Public College or Private: Which Is a Better Value?

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For decades, even centuries, private colleges have won both the public relations war and the college admissions war against public schools. But these days, the better value may be the other way around.

If you don’t believe it, just ask the students and teachers at Penn State University. The school was voted as having the “best graduates” by a new Wall Street Journal study. The survey of 500 professional employment recruiters rated 100 U.S. colleges and universities on a menu of items, including academic strength, communication and leadership skills, and breadth of major studies.

The Journal’s Jennifer Merritt says the newspaper spent six months visiting the nation’s top employment recruiters, to dig up information on the best-ranking schools overall. “When it came to ranking them, they chose state schools,” says Merritt, who helped produce the survey. Recruiters said schools like Penn State and Texas A&M produce the “most well-rounded students.”

Of the employment recruiters surveyed by The Journal, in total they hired 43,000 college graduates during the six-month period. The fast path for jobs at these companies, Merritt adds, are primarily internships. “It’s the new employment program,” she added. About 25% of survey respondents said that about half of their hires came directly from internship programs.

Public schools fared well in the survey. Texas A&M finished second on the list, followed by the University of Illinois. All told, 19 of the 25 schools on the list were public colleges. These institutions serve up a large pool of graduates and tend to focus on teaching practical skills, providing a one-stop shop for top corporate recruiters, says the Wall Street Journal.

Only one Ivy League school, Cornell University, made the survey’s top 25.

Why the discrepancy in “graduate value”? Leaders at the public schools included on the list say they’ve spent a lot of time building relationships with hiring executives at major U.S. firms. “Our accounting department has a history going back six decades of building strong relationships with the top accounting firms, corporations and government agencies,” said Martin Loeb, department chair of the Accounting and Information Assurance department at the Robert H. Smith School of Business at the University of Maryland, which ranked seventh on the list. “Recruiters routinely say that our accounting grads excel in their organizations and our alumni include top executives and business leaders,” said Smith.

Another big reason for the high value of public school graduates is the solid background they receive in fundamental areas. The Journal reports that recruiters repeatedly pointed out that public schools did a good job in the “meat and potatoes” fields like engineering, product development, and business management. While pricey private schools do produce top-echelon CEO-types, employers seem to fill most of their workforce with graduates of public schools.

The study should shake up academia. Any survey that purports to measure graduate value that doesn’t include Harvard, Yale or Stanford – but includes a majority of public schools – may force some students to recalculate where they go to school, and how much they’re willing to pay to attend. Just one more decision to make as we enter application season.

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