Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Orange and Apples: UNC

It can be tough to decide where to attend college and although recommendations offer help, they tend to lack clear guidelines. Luckily, Nitin Sekar GS, an ecology student who graduated from UNC- Chapel Hill in 2008 with a degree in Biology and Environmental Science, has rules for students choosing between Princeton and UNC.

I had actually hated the University of North Carolina when I visited. It had been cold and rainy, and the tour guide had admitted that she wasn’t enjoying her time at Chapel Hill. Even the name of the school and its mascot seemed clunky and undistinguished. I had been denied the best scholarships to UNC, and I felt underappreciated. On the other hand, even my admission to an Ivy League school was an honor worthy of my high school efforts. I knew my mother wanted more than anything to tell the proud and wealthy women in the Indian community, “My son is going to Yale.”

Yet in late April 2004, I sent my acceptance forms in to UNC-Chapel Hill. I had decided to be purely logical about this. I was saving my parents $60,000, and I was going to one of the 25 best schools in the country. Most UNC students did love their school. And I knew Chapel Hill was, on average, warmer than New Haven.

Going to UNC ranks among the best decisions I have made in my life. The cynic will point out that I didn’t attend Yale for even a day: so how could I know what I was missing? All I can say is that I know two things: first, my life was full at UNC. I was too busy enjoying my trips to Siberia and South Africa, the late-night Frisbee and soccer games with far superior athletes, the stimulating company of advisers and friends with a broad array of backgrounds, and the thrill of helping launch a million-dollar philanthropic project to wonder what else I would have gotten at a private school. Second, I saved my parents enough to allow them to travel around the world, and for my dad to take a risk and pursue his dream occupation.

I started my Ph.D. in ecology at Princeton last year. Fresh out of undergraduate, I tried to recreate my UNC experience, visiting undergraduate clubs and events. Everything seemed a little quieter than it was at UNC: the arts groups and athletic teams were a little less impressive, the humanitarian activists a little less vociferous, the religious and political proselytizers a little more mellow. But through my interactions with my students, one thing was clear: the academic environment was definitely more competitive. While at UNC the most serious learners form a tightly-knit, intellectually stimulating community as good as any, we didn’t have to contend with as many of each other in the classroom. We would often be separated based on discipline, each competing with a few like ourselves and many others more interested in other less academic life pursuits. This effect should not be exaggerated: the material in my classes was challenging. But I was usually pretty sure that if I tried, I would get the A. That may not have been true for me at Princeton.

Princeton’s other great asset was the acclaim of its faculty. From Peter Singer to Paul Krugman to my own advisers, Andy Dobson and David Wilcove, it seemed as though every person here was the leader of critical field or a vast following. The density of these great minds startled me, and made me wonder if perhaps I would have grown a little faster intellectually if I had met such people earlier in my education. However, many state schools also have phenomenal thinkers, many of whom collaborate with Princeton’s professors, and I somehow doubt I could have grown any faster as an undergraduate. One can often learn more from the third-best person than the best person in a field, for it may be the former who is more intent on educating than publishing.

I offer this formula for deciding whether you should go to Princeton over a cheaper yet similarly high-quality alternative. In addition to being in love with Princeton, at least one of the following should be true for you.

1. Princeton will be less than 20 percent more expensive than your alternative.
2. Your parents or sponsors are so wealthy that they will not miss or need the extra money.
3. You are certain you will be wealthy enough in the future so as to not mind paying back loans, even though you could have become wealthy regardless.
4. You have found a professor at Princeton, a potential life mentor, who is uniquely suited to satisfy your demands as a brilliant or supremely industrious student.

For most of us, the Ivy League is a rather expensive place to find ourselves during our undergraduate years. But I recommend coming here for graduate school, because then, the Ivy League will pay you!

If you're a former Tiger who is now pursuing graduate studies elsewhere or a Princeton grad student who attended undergrad outside the Orange Bubble and would like to contribute a comparison send an email to blog@dailyprincetonian.com.


Brian B said...

Fellow Princeton grad student and tarheel undergrad here! Great breakdown of the differences between Carolina and Princeton.

Anonymous said...

I've always puzzled at the fact that Princeton might not be the cheapest alternative. SUNY's idea of aid came almost entirely in the form of loans and Princeton's completely in the form of grants. All things considered, Princeton was significantly cheaper for me than SUNY.