Top of the Class

Philip Jia / Guardian

UCSD has spent the last 50 years cultivating its reputation as an institution of higher learning, earning the title of America’s seventh-best public university from U.S. News and World Report for 2010. Our school’s style of education, however, rests somewhere between the public and the private spheres, with enough large-scale research projects to distance faculty from students, but none of the name recognition or prestige of an Ivy. By treading the middle path, UCSD offers neither the intimacy of a smaller, lesser-known college nor the study money of a top 10 university, but some disjointed combination of the two.

According to the book “Higher Education?” by Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus — professor emeritus for Queens College in New York and New York Times writer, respectively — paying hundred of thousands of dollars for a prestigious school won’t necessarily get you the education from the big-name faculty members you signed on for. Staff at a lesser-known university, on the other hand, aren’t distracted by research, athletic programs and maintaining a high profile, allowing them to focus their attention on the classroom.

“Colleges are taking on too many roles and doing none of them well,” the authors claim. “They are staffed by casts of thousands and dedicated to everything from esoteric research to vocational training — and have lost track of their basic mission to challenge the minds of young people.”

Colleges are letting in more students even as they raise prices, without offering any guarantee that students can succeed once they graduate. UCSD’s admissions rate has risen by 3 percent in the last 10 years (from 38 percent to 41 percent), while the average cost of attending the school has increased by about 9 percent in the last year alone.

In fact, according to, the average American college student is more than $20,000 in debt at graduation, and the typical salary for recent grads is only $30,000. The average post-graduate starting salary for UCSD alumni is $47,000, while recent Harvard grads make about $57,300 a year and those at Cal State Stanislaus make about $40,000.

There is a correlation between a student’s tuition costs and his or her future paychecks, according to Stanford professor of economics Alan Krueger and economist Stacy Dale. In a paper for the National Bureau of Economic Research, they used national tuition and earnings data to conclude that the higher tuition students pay for university, the higher their average starting salary is.

Because more expensive schools also have more resources, more opportunities for study and more staff, this inherently lends them prestige and can have a positive impact on a student’s overall education.

The question is if the students at these schools are really getting their money’s worth for such an enormous investment. Whether a school is public or private, large or small, liberal arts or technical, prestigious or lesser-known all play a role in the type of education a student receives, with professor-student relationships a crucial variable in all situations.

All professors are required by definition to complete community service, to teach and to publish research, according to academic administrator Jon Welch. In order to conduct any research, professors must apply to outside sources, such as the Department of Education or the Environmental Protection Agency, for grants that are then processed through the university. A chemistry professor starting research, for example, will need funds to cover the use of lab facilities, the purchase of new equipment, professional fees, conference fees and the $27,000 salaries each for about 10 graduate students to help in the lab — all of which must come from grants.

At public schools like UCSD, professors that are tenured or about to become so are paid by the state, and other professors must find funding on their own. Although much of professors’ salaries can be attributed to the costs of initiating research, such as setting up a lab (the average salary of UCSD professors is $135,400), this does not account for the discrepancy between salaries at public and private universities. The average salary of full professors is $109,569 at public universities and $144,256 at private ones, according to the American Association of University Professors.

While the size, location or specialties of a school don’t play a direct role in this discrepancy, prestige may come into play. Private schools usually have stricter standards for admittance and higher rates of tuition than their public counterparts, drawing high-profile teachers and the students willing to pay to learn from them.

This year is the first time ever that UCSD surpassed $1 billion dollars accrued in research funding from grants, ranking fifth among top U.S. universities in federal research and development funding, and distinguishing itself as a top competitor in the public school sphere.
Indirectly, grant money is the major source of income for any institution; at Cornell University, for example, 60 percent of all grant money won by professors went to fund the school’s general overhead. This percentage is much smaller at UCSD, but the average $28,000 paid yearly by each in-state undergraduate in fees and living expenses is still a small proportion of the school’s income.

Aside from supporting universities financially, grants give students opportunities to collaborate with professors and peers in hands-on learning situations, although the 1,181 faculty currently employed by the university to work with 23,143 undergrads and 4,274 grad students is a far cry from intellectual intimacy.

“There are 300 students in my upper division science class, and the professor’s office hours are one hour per week,” one Sixth College senior said, who asked to remain anonymous. “How can I possibly interact on a personal level when there’s a hostile line of students you have to out-compete for attention and help?”

Overall, the relevance of millions in grant money for students, especially undergraduates, is up for debate — especially since forming close enough relationships with professors to set yourself up for a research opportunity is easier said than done.

Lacking the national prestige of a large private university and the intimacy of a small school, UCSD hovers in a realm all its own, forcing students to take advantage of whatever slim opportunities they have to get involved. UCSD offers undergrads a learning environment rich in research dollars and diversity, but one that is forced by its size to subjugate the individual to the masses, so that students have to evaluate for themselves whether the classes are worth the cost.