Students at primarily undergraduate institutions in the U.S. may actually get a better deal at a lower tuition fee than in the research-oriented colleges.

Universities and colleges in the U.S. attract students from all over the world for higher education. Some of the universities rank among the world’s most prestigious institutions for higher education because of a strong reputation and internationally acclaimed professors and teachers. About one lakh students from India visit the U.S. every year for higher education.

Students wishing to pursue their undergraduate studies in the U.S. tend to pick high-ended research institutions. These institutions are expensive and the average class size is large (about 200 students). This decreases the faculty-student ratio and thus the personal attention provided by the teacher to an individual student. Most often, undergraduate students at large institutions tend to interact with the teaching assistant (who is usually a graduate student) rather than eminent professors who teach the students. Despite all these difficulties, students opt for such institutions mainly due to two reasons: (1) A degree from this institution is valuable, and (2) The students are unaware of other alternatives that would help them meet their educational goals.

Knowing the universities

Universities and colleges in the U.S. are broadly classified into two types: (1) Research Oriented Universities and (2) Primarily Undergraduate Institutions (PUI or Liberal Arts Colleges). Stanford University, University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University fall in the former category. These are PhD granting institutions with a strong focus on state-of-the-art research. Due to high overhead costs and a strong reputation, the tuition fee tends to be very high. For example, the current tuition fee at Stanford is U.S. $42,690 a year. In addition to other expenses, the yearly budget for a student comes to around U.S. $60,000 a year. Despite partial financial aid offered by the university, this can be exorbitant for an international student.

On the other hand, PUIs have a sharp advantage on several counts. In these institutions, the class size is small (about 30 students). These tend to have a more student-centred approach to education than larger universities. Thus, there are opportunities to speak out, ask questions, and engage professors and students in debate. At a PUI, teaching undergraduates is the top priority of the faculty. Tenure and promotion of faculty both depend on high-quality teaching. Typically, teaching here is done purely by the professors. Such a student-centred atmosphere at these institutions provides ample leadership opportunities. A small student body means less competition in getting leadership positions in student organisations. One will also find that it is easier to make a difference on campus. Individual students, who are inclined to take the initiative, can really stand out in a small college than at a large, research-oriented university.

Public universities

Every state in the U.S. has public universities under the name of “State System of Higher Education.” Pennsylvania, for example, has 14 universities under its state system. New York has 64 and California, 33. Public PUIs are subsidised by the individual state governments. Due to this and also because infrastructural costs are smaller, these universities tend to be much less expensive. For example, at Clarion University, for the 2013-14 academic year, the tuition fees amount to approximately U.S. $13,287 for a full academic year (Fall and Spring).

Now for the best part, studying at a public PUI, it is possible to secure a degree from a larger institution such as University of Pittsburgh or Case Western Reserve University (Cleveland, Ohio). This is made possible by a “cooperative engineering programme.” Under this programme, a student attends a smaller state university for three years (paying less tuition fees) and a larger university for two years (paying their respective tuition fees). The advantages of this includes: (1) students receive education in a student-centred learning environment for the first three crucial years of their under-graduation. (2) Students who satisfy programme requirement (such as a minimum GPA, required courses, etc.) are usually guaranteed acceptance to the engineering school.

In addition to the financial gain, students at PUIs enjoy other benefits. They get to work on an undergraduate research project with their faculty mentors. The research equipment and other resources are readily available in a PUI without much red-tape. The students also get individual guidance and mentorship in research from their professors and other students. They get to publish their research findings in journals and opportunities to present their research at national conferences.

In summary, primarily undergraduate institutions in the U.S. are often overlooked, but provide a highly viable path towards high-quality education and top-quality research opportunities for students.

Dr. Vasudeva Rao Aravind is an assistant professor of Physics at Clarion University. email: varavind@clarion.edu.