Last Updated: Nov 16, 2012
Do you want the ultimate college experience at an affordable cost? Do you hope to have a wide variety of classes, organizations, and clubs to choose from? Do you picture yourself cheering on your school’s football team in a huge stadium with hundreds of other fans? If this sounds ideal, then a public college or university might be the perfect fit for you!
The beginning of your adult life is just around the corner—an exciting but scary reality. Who will you be? What will you do? Where do you go to achieve your goals? How will you get there?
One of the most important reasons to go to college is to train your brain to make wise decisions as you acquire more knowledge and increase your critical-thinking, learning, and communication skills. You will graduate from college with a degree, as well as a stronger set of tools for coping in the adult world—things high school could never provide.
High school is a relatively structured atmosphere where there are few independent choices to make, other than keeping your grades up in order to get your high school diploma. Adult life, on the other hand, is entirely unstructured and unpredictable unless you create structure for yourself. College bridges the high school experience with the adult freedoms, responsibilities, and options.
From high school to college
What do you want to get out of a college education? Here are some things you’ll find there and a few good reasons to attend:
- Expand your range of interests and meet friends from backgrounds different than your own.
- Prepare for a career you really enjoy through work-related experiences and studies, and improve your chances for career advancement.
- Make a difference to others by becoming a teacher, engineer, doctor, lawyer, entrepreneur, or other professional.
- Explore and pursue a passion like music composition, computer programming, American literature, pure mathematics, or environmental science.
- Improve the likelihood of keeping your job when times get tough (college graduates are more likely to be employed, including during times of economic turmoil).
- Get the chance to study abroad and experience other cultures, languages, and people.
In addition to those motivations, here are some numbers and figures to give you a little perspective:
Average lifetime income
High school graduate $1.2 million
Bachelor’s degree $2.1 million
Master’s degree $2.5 million
Doctoral degree $3.4 million
Professional degree $4.4 million
Once you decide you intend to go to college, you must then choose the type of program and degree you are interested in pursuing.
What are my options?
If you feel college is for you, the sooner you can attend, the better. You will recall the building blocks of your secondary school education more readily if you attend college immediately upon high school graduation rather than taking a few years off.
The universe of college presents you with three fundamental paths. Community colleges can provide the first years of an academic foundation, or as an alternative they can provide workforce training that develops skills for certain jobs without actually qualifying toward earning a bachelor’s degree. Community colleges charge the lowest published tuition rates among all types of colleges. They can charge such rates because they are supported by government-imposed taxes on citizens in the college’s surrounding area. Community college faculty generally do not perform any academic research; instead, they focus entirely on teaching. Just keep in mind, if you want the traditional “college experience,” community colleges generally lack dorms (meaning you’ll have to live off campus and commute) and other non-academic features found at universities, such as varsity sports and other extracurriculars.
Public and private universities offer four-year bachelor’s degrees and sometimes graduate degrees too. Private colleges and universities were generally founded via gifts from wealthy donors. These institutions, on average, charge the highest published tuition prices of any type of institution since their tuition is not subsidized by governmentally imposed taxes on citizens.
Public universities typically charge published tuition rates both thousands of dollars more than community college rates and thousands of dollars less than the published tuition rates for private colleges and universities. As a result, the largest number of students nationwide earn their bachelor’s degrees from public universities. Additionally, within public institutions, there are varying student and academic experiences.
Research vs. comprehensive universities
Since community colleges and public universities are supported by governmental taxes on citizens, each of these institutions offers preferential published tuition rates to students it considers residents. Students who do not qualify as residents will pay a higher tuition rate that sometimes comes close to the published tuition rates of some private universities. The logic for this is that non-resident students have not contributed to the tax base that helps fund the institution.
The state agencies that govern public universities are typically structured with one of two fundamental missions. Each of these types of missions is useful and valuable, and the two models serve students and their states differently.
