College Value: Public Honors vs. Private Elites

The well-known Kiplinger Best Value Report gives us one measure of how our universities compare when it comes to delivering a college education at a cost that has strong value in relation to the quality of the school. The Kiplinger Report looks at cost from the perspective of net student expenses for tuition, fees, etc. The Report is very useful in that respect. The Report appears to track other national rankings when it comes to the quality side of the equation.

But many visitors to this site want to know whether outstanding public universities can really compete with the private elites, especially the Ivy League schools. So we will offer a comparison that uses as a measure of quality the two most prominent postgraduate fellowships, in terms of the total numbers awarded: the National Science Foundation (NSF) Graduate Research Fellowship Program grants and the Fulbright Student Fellowship grants. The measure of cost we will use is the amount expended by the universities for each degree granted. We are emphasizing quality and efficiency, rather than quality and consumer expense.

(Summary and Statistics Are at End of Article.  See also the more recent post Surprise: Public Universities Have the Best Academic Departments.)

The NSF grants go to more that 2,000 students each year, and about 1,600 students receive the Fulbright grants annually. These awards give us the largest statistical sample that illustrates how institutions public and private compare in at least this one measure of quality. While private elite universities dominate many of the awards given out by private foundations and trusts (Rhodes, Marshall, Gates/Cambridge), the NSF and Fulbright awards, in addition to being far more numerous, must adhere to federal guidelines that reinforce the need for transparency and objectivity.

It is difficult to say exactly how much the best honors programs contribute to excellence within their host universities, but we do know that honors students, as a group, bring the highest test scores and GPAs to their schools, energize honors and non-honors classes, and enhance the reputations of their universities. We also know that honors students benefit greatly from smaller class size and more faculty contact, both key elements in the success of private elites.

After following 50 leading honors programs for many months, we also see that students who are in university-wide honors programs or departmental honors are also those that compete the best for prestigious undergraduate and postgraduate scholarships, which often are seen as a measure of quality.

(We must note that we have included UC Berkeley in the lists below, although UC Berkeley does not, strictly speaking, have a university-wide honors program. The university takes the position that excellence is pervasive on the campus, just as it is in many private elites. Few would argue the point, and certainly we would not.)

The data we use for the cost per degree, by institution, is from the Chronicle of Higher Education. The average cost per degree is for all degrees awarded, undergraduate and graduate, and does not include expenditures for research.

The data for the fellowships comes directly from the National Science Foundation and the Fulbright U.S. Student Program. We selected the 13 public universities that earned the most NSF and Fulbright grants, respectively, and compared them to all eight Ivy League universities along with other private elites that earned the most grants. As a group, these few universities earned almost 40% of all the NSF grants during the two years of 2011 and 2012, and a similarly high percentage of Fulbright grants in 2010 and 2011.

Summary: Students from the public universities earned 778 NSF grants during the two years, and students from the private elites won 723. Out of the total awards to the 26 schools, the public universities earned 51.8% and the private elites won 48.2%. The average institutional cost per degree granted for the public universities in this group is $102,947. The average institutional cost per degree granted for the private universities in this group is $324,505.

Students from the public universities earned 418 Fulbright Student grants during the two years, while students from the private elites won 489 awards. Out of the total awards to the 26 schools, the public universities won 46.1% and the private universities won 53.9%. The average institutional cost per degree granted for the public universities in this group is $108,537. The average institutional cost per degree granted for the private universities is $262,201.

As striking as these comparison are, some of the public universities that have achieved such a high degree of excellence at relatively low cost are the very schools that have been the focus of “reformers” who are bent on focusing on cost savings at the expense of quality. For example, these critics/reformers might say that a cost per degree of approximately $105,600 is outrageous given that the average cost per degree nationwide for four-year public universities is $68,617. And we agree that it is important for students to have access to an inexpensive college education.

But the point here is that, within the broad range of public universities, there must be room for excellence, and excellence does not come cheaply, even if it does come at a relatively low cost at our leading public universities. (In fact, a very few high-performing public universities do come close to or even beat the average cost of $68,617, but they do so mainly by economies of scale in combination with lower regional labor costs.)

Rather than expecting outstanding public universities to achieve impressive results while spending no more than the average that is spent for all state universities, regardless of quality, we should compare the best public universities to the best private universities in order to find a more realistic assessment of their qualitative return on the public investment.

Beneath the data: The much higher expenditures per degree for the private universities are partly a function of their providing a very low student to faculty ratio university-wide, resulting in a high percentage of small classes. All of the private elites have undergraduate enrollments that are much larger than any of the honors programs within the public universities listed below. So a lot of the high cost per degree granted comes from providing small classes to 4,000–8,000 students, or even 14,000 in the case of Cornell.

The average size of the 50 honors programs that we follow is approximately 1,800 students, and they, too, offer small classes. This feature of honors education is the great equalizer, and it must be achieved at the same time that the universities are providing a solid education for their typically quite large total undergraduate populations (average of about 25,000 in our group). The honors programs at their best provide smaller versions of the private elite experience for the students fortunate enough to join them.

