While Erik argues for the state universities, I’ll put a word in for small liberal arts colleges.
I probably would have been overwhelmed by the anonymity of a state university, and one of the Ivies would have been quite beyond my social capabilities. I came from a working class family, too, but the local minister had graduated from Ripon College in Wisconsin. At the time, early admissions – going to college without graduating high school – were a thing, and a good thing for both me and my high school. I have never been willing to submit to arbitrary authority.
At the small colleges, the professors have time to work with the students. They are expected to. Freshmen in the chemistry labs at the University of California Berkeley had my clueless leadership as a teaching assistant. My freshman chemistry course at Ripon had maybe 35 students. Ripon’s bigger now, but it’s the professor who runs the labs. Same kind of thing for English and World History (called something different now, I’m sure) and all the other classes.
They generally have gorgeous campuses that the students can enjoy without, for instance, hierarchy-ridden parking permit systems. Everyone can participate in sports, which are an adjunct to learning rather than a separate profit (or loss) center.
All colleges and universities are far too expensive these days. We can hope that Joe Biden’s loan forgiveness is the first step in making higher education accessible to all who can use it. Small liberal arts colleges have a problem with sticker shock: They advertise one tuition fee, but they also offer grants and other ways to get the price down to something closer to half of that. Hardly anyone is full-pay, which is also a problem for the colleges that don’t have ginormous endowments, which is most of them, but nice for the students.
The entire system of college and university economics is a mess that we need to straighten out.
The education these colleges offer is among the best. The three chemistry majors in my senior class went to the University of California Berkeley, Stanford, and Arizona State for graduate school. That kind of thing continues.
The current student preference to stay closer to home has made some of these colleges less representative nationally than they once were. Some kids need a situation in which they get more interaction with the professors and less social climbing. That’s a small liberal arts college.
And oh yeah, on STEM. Science and mathematics are two of the seven classic liberal arts. Learning some of the rest was one of the best things I did.