Maybe you’ve dreamed of attending an Ivy League school your entire life, or maybe you’ve pictured yourself thriving at a small liberal arts college for years. But whether it’s for financial or academic reasons, or just a change of heart, hundreds of thousands of college students go on to study at one of the nation’s many state universities. Despite the stereotypes surrounding them, there are plenty of fantastic options for receiving a top-tier education at a public university.
The real difference between public and private institutions is where their funding comes from. Public schools can accept government funds, while private schools rely on tuition and donations (hence, private tuition is often so much higher). Even so, there’s often not a huge difference between the endowment funds of public and private schools––some public schools even have larger endowments than Ivies!
Now that we’ve covered the major difference between the two, here are some of the biggest misconceptions about state schools that you shouldn’t believe.
Myth #1: State schools should be a backup
It’s not uncommon for people to assume that someone is attending a state school because their first choice school didn’t work out. “When I decided to go to the University of Alabama, everyone was shocked and disapproving,” says Helmi Henkin, a sophomore at the University of Alabama. “Since I grew up in a suburb near Stanford University, where the academic atmosphere since kindergarten was always highly competitive, they felt I was wasting my potential.”
In reality, state schools are actually some of the most reputable and innovative institutions in the country––public or private. Schools such as University of California-Berkeley, UCLA, University of Virginia, University of Michigan-Ann Arbor and University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill all rank in the top 50 universities in the nation, according to US News. Many of these schools even beat out brand-name private schools like New York University, Tufts University and Boston College (and their tuition is just a fraction of the cost––even if you’re an out-of-state student).
“One big myth that I was told going into college was that by attending a state school, I wouldn't have as good of a shot at getting jobs in the future versus kids who went to Big Ten schools,” says Alyssa Damato, a sophomore at Illinois State University. “This could not be any further from the truth. [Illinois State] has given me so many opportunities and resume builders that I don't believe I'd get to experience had I gone elsewhere.”
Because state schools are often very large, they offer nearly endless options for majors, classes and courses of study––which is particularly advantageous if you’re starting school undeclared or aren’t totally sure if you’ll stick with your current major. If you go to a liberal arts or more specialized school, your schedule may be much less flexible, especially if you end up changing your mind.
Myth #2: You’re just a number
It might be hard to feel like you can stand out when your school’s population is made up of 25,000 to 50,000 students––but you totally can! “Many of my classmates feared state schools because they felt the large student body would lessen their opportunities to stand out,” says Helmi. However, state schools often have hundreds of student organizations––whether it’s club or varsity sports, Greek life or based around a common interest––where you can find your niche (not to mention make great friends and build up your resume).
“Going to a big state school is beneficial to my education because of how many opportunities there are to personalize my campus experience, from hundreds of student organizations to dozens of faculty research labs,” adds Helmi. More people often means more resources and facilities, which is why state schools are often among the most innovative out there! Though you may have to do a bit more digging to find your place, with so many options, you can be sure your perfect state school is out there somewhere.
Myth #3: You’ll get less attention from professors
It’s pretty easy to assume that more students means professors have to spread themselves thin, right? Wrong! Most schools, no matter the size of their student population, make it a big point to ensure that students can get personalized attention from their professors. Seriously, average class size and student-to-professor ratio are huge factors in determining annual college rankings.
For example, the student-to-faculty ratio at University of Michigan-Ann Arbor, which has nearly 30,000 undergrads, is 15 to one, according to the College Board. Boston College, which is a mid-sized private school with about 9,000 undergrads, has a ratio of nearly 13 to one, says the College Board.
“Many of my introductory classes were relatively large, sure, but most of my classes are pretty small,” says Helmi. Even smaller colleges often have introductory class sizes of more than 100 students, so this is something you’re likely to run into no matter where you end up. “My professors are easily accessible outside of class through email or office hours,” she adds.
“I've had great experiences with professors even though I go to a state school,” says Rachel Petty, a junior at James Madison University. “They're always so kind and welcoming, and are truly there to help! The professors have nothing to do with where the school's funding comes from.”
“I actually have quite a few smaller classes where teachers call you by name and actually talk to you one-on-one in teacher meetings,” says Chelsea Schroeder, a freshman at Bowling Green State University. “In the few bigger classes, we also have recitations where students are in small classes to learn hands-on with a teacher. It’s very convenient and easy to learn, plus I get to meet new people and see them around on campus!”
Professors are often drawn to universities where they’re inspired by students and where they’ll have opportunities to pursue their desired area of research––regardless of whether they’re public or private.
Myth #4: Everyone parties all the time
Even if you choose to go to the most conservative school out there, there’s no doubt you’ll still end up running into some partiers––it’s just the nature of college life. What matters, though, is that you’re able to find friends that won’t pressure you to party if you don’t want to. If you do choose to party, make sure that you’re able to balance night life with school, extracurriculars and everything else you’ve got going on.
Helmi says that many of her friends avoided state schools because they were afraid “the multitude of parties would create pressure to participate and their grades would suffer as a result.” However, she has yet to run into this problem. “Even though I am in a sorority, where the pressure to party is stereotypically higher, I have been able to keep up good grades," she says. "When I skip a party to study or catch up on sleep, I do not feel like I am missing out on anything.”
An advantage of going to a large school is that, no matter where you fall on the party-loving spectrum, you’ll definitely find a group of friends who share your values. On the nights you do want to go out, there’s sure to be something happening, and on the nights you don’t, you can rest assured that there will be plenty of opportunities to join in when you’re ready.
Myth #5: There’s no sense of community
This is probably the myth about state schools that’s furthest from the truth! It might be unnerving to think about the fact that there are tens of thousands of people surrounding you that you’ll never even meet, but in reality, you all share a common bond. State schools often have the fiercest pride and school spirit. Students at smaller schools are often jealous that they’re missing out on such a quintessential aspect of the traditional college experience. So, embrace it by donning your school’s colors and going to a tailgate and football game at least once before you graduate.
“I love the diversity and community that going to a school with 37,000 undergraduate students has provided me,” says Helmi. “There is something new I can learn from everyone I interact with, since we all come from such varied backgrounds in many ways.” It’s pretty ironic that state schools are often stereotyped as being homogeneous, considering the fact that students from all over choose to attend these schools for a variety of reasons.
Taking pride in your alma mater is essential to enjoying your college experience. It can even help you out in the future! “Once, I was wearing an Alabama shirt in an airport lounge in Dubai and someone said ‘Roll Tide’ to me,” shares Helmi. “If someone knows my school, we automatically have a connection and that kind of networking is quite vital and beneficial in finding a job or just making friends.” When your school literally has hundreds of thousands of alumni, you never know when you’ll run into another graduate of your university––or if they’d be interested in hiring a fellow Wolverine, Badger or whatever mascot it is that’ll brand you for life after graduation.
Whether you’re looking for the chance to broaden your horizons with a large and diverse student body, aiming to attend a university that’s a bit closer to home or simply eager for the chance to enjoy a more traditional college student experience, a state university may be a fantastic opportunity you’ll want to look into. Trust us, you can rest assured that in doing so you won’t have to compromise on academics, individualized attention or a sense of community.