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I keep hearing from Americans that on average, private universities tend to be better than public ones.

This study by Klafke et al. concludes:

A recurrent problem reported by the students, especially by the public undergraduate, is the disconnect between what is taught and the practical reality of the job market. This can happen because students from private colleges are eyeing the market. If they wanted to enter the academic life, they would have to migrate to the public tuition, where research is encouraged.

Public undergraduates consider some professors lazy, self-centred, and selfish, as they are very rarely fired. This damages not only the quality of the learning-teaching process, but their relationship itself.

On the other hand, this study points in a different direction.

This study compared the efficiency of Italian public and private universities, and found that private ones are more efficient.

Here's one of the results: table

Despite the fact that in Italy (like in Europe and East Asia) the best universities are public, whereas America has both private and public top universities.

Is there any other metric we could use for comparison? What do you think?

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    "disconnect between what is taught and the practical reality of the job market" suggests a disconnect between what some students think is the purpose of a university degree and what some faculty think is the purpose of a university degree. Many of the latter might say that universities are not trade schools and are not solely or even primarily about preparation for work or career. Commented Aug 28, 2023 at 0:32
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    @ToddWilcox Agreed. I would add that don't think this disconnect is the fault of the students. When I was in growing up, I was repeatedly told by teachers and school counselors how important it was that I get a college degree so I could get a good job that paid well. No one ever mentioned that I should go to university so I could get a liberal education and be an educated citizen in society. So I don't think we can blame students for coming into university expecting to prepare for a career.
    – T Hummus
    Commented Aug 28, 2023 at 0:57
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    Note: The Klafke paper is in the context of Brazil. To my USA eyes, the abstract quoted here was quasi-incoherent. While Brazil is in Latin America, referencing "Americans" at the start of the question is a bit of unintended misdirection -- conventionally "Americans" refers to people from the USA (the one country with "America" in the name). Commented Aug 28, 2023 at 1:31
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    The problem here is that you are viewing "better" is a single-dimensional metric, but then shift the goal posts even in your question. Initially, you define "better" as in "perceived job market value for graduates", but when you say "the best universities are public" you probably, at least implicitly, mean "they are most famous for their research contributions".
    – xLeitix
    Commented Aug 28, 2023 at 11:36
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    Define "better"...
    – jcaron
    Commented Aug 28, 2023 at 16:32

4 Answers 4

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Different strokes for different folks. It depends on what you mean by "better". Different students have different desires and the US provides a wide range of possibilities. This answer applies to the US, only so far as I know.

Most public research universities are very good. Many private universities are very good. But they are different. The research possibilities are probably better, in general, at public universities, but the undergraduate classes tend to be very large with not a lot of contact with professors (more with TAs). Private universities tend to have smaller classes, maybe 30 or so, with more contact and personal attention possible.

At any university, the education is what you make of it. Yes, you can get a wonderful undergraduate education at Yale, but not everyone does. There are some very foolish US politicians who spew garbage but have degrees from Ivy League universities. It has been said (apocryphal, perhaps) that there is no one dumber than a C student from Yale. And, BTW, The Ivy League is an athletic conference.

The excellent private research universities are often old and have "deep pockets" provided in part by contributions from wealthy alumni over the many many years. They can afford to hire great faculty, and often do. And, due their age, a reputation can build on past accomplishments. But public universities have the backing of state taxpayers who, at least in the more enlightened states, value an educated populace - for many reasons.

At public research universities, in the final year or two, students have more opportunity for close contact with a research focused faculty member. This can be important for some, but not all, students.

My undergraduate years were at a very good private place that, at the time, had only about 2000 students. Classes were small. Faculty was focused on teaching. I never thought a lot about research in those years so it didn't matter to me that my professors weren't primarily researchers.

My graduate years were at good public universities where I was a TA. Classes were large and I, as a TA, handled most of the student contact, rather than the professor. Graduate classes, however, were small.

The fact that some might consider faculty at a public to be "lazy, etc." doesn't make it true. They are busy, but with research, not with student contact, for the most part.

Note, however, that the US also has a lot of smaller public universities that value teaching over research. The university systems in both New York and Minnesota, for example, have smaller teaching focused colleges, much like the typical private university. Costs are a bit less (for residents) than private places.

I live in a town with a public teaching-focused university. My neighbor told me that the expectations for faculty advancement there depended on contributions to teaching, research, and service at a 60/30/10 ratio IIRC (or close to that). Reverse the first two numbers, more or less, for a research university.

The US has thousands of colleges and universities. They range in quality from terrible to excellent.

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  • Comments have been moved to chat; please do not continue the discussion here. Before posting a comment below this one, please review the purposes of comments. Comments that do not request clarification or suggest improvements usually belong as an answer, on Academia Meta, or in Academia Chat. Comments continuing discussion may be removed.
    – Bryan Krause
    Commented Aug 29, 2023 at 18:54
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    +1 for "depends on what you mean by better", and once you've said that the rest of the answer is superfluous.
    – einpoklum
    Commented Aug 29, 2023 at 22:01
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I keep hearing from Americans that on average, private universities tend to better than public.

