challenge will be choosing between all of your potential “right matches.”

Narrowing things down

To help make sense of the many options and begin making selections, you should start thinking about the qualities in a college that matter the most to you. A good place to start is location. You may prefer a particular state or a certain region of the country, or you may want an urban, suburban, or rural setting. Whatever you have in mind, you’re in luck, because the range of public universities in this country covers it all. So start thinking about which state, which region, and then which type of community appeals to you, and begin making a preliminary list.

Below are some of the factors to keep in mind as you sort through the options and narrow down the incredible variety of choices before you.

Your fellow students

Many people think of public universities as large institutions on expansive campuses, teeming with students and faculty—and this is often true. However, there are also many smaller and mid-sized institutions. For example, the largest public university system in the United States, the California State University system, has campuses that range from around 1,000 students to over 30,000, with many sizes in between. At any public school, the number of students affects the style and the tone of the campus, as well as the experiences awaiting students there. For example, are you looking for high-intensity Division I athletics? While you can find it at small- or medium-sized schools, at big campuses it’s almost guaranteed!   

Some students seek out and thrive on a campus where there are many other students, while others worry about being “lost in the shuffle” on a campus of 20,000 or more students pursuing their educational goals. Nevertheless, attending a large university does not equal anonymity. There are different ways to be “noticed,” such as selecting smaller seminar classes instead of lectures. Find your niche by seeking out and taking advantage of the myriad opportunities that come along with a large campus.     

Large schools provide many extracurricular clubs and activities, extensive internship and cooperative education networks, and employment in academic offices, libraries, or athletic facilities to accommodate their large student populations. Campuses with lots of students give you more options, more fellow students with common interests, and more chances for growth and learning. Many people thrive in larger schools, like flagship state campuses, relishing the chance to be a part of a diverse community, even if that means taking a proactive approach to the pursuit of opportunities and activities.

On the other hand, many people who are initially attracted to the idea of a larger campus—the archetype of a “college” experience, with sports teams that attract thousands of fans, professors who are well known in their fields, a wide variety of options for on-campus living, etc.—discover these qualities in a smaller university or college. Students may find that they have better access to the opportunities they are looking for, the activities that really “make” their college years what they should be. It all depends on the type of person they are and what they need for success and motivation.

A lot of students flourish in a smaller environment. Medium-sized and smaller public universities often provide the type of experiences more often attributed to small, private liberal arts colleges, such as intimate class sizes, more accessible faculty, and structured programs for new students. Students who know they do best in a close-knit setting—where talking to and getting to know professors and fellow students is a natural, everyday occurrence—should focus on the medium-sized or smaller public schools. Don’t forget that these schools come at a much lower price than a comparable private university, and they usually still have access to the same resources (libraries, research facilities, etc.) available at larger public schools.

Know yourself, your style, and where you will best succeed

Once you have an ideal university locale and size in mind, think about what else you will need to succeed. To borrow a phrase from the United States Army: which learning environment will allow you to “be all that you can be”? Again, remember that not all public universities are alike; the experiences you have at one may be very different from those at another, and the size of the institution can have a huge impact on your experience. The student body, teaching style, size of classes, on-campus environment, and level and scope of extracurricular and cocurricular opportunities will differ.

If you are more reserved when it comes to seeking extracurricular, internship, or research opportunities, you may find your niche at a smaller school. If you need a mix of personalities and the constant buzz of activity, you may find the larger campuses more stimulating and motivating.

Keep in mind that public schools’ philosophies and missions vary as well. In New York, the state university system, often referred to as the SUNY system, includes very large schools focused primarily on research, smaller community schools aimed at preparing the state’s work force, and even specialized campuses, like the College of Environmental Science and Forestry. At the end of the day, all provide a great foundation for a career or graduate school.

Academic options

Public universities in the United States offer an enormous variety of academic major opportunities and an amazing range of courses to fill out your years of study, which are limited only by your imagination and interests. Whatever activities you find most intriguing, and whatever subjects you want to pursue, you are sure to find many public colleges and universities that offer the programs, courses, and resources that will fit the bill.

What do you want to be when you grow up?

If you already know or even have an idea of the career you want to pursue post-college—great. You can start getting involved in that major and begin asking questions right away, in addition to your required interdisciplinary freshman year courses (designed to give you the communication and critical-thinking skills you need to succeed in any field).

But what if you don’t know for sure? Or what if you, like most college students, end up changing your mind once or twice between freshman and senior year? Don’t worry. Public colleges and universities have comprehensive academic and career advising resources, and you should start taking advantage of them right away—even freshman year. Start by finding out who your advisor is and when you can meet with him or her. When you sit down with that person, ask plenty of questions to discover what you need to do to prepare for your chosen career or how you can explore different career/major options.

Can I afford this?

A wide variety of activities, the excitement and fast pace of a large campus, the individualized education and small classes of a branch campus, the breadth of academic options, and geographic diversity—with public schools, all of this is available at what are still surprisingly affordable prices! Public colleges and universities are almost always less expensive than comparable private institutions. Plus, students do not necessarily pay the full “sticker cost,” especially with reduced tuition for in-state residents.  

For instance, programs like the Western Undergraduate Exchange make studying at a number of public universities in the Western United States very affordable for residents of the region’s 15 states, and there are similar programs in other parts of the country as well. And, of course, you can’t forget about the many merit scholarships offered by public institutions based on academic performance, athletic ability, cocurricular interests and accomplishments, and other factors.

You’ll find financial aid in its many incarnations at all public universities and colleges. Schools require completion of the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) and many will base their award on the FAFSA alone. This is a stark contrast to the number of private colleges and universities that require supplemental forms and may take more assets into account when determining aid eligibility than public institutions may consider. You will likely benefit from the variety and amount of aid available at public institutions, though this also depends on the cost of the school and your personal financial circumstances.

In conclusion, welcome to the world of public higher education in the United States—still affordable and one of the best systems in the world. It truly distinguishes this country and opens up so much opportunity. Take advantage of it.

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