Jan 7, 2016

Private Universities: The Great Unequalizers

First of all, full disclosure, I have worked for two universities in my life. The first was a major public institution that has slowly been building itself into a research powerhouse. This was also my alma mater.

The second was a smaller private school trying to grow beyond its history as a liberal arts college into a premier regional campus.

Opulence. They have it.

The difference between these schools was night and day. One had over 35,000 students on campus, the other around 10,000. One catered to the middle class residents of a relatively poor southern/Midwestern state, the other wanted to draw from the children of the gentry in one of the country’s most affluent areas.

These schools are petri dishes for social inequality - true social inequality, not that caused by differences in ability or achievement, but inequality caused by ascribed status.

One had a sprawling semi-urban campus punctuated by a few high-rise dormitories and office towers. The other had squat but beautifully designed academic buildings segregated from the residential portion of its suburban campus.

Not the most welcoming dorms on the planet.

One charged its students around $5,500 per semester for their education, the other upwards of $15,000.

One had a campus designed and maintained to be pedestrian-friendly, despite the sprawl. The other spent thousands of dollars each year to meticulously groom its expansive lawns and gardens.

At the public school, many of the classrooms were state-of-the-art for their time, wired to broadband internet with multimedia equipment. At the private school, the classrooms had more of a retro feel.

The public school had a few noteworthy professors – a famous philosopher, a great historian, an excellent creative writing teacher, a world class medical faculty. The private school had one noteworthy professor, a cutting edge instructor of undergraduate psychology.

Given the information above, after four years of schooling, which school’s students do you think had the most advantage?

Believe it or not, the public school is a better value than the private school hands down, but its facilities and programs don’t necessarily lead to better outcomes for its students.

The private school had the benefit of one of the best career services departments I have ever seen. Kids graduating from programs with deficient curriculums and taught on obsolete equipment were virtually guaranteed jobs at major companies because of the success of the school’s internship and job placement programs. The school leveraged ties to executives at local and regional companies to ensure that its graduates had a leg up over their competition.

Otherwise, the private school was an utter rip-off. For triple their investment, kids left with less education and fewer experiences than they would at the major public school. Yet the relatively privileged students matriculating there had the advantage of job placements upon graduation, while students at the public university were left to fend for themselves and compete in a challenging job market.

It’s difficult to say whether their better job prospects compensates for the increased cost of their education – or the potentially higher levels of debt that they graduate with.

Despite the career services, I found the private school a difficult sell — I was tasked with writing marketing material for the university, and I didn’t believe in the product. Besides the fact that it was near the beach and provided easy access to New York City, there was very little to promote. The school was bland and uninteresting compared to my public school.

I remembered my college experiences – I heard speakers like former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Palestinian legislator Hanan Ashrawi, poets like Nikki Giovanni and Patricia Smith, concerts as diverse as the Kronos Quartet, Lil Wayne, Medeski, Martin and Wood and Girl Talk while I was at my relatively modest public school. I travelled abroad and met important people, and was still able to network and find a job after graduation.

I wouldn’t trade that for all the hobnobbing that a small, affluent private school could provide – but when I place myself in the shoes of parents and students making their college choice today, I can see how easy it is to be seduced by the ease of ascent provided by a small-to-mid-sized private university - you can work less, learn less, experience less, and get paid more in the end if you can afford the higher tuition. 

I'd like to say that if I were a parent, there’s no way I would want to send my kid to the kind of small private school I once worked at – there their educational opportunities are severely limited by the size of the school and the myopia of administrative and academic departments.

However, if I have a financial need to make my child an independent earner as quickly as possible, I might have to encourage my child to go to the private campus.

If I were a student, it would be difficult to resist the private school’s promise of a unique and exclusive educational experience. - but would I really want to go to a mostly white, upper-class suburban school when I could immerse myself in the diversity of thought and background exemplified by a major public university?

We talk about education as a leveling tool between class distinctions, but we have two different educational systems at the university level – a public system that provides better education at a stronger value, and a private system that uses favoritism to put preferred students into better jobs right after graduation.

If public universities are ever to be an equalizer between the social classes, more attention has to be paid to transitioning students from their educational to their professional lives.

In the mean time, more scrutiny has to be placed on the U.S.’s small-to-mid-sized private universities – are they really providing students with a quality education, or are they simply glorified networking hubs to permit the next cadre of spoiled elites to worm their ways into positions of power?

No comments:

Post a Comment

Keep it civil and pg-13, please.