I am surprised to hear this. Rather than judging the assertion itself, it may be helpful to understand the likely causes of the assertion:

  • The most famous, very top undergraduate programs are indeed private. For example: the entire Ivy League (which includes Harvard, Yale, Princeton), MIT, CalTech, Stanford. Of the public schools, only Berkeley regularly appears in the top 10.
  • At the secondary level (high school), private schools are widely considered better (in reality, this is certainly true in some areas, dubious in others).

Given these two things, it is easy to assume that private is better than public as a general rule. But it is hard to make general statements. Berkeley (public) is in an entirely different class than Hillsdale College (private). To do an apples-to-apples comparison, you have to control for many different variables. It's probably more productive to consider your personal options and goals rather than trying to get a general answer.

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    Field dependent, of course. Michigan and Wisconsin have always beet "tops" in math, UIUC in CS. Etc Etc Etc
    – Buffy
    Commented Aug 27, 2023 at 21:13
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    Absolutely. But people who know that Michigan is tops in math probably aren't making silly assertions like "private is better than public."
    – cag51
    Commented Aug 27, 2023 at 21:15
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    Generally agree. Harvard College for an engineering degree ? No siree. Ohio State or Penn State ? Yeah! One thing that gives an insight on this is the proportion of engineering graduates that remain in engineering post primary degree - especially those remaining in the postgrad system for engineering as opposed to say doing MBAs, law or finance. The privates in US and the centuries old European universities show a much higher drain-off towards other professions than public or newer universities
    – Trunk
    Commented Aug 28, 2023 at 8:43
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    These days you will find that the "top" state universities get an amazingly small amount of funding from the state itself. Across the entire UC system (not just Berkeley), state "General Funds" accounts for about 10% of the total budget, less than tuition.
    – Jon Custer
    Commented Aug 29, 2023 at 12:48
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    I think the ancient private universities, with special government given land rights, endowment funds approaching the GDP of small nations, and histories longer than the majority of democracies on the planet are a bit of a different breed than most "private" institutions. They are private in that they are not beholden to the state they reside in, but they act a lot more like a pseudo-governmental NGO than a Corporation.
    – Yakk
    Commented Aug 29, 2023 at 14:40
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For that type of analysis, one should probably group universities into three categories, rather than two:

  1. Public universities.
  2. Private not-for-profit universities.
  3. Private for-profit universities.

I would strongly advocate that the results for private not-for-profit and for-profit organizations would differ a lot for many reasonable "efficiency metrics" (maybe relevant).

Regarding metrics themselves. I believe that there cannot be a universal approach. And some aspects of university "effectiveness" are more quantifiable than others, and it is hard to put the weights on different contributing factors (like what is more important: average salary of graduates after 2 years/10 years or number of papers published or satisfaction of students measured by surveys).

There are multiple schools of thought on how to measure it (and whether to measure it at all), and I would start with "Performance measurement in universities" by J. Higgins, following the references of this paper and other papers that cite it. Ultimately, in my opinion, the value of finding a perfect metric is essentially flawed due to Goodhart's law:

Every measure which becomes a target becomes a bad measure.

...but that does not mean that we should not try to evaluate and measure things, constantly changing the methodology and goals (while still retaining as much raw data as possible).

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  • Pedigree matters too. At least in India, if you are from an IIT or any top-tier university, you get paid three times more than anyone else from any other university, even though they are doing the same job.
    – Nav
    Commented Aug 30, 2023 at 12:29
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Here's the situation in my contry (Mexico); a lot of people brag when their children (aged from 6 to 15 years old) attend a private school instead of a public one, arguing that private education is of higher quality, that they teach English and other language, and that kids on the public system are "poor and nacos" (yes, it is a shameful, racist, but sadly widespread belief), but we all know that studying in a private college is way worst than attending a public one. Even the kids from private institutions take the admission exams to attend a public college (the spaces available to study there are limited, so usually a high percentage of students fail to find a place). The problem with private colleges is that their fees are ridiculously high, and the courses they give are a joke compared to the ones offered by public ones (see for example the weird curriculum of a data science bachelor's offered by Tec de Monterrey, the most expensive Mexican college. They don't even have calculus nor probability courses. Contrast it with the curriculum offered by UNAM). You can check out this ranking of universities in Mexico; as you can see, most of them are "autonomas" (that usually mean they are public). So, in general, a private college is the second, less attractive option.

Talking about how valuable is the degree obtained to get a job in real life, of course the graduates from the expensive places (like Tec de Monterrey) have it easier to get the administrative/managerial job posts (remember the nasty "poor and naco" stigma), but they are generally not well prepared for jobs relating to health sciences or STEM (indeed, you can see that private colleges focus on careers like law, business administration or accounting, it is rare to see careers like chemistry or physics).

Personally, I attended public schools all my life, I can't deny it has a lot of deficiencies, but I can also say that my peers that were before in a private place were in general slower for learning stuff by themselves, wanted the exams to be an exact copy of the homework, prioritized memorizing over understanding, and think that the teacher/professor is one of their daddy's employees, so they tend to be dismissive and insolent.

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    The very final point — treating teachers as employees — may be rather a feature of class. I've experienced the same in a public secondary school in The Netherlands that happened to be a school where much of the "elite" sent their kids.
    – gerrit
    Commented Aug 28, 2023 at 8:40
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    It's probably because the Mexican elites just send their kids to study in the US, so the local private colleges are of poor quality. Commented Aug 29, 2023 at 19:25

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