Big Cheap Public School or Smaller Pricey Private One?

Question: My son was accepted into Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Florida Honors program. He is interested in a career in physics and would go on to pursue a graduate degree. Which is the better school/program? The other issue is cost. Carnegie Mellon would cost about $50,000 a year where the University of Florida would be free ( we are Florida residents). He is quite bright and shy and the University of Florida is large and Carnegie Mellon is smaller and better fits his personality type. What would be the best school? Especially if he wants to pursue graduate studies and he would also love to study abroad.

Every year around this time, "The Dean" gets a gazillion queries from students and parents that are similar to yours. Many folks are faced with tough decisions and a looming May 1 deadline. But I am not in a position to offer such important advice from afar, just as I would not attempt to suggest a spouse to a stranger. (In fact, I've failed at playing Cupid countless times, even which I know the prospective partners well!)

But I will say that a free ride at U of Florida is nothing to sneeze at, especially when you're otherwise looking at a $50K annual bill. Your son can get an excellent education in physics at either school. (Now I steel myself for the loyal supporters of each institution telling me where I'm wrong.) ;)

Yes, fit is important, and it sounds like CMU might be a good match for your son. BUT ... it will be far from home, and it's not a small school (just a lot smaller than UF). So the big question is this: How much will paying $50K/year stress your household? Will your son graduate with debt if he goes to Carnegie Mellon? For those with very high incomes, $50K won't make the same dent that is does for more typical families, and I don't know where you fall.

Perhaps one solution would be for your son to consider one of the residential "Learning Communities" at UF. See: Options such as the "Leader Scholar Program" or the "Career Exploration Community" could provide a good way to make a huge school seem smaller and friendlier. There is also an Honors Residential College, which makes it easier for Honors students like your son to find each other.

So unless your son feels that Carnegie Mellon is a "dream school" and thus, if he chooses Florida, he might always be traveling a road-not-taken paved with regrets, my vote would be for him to head to Gainesville. But, as I said above, it's irresponsible for me to weigh in here without seeing a much bigger picture. So consider this advice worth what you paid for it. :)

Good luck, whatever your son decides (and let me know next year how it worked out, if you think of it).

(posted 4/28/2012)