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Higher Education – State Universities Rival Ivy League?

When it comes to higher education, it appears it might well be time for students to give greater consideration to public colleges and universities. Three recent articles offer support for state schools, each wondering aloud if an education obtained at one of the elite private colleges is really worth the money?

Carol Hymowitz, writing for the Wall Street Journal, insists that when it comes to earning a degree ‘Any College Will Do.‘ Hymowitz notes the words of some of the nation’s top executives who insist that the “path to the corner office usually starts at state university.”

Leadership Ability
In her piece, Hymowitz notes several very successful individuals who did not even obtain a college diploma. She notes the leaders of several high-tech companies who never completed college: joiBill Gates who quit Harvard to start Microsoft, Michael Dell who quit the University of Texas-Austin to start Dell Computer and Steve Jobs who quit Reed College in Portland, Ore., to work at Atari before founding Apple Computer. None of these individuals ever returned to college to complete a formal degree.

Though those stories are compelling, the general consensus is that such a path is rare. To get to the top, a degree is clearly critical. In fact, nearly two-thirds of the CEOs of the top 500 companies have either an M.B.A., law, or other advanced degree.

But overall, roughly 90% of the CEOs of the top 500 companies received undergraduate degrees from a university other than one of the Ivy League colleges. In a great plug for the University of Wisconsin, more CEOs received their undergraduate degrees from that state college (10 current CEOs) than from Harvard, the Ivy League’s top contributor (nine current CEOs).

A partial list of CEOs and their respective schools:

  • Warren Buffett, CEO of Berkshire Hathaway – University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
  • H. Lee Scott , Wal-Mart Stores CEO – Pittsburg State University in Kansas.
  • Paul Otellini, Intel CEO – University of San Francisco.
  • James Sinegal, Costco Wholesale CEO – San Diego City College.
  • Bill Green, CEO of Accenture – Dean College and Babson.
  • Michael Critelli, CEO of Pitney Bowes, University of Wisconsin.

David MakesAdding to the notion that any college will do, these executives, in the position to set the tone for hires, insist they don’t favor job candidates with certain degrees. Having demonstrated themselves that leadership talent and a drive for success is far more important, these CEOs are not looking for potential employees based on securing an undergraduate degree from a prestigious university.

One Interesting Story in the Mix
Bill Green, the CEO of Accenture, represents a very interesting tale. First, the son of a plumber had no intentions to go to college; he simply didn’t think he had the ability to pursue further education. He would ultimately change his mind after visiting friends at Dean College, a two-year community school near Boston.

Green cited a very appealing atmosphere at Dean, one that worked for him.

“… he got help from faculty members who devoted themselves to their students, not ‘doing research and writing books like professors at four-year schools,’ he says. Rather than post student-meeting times on their office doors, they posted their class schedules. ‘All the other time, they were available to any student who needed help,’ says Mr. Green, who worked part-time to pay for part of his tuition.”

The school inspired Green to pursue further study in economics. He went on to Babson College where he would earn his bachelor’s and M.B.A. degrees. But Green insists that Dean was the catalyst, teaching “him to think analytically, to gain confidence in his abilities and to learn to work with people.”

Such a response is contrary to the typical public view, one that sees the education provided by community colleges as somehow of lower quality.

Public Colleges Lead the Way in Payback Ratio
In what is likely a restatement of Hymowitz’s work is the recent Smart Money magazine article ranking the “best colleges for making money.” The magazine utilizes a ratio it calls payback.

The simple calculation compares the average salary earned by a graduate to the actual cost of attending a school. The magazine’s top five are not those one normally sees on top of the US News and World Report’s school rankings.

hykuPublic colleges led the way with the University of Georgia having an average payback of 338%; Texas A&M (315%); University of Texas, Austin (306%); Georgia Tech (263%); and University of Washington (225%). In contrast, a review of the best Ivies yielded Princeton (132%), Dartmouth (131%), Yale (127%), Harvard (124%), and University of Pennsylvania (124%).

Those numbers led Smart Money to add a real jab at the liberal elite colleges, asking readers:

“Is an Ivy League education worth the money?”

Affordability vs. Quality
Smart Money rightfully acknowledges that its rankings do not address the quality of the education received – only the earning power as compared to investment. Hymowitz likewise does not ever insist that those attending state universities are earning a better education.

But Kiplinger’s offers its list of best buys, the traditional Consumer Reports style rating system that examines quality of educational programming as compared to the costs. In other words, getting what you pay for is an important criteria.

Using this basis, state universities represent some of the best educational bargains available. Leading the way are the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, University of Florida, the University of Virginia, the University of Georgia and the College of William and Mary. Moving further down the list, the next nine listed schools are state universities, with the University of Wisconsin Madison coming in at number 14.

This gets to the heart of affordability. Private college costs today average $33,000 per school year with several topping $40,000 annually and a few exceeding $50,000 a year. In contrast, the University of Florida costs in-state students less than $12,000 a year.

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the school heading the Kiplinger top 100 best buys, has a sticker price of a shade under $14,000. With average after-aid costs totaling less than $5,000 per year, students at UNC can truly attend four years, earn a bachelors and still have the possibility of being able to attend graduate school financially.

Choice of College
With business leaders insisting that by the time someone has worked a few years it is their employment record that counts the most, not where that individual attended school, parents and students should give careful thought to the choice of college. The idea that any school will do is definitely too simplistic – in fact the story of Bill Green speaks to the opposite, the choice is truly important.

If one can truly afford the higher costs, it is hard to argue against the elite private schools. But with college costs rising beyond the means of the average American family, parents and students should take note: there are numerous quality options available at far more affordable costs.

More importantly, these schools are producing many successful graduates.

Flickr photos courtesy of Joi, David Makes and hyku.


1 Koichi { 12.30.08 at 7:44 pm }

Uh oh, better not let those Ivy League schools see this article :)

2 Mary Frances Rafferty { 01.19.09 at 7:09 am }

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3 Ahmad Ismail { 07.17.09 at 5:17 am }

Hi!, I’m a lecturer at one of the universities in Malaysia. I’ve often wonder how undergraduates at iv league universities perform academically. Is 90% of the undegrads got a GPA of 3.5 and above or just like any other universities where only about 30% of the undergrads achieved CGPA of 3.o and above. Where can I get this kind of data?

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