Another factor is that the institutional costs per degree granted, as shown below in detail, apply to the university as a whole. If the costs were broken down separately for honors students in the public universities, those costs per honors degree granted would rise; however, not all awards are won by honors students, and the extra costs for honors housing, programming, and faculty are already included in the overall costs. Nevertheless, the differences in costs between the private elites and the public elites are not quite as dramatic as the average figures suggest, but the differences still remain very large.

Still another consideration is that the costs per degree are subject to regional cost of living influences. Part of the high cost of public and private universities operating on the East and West coasts, and in parts of the upper Midwest, are affected by the higher cost of living and the greater prevalence of collective bargaining practices. These factors are present especially near the major cities of New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Seattle, and Detroit.

Another matter of note is that the UC campuses generally rely less on honors programs and small classes to produce research stars than they do on highly selective overall admissions requirements and the superior quality of faculty. UC Berkeley is the most striking example of this model, particularly evident in the NSF category, in which Berkeley’s success is remarkable.

NSF Fellowships and Cost Per Degree Granted, by Institution, 2011 and 2012

1. UC Berkeley: total grants (165) cost per degree granted ($97,934)
2. MIT: total grants (115) cost per degree granted ($341,769)
3. Harvard: total grants (82) cost per degree granted ($343,004)
4. Cornell: total grants (78) cost per degree granted ($151,211)
5. Stanford: total grants (76) cost per degree granted ($345,440)
6. UT Austin: total grants (73) cost per degree granted ($88,150).
7. Washington: total grants (66) cost per degree granted ($133,636)
8. Princeton: total grants (61) cost per degree granted ($371,620)
9. Georgia Tech:total grants (59) cost per degree granted ($83,823)
9. Michigan: total grants (59) cost per degree granted ($129,206)
11. Wisconsin: total grants (57) cost per degree granted ($92,402)
11. Caltech: total grants (54) cost per degree granted ($618,681)
11. Yale: total grants (54) cost per degree granted ($502,748)
14. Columbia: total grants (52) cost per degree granted ($226,200)
15. Brown: total grants (45) cost per degree granted ($202,217)
15. Florida: total grants (45) cost per degree granted ($66,767)
15. Illinois: total grants (45) cost per degree granted ($86,083)
18. UCLA: total grants (44) cost per degree granted ($155,681)
19. Maryland: total grants (43) cost per degree granted ($75,806)
20. UC Davis: total grants (42) cost per degree granted ($116,134)
21. UC San Diego: total grants (40) cost per degree granted ($127,401)
21. Arizona: total grants (40) cost per degree granted ($85,829)
23. Duke: total grants (34) cost per degree granted ($287,850)
24. Chicago: total grants (33) cost per degree granted ($267,725)
25. Penn: total grants (25) cost per degree granted ($264,802)
26. Dartmouth: total grants (14) cost per degree granted ($292,754)

Fulbright Student Fellowships and Cost Per Degree Granted, by Institution, 2010 and 2011

1. Michigan: total grants (69) cost per degree granted ($129,206)
2. Yale: total grants (59) cost per degree granted ($502,748)
3. Stanford: total grants (49) cost per degree granted ($345,440)
4. Northwestern: total grants (48) cost per degree granted ($178,716)
5. Chicago: total grants (46) cost per degree granted ($267,725)
6. Columbia: total grants (41) cost per degree granted ($226,200)
7. Washington: total grants (40) cost per degree granted ($136,636)
8. Arizona State: total grants (38) cost per degree granted ($61,520)
8. Harvard: total grants (38) cost per degree granted ($343,004)
10. Boston College: total grants (37) cost per degree granted ($106,401)
11. Cornell: total grants (35) cost per degree granted ($151,211)
12. Princeton: total grants (34) cost per degree granted ($374,620)
13. North Carolina: total grants (33) cost per degree granted ($137,719)
14. Johns Hopkins: total grants (32) cost per degree granted ($269,246)
15. UC Berkeley: total grants (31) cost per degree granted ($97,934)
16. Maryland: total grants (30) cost per degree granted ($75,806)
17. Rutgers: total grants (30) cost per degree granted ($133,842)
18. Arizona: total grants (29) cost per degree granted ($85,289)
19. George Washington: total grants (28) cost per degree granted ($86,190)
19. Illinois: total grants (28) cost per degree granted ($86,083)
21. Pitt: total grants (26) cost per degree granted ($103,393)
22. Penn: total grants (25) cost per degree granted ($264,802)
23. Wisconsin: total grants (24) cost per degree granted ($92,402)
24. UCLA: total grants (21) cost per degree granted ($155,681)
25. Minnesota: total grants (19) cost per degree granted ($118,476)
26. Dartmouth: total grants (17) cost per degree granted ($292,754)