Michael J. Berland
Consultant, author

Michael J. Berland

A strategic adviser and communications consultant who co-authored "What Makes You Tick? How Successful People Do It -- And What You Can Learn from Them."

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State U. worked for me

Q: The Wall Street Journal says big U.S. companies, when hiring for entry-level jobs, are picking bachelors' degree graduates of big state universities over Ivy Leaguers and other grads of more elite schools. Recruiters said they need people with practical skills. Would you take the same approach? Do you think your school prepared you well for whichever form of success you sought? In the long run, does it matter what you studied in college, and where you went?


This topic is very personal for me. I was fortunate to attend a superb private prep school in Chicago, where I grew up, but was one of very few kids from the upper echelons of my class who didn't attend a private college; my parents simply weren't in a position to pay for additional private schooling.

My parents were willing to help support the cost of the University of Illinois. But so many of my friends were going east to study; I really wanted a flavor of what an East Coast school would be like. The University of Massachusetts at Amherst felt like an excellent compromise to me -- little did I know it would set me up for the rest of my professional career.

As a kid who'd grown up in Illinois my whole life, I knew little about Massachusetts and certainly knew nothing about UMass other than it was a far less expensive than Dartmouth, which was a dream for me. (Part of the appeal of U Mass to me in particular was that is had a formalized relationship with four top private schools -- Amherst College, Smith, Mount Holyoke and Hampshire -- where I could take classes, meet girls, and get a sense of the culture most of my prep school peers were experiencing.)

Within months of arriving at school, my grandmother died. At her funeral, I met a man -- the husband of in-laws of cousins -- who headed a firm called Penn + Schoen, which did public opinion polling. I told him about how, as editor of my high school newspaper, I'd done a poll on cheating that created a huge controversy and led to policy changes. He offered me an internship at his firm.

Soon enough, I'd switched from my declared major of journalism to study at the Social and Demographic Research Institute at UMass. I interned every summer of college for Penn + Schoen, earning college credit and learning the real-world applications of my field of study.

I actually ended up as one of the top three students in my major because I was fascinated by what I was doing. A big part of that was that because of my exposure to professionals in public opinion research during my internship, I had a very clear vision of how what I was studying and doing extracurricularly in the field could translate into a profession for myself. The classes I took in statistics, journalism and political science all supported and helped me to focus that vision.

The courses in demography were not something that would have been available at a private institution focused on the liberal arts. I even pitched the alumni office on doing a big poll for them on the aspirations and dreams of the graduating glass. I turned that poll into my honor's thesis and got a grant from the university to pay for the poll. It's hard to imagine that I'd have been able to create that kind of opportunity for myself elsewhere.

All this is a long way of saying that the real issue is what kind of student you are. There are pros and cons to both state universities and private colleges.

State universities often require students to pick a school with a pre-professional focus sooner, so students tend to have to home in earlier on what career they plan to pursue. To be successful at a state university, students must put together their own plans and then make them happen.

The practical, real-world experience state university students get outside the classroom, often because they have to work to help finance their education as I did, ends up being a gift that pushes students further, helping them to gain both practical professional skills and personal maturity.

In addition, state universities are so big you have to seek out and fight for your education and for attention from professors at times -- not unlike working for a big company. Every student is competing with thousands of others every day to get basic needs met. Classes are large, support groups are few. And students are surrounded by a diverse mix of peers who may not share the same background, values, goals or plans for the future.

As a virtue of their size, state universities have a wide range of opportunities and resources that simply do not exist at smaller schools, but few come with a road map of how to take advantage of them.

Engineering, pre-med, and business students do great at big public institutions. While they assuredly get a great education, perhaps students are a bit more indulged at private schools by not being pressed to declare their professional inclinations as soon, thus leaving them less poised to begin a professional career straight out of the gate.

By Michael J. Berland  |  September 27, 2010; 9:08 PM ET  | Category:  Education and success Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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