First, there are comprehensive universities, where professors strive for a relatively heavy teaching load and less scholarly research in the academic discipline in which they teach. Often the faculty at comprehensive universities enjoy a wider range of activities that are judged as acceptable scholarly research. For example, in some academic disciplines, the publication of a book meets the research expectation at a comprehensive institution, though it would likely not meet the research expectation at a research university.
Then there are research universities. As a general rule, research universities’ professors teach fewer courses and spend more time performing scholarly research for publications within their academic discipline. As a result, these universities may enjoy higher-quality academic reputations. This, in turn, attracts better-qualified applicants for admission, enabling the institutions to be more selective during the admission process and charge higher published tuition rates than comprehensive public universities.
Research universities pride themselves on creating new knowledge that brings up-to-date information into the classroom and spawns patents, inventions, and other innovations that grow industries, create new jobs, and make life better for people. Relatively speaking, less of this type of activity occurs at comprehensive universities.
Compared to each other, comprehensive universities educate more of their students in undergraduate programs while more students may be enrolled in graduate programs at research universities. This occurs naturally as Ph.D. students truly need an intensive environment where they can perform the research needed to earn their doctorates. And because of the necessary medical research, medical schools tend to be associated with research universities as well.
Both types of public universities—comprehensive and research—share a number of common traits that you should seriously consider during your college selection process. These include:
- Varied academic choices
- Many locations
- Lower published annual costs
- Name recognition
- Many athletic, social, recreational, and residential options
Most major metropolitan areas and a large number of smaller communities are home to a public university, thus, one advantage of choosing a public university is that your college location probably features increased resources and a more student-friendly community, perhaps even the presence of multiple schools.
Because there are so many public universities across the country, you can enjoy an extremely wide selection if you are willing to relocate. Public universities can be relatively small, with around 7,000 students, to extremely large, with more than 70,000 students. They range from ultra-selective to essentially open admission.
Both types of public universities also offer advantages of longevity. Once a state government forms a public university, the institution tends to live forever. Very few get shut down. This longevity gives graduates confidence that their degree will be recognized many decades after graduation.
Likewise, in different circles, both types of public universities can offer name recognition. This sometimes correlates with sheer size, sometimes with athletic success, and sometimes with academic quality—and sometimes, all three.
Both types of public universities offer a selection of athletic events, teams, and competitions. At the largest institutions, athletic teams are extremely competitive, both in recruitment and game play, while at some smaller institutions, a number of sports teams will accept walk-on students who were not recruited by the coaches. Public universities of all divisions and ranks offer intramural athletics where students compete against other students within the university simply for fun and exercise.
Public schools offer a wide variety of other social activities too, ranging from hobby-oriented clubs to academic organizations, multicultural clubs, charitable groups, service organizations, hometown clubs, and more. Larger public universities may have hundreds of student organizations, and most schools also give students the ability to create a new club or group if the existing ones do not meet their needs.
Many public universities also offer Greek life—sororities and fraternities. These groups are known for their community service, philanthropy, and social events; generally charge some membership fees; have a unique selection process (rushing); and have strict requirements for continued membership. They can be a great way to stay connected to campus and experience long-standing traditions.
Some public universities require freshmen to live on campus. Then there are students at public universities who commute daily from their parents’ homes. Others live on campus in dorms, residence halls, and, in some cases, on-campus apartments. Almost every public university has privately owned apartments off campus and nearby occupied by students of the university. So whether you want to live on or off campus, there is certainly a public university that can accommodate your housing needs.
Last, and most important for many students, both types of public universities offer a wide range of academic majors, degrees, and programs. Research universities typically offer master’s and doctoral programs along with bachelor’s degrees, while comprehensive universities typically offer fewer master’s and doctoral programs to complement their undergraduate degrees. Many public universities offer 50–150 unique majors, programs, and degrees, whereas most private universities offer fewer, and community colleges typically only offer an associate degree.
So if you are looking for options, name recognition, longevity, and choice, among other criteria, there is probably a public university—or several—out there for you.