Where should my son go to college?
March 30, 2011 11:23 AM   Subscribe

Please give me some hints on college selection for my physics major son.

My son was accepted to several universities as a prospective physics major. However the financial aid situation is such that we probably can only afford to send him to one of two: University of Massachusetts at Amherst and University of Maryland at College Park. He is very smart, is one of the top students in his Advanced Placement class in Physics, and is doing very well in Math. His grades in Math have not been stellar (A-/B+) but his Physics grades are very good (A/A-). I expect him to be able to do well academically wherever he goes.

I visited University of Maryland with him several months ago, and I liked it a lot. The campus is clearly well maintained, and the state has put some serious money into developing it. The physics department is very impressively ranked, and he liked the discussion he had with the department head there. There is opportunity for undergraduate research. I don't know as much about UMass. I am told the campus' physical plant is not well maintained, but that the Physics department is very good for an undergraduate education. It might not be a top choice for graduate school, but for an undergraduate program it's just fine. We are going there for a visit in a couple weeks, so I'll learn more.

However, the problem is financial and emotional. First, he really wants to leave Massachusetts. He feels UMass is just the western branch of his suburban Boston high school. I am not unhappy with him wanting to leave the state, and have expected it all along. I think it would be good for him to have independence, living in another state far away from his insane parents (my wife and I). However, UMass will cost us about $18K per year, and UMaryland will be more like $28K per year. These are both totals after subtracting his aid packages. We can probably afford the cost at UMass from savings and cash flow, but the extra cost of UMaryland is beyond our immediate reach. The extra $40K or so over four years will have to be made up with loans. I am deeply opposed to going into debt for any reason, and especially opposed to going into debt for college. Student debt cannot be discharged by bankruptcy for any reason. It's like being in debt slavery. It's worse than credit card debt, which I'm also opposed to. This is my opinion, at least, and I'm deeply disturbed by the thought of having my son slip into it at 18 years of age.

So, my questions are (1) what are the real differences between UMass and UMaryland as far as an undergraduate physics major goes, and (2) am I insane about my aversion to debt?

Thanks. I hope I've included enough detail.
posted by vilcxjo_BLANKA to Education (43 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Is your son opposed to taking on the debt for his loans, if he wants to go out of state?
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 11:30 AM on March 30, 2011

A little bit of debt goes a long way in helping him realize how expensive higher education is.

Hopefully, it will

a) encourage him to graduate on time or even earlier

b) stop him from skipping classes

c) take his education more seriously with an eye on getting a good job after graduation.
posted by jchaw at 11:38 AM on March 30, 2011 [1 favorite]

I insane about my aversion to debt?

$40k is a lot of debt, especially if he's going to major in physics and doesn't have any plans to enter a high-paying engineering field or go into finance after graduation. If it were just $25k, I'd say it was manageable, but $40k starts to be a serious burden. If he does go on to become a physicist (which has poor job prospects), being a postdoc in physics with a $40k education debt to pay off would be a bad place to start out in life. $40k in debt would probably motivate him to get out of the physics field, though (which he probably wouldn't, because no one would "give up their dreams" at 22 over money).
posted by deanc at 11:44 AM on March 30, 2011

40k in loans is nothing if your son is smart and capable and going into a field that will make him happy and productive. Physics is an engineering field. It sounds like he's technical minded. He'll probably end up in a field where he can afford to pay back the loans.

Has he thought about a job during college to offset these costs?
posted by shew at 11:47 AM on March 30, 2011

A little bit of debt goes a long way in helping him realize how expensive higher education is.

Hopefully, it will

a) encourage him to graduate on time or even earlier

b) stop him from skipping classes

c) take his education more seriously with an eye on getting a good job after graduation.

Uh. This is actually not true in practice. Ask any of my friends in deep debt who did not finish college.

Please don't encourage your son to take on debt. Visit UMass first and let him get a real feel for it. I had similar feelings about Rutgers and ended up at another in-state school farther from home, but had to take on debt for it. Now I see how irrational that was. When you're talking about a huge school like UMass (or Rutgers), the "it's going to be just like high school!" arguments are ridiculous. He'll have nearly 30,000 other students around him from whom to pick his peers.

Graduating without debt is one of the best gifts you could ever give him. It'll open up a world of post-college opportunities which would be closed to him otherwise. Grad school, internships, travel, study abroad--all things that he might not be able to pursue if saddled with debt. Seriously. Trust your instincts.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 11:48 AM on March 30, 2011 [6 favorites]

Response by poster: I suspect he will try to go to grad school after undergraduate school, though it's hard to tell exactly what one plans. Personally, when I was a high school senior I told everyone I was going to get a Ph.D. in Computer Science, which was hard for people to understand in 1971. I went to a music school, but ended up with a Ph.D. in Computer Science. So, it's hard to tell where we end up, and it's path dependent anyway.
posted by vilcxjo_BLANKA at 11:49 AM on March 30, 2011

FWIW, also: I have 40,000 in debt and it sucks. I would not make the decision to take on that debt at 18 if I knew how it would impact my life moving forward into adulthood, and a job during college is not sufficient for wiping away that kind of debt if he's going to be a dedicated student.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 11:50 AM on March 30, 2011

I think a possible solution here might be to spend a year or two at UMass and then transfer to a university with better opportunities for undergraduate research that offers more financial aid.
posted by deanc at 11:50 AM on March 30, 2011 [2 favorites]

I can't tell you what the right course of action is, but I am in a situation where I will be graduating from an in-state college in less than a year and I have zero debt. It feels good to be entering the world without that weight on my shoulders, but I also wanted to go to this particular school. Once I graduate I have a lot less pressure to immediately make money and spend it all on paying off debt. Instead I have very few expenses and can start saving right off the bat. Lay out both options to your son, does he think the debt would motivate him if he were to go out of state?
posted by token-ring at 11:50 AM on March 30, 2011

$40k of debt at a federally-subsidized interest rate that can be deferred throughout schooling, where payments can be pegged to earnings or discharged through various programs if necessary, is way way different than $40 of high-interest credit card debt.

Also, if he is a physics major who is going to grad school, he should not have to pay for a Masters or a PhD, and he can continue to defer his undergraduate loans.

Is it possible for your family to move to Maryland so that your son can start getting in-state tuition there during his sophomore year?
posted by muddgirl at 11:52 AM on March 30, 2011 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Muddgirl: I would not think of anything but subsidized student loans. The non-subsidized student loans are theft, in my very opinionated opinion.
posted by vilcxjo_BLANKA at 11:54 AM on March 30, 2011

If he wants to work in MA, a UMass degree is a better known quantity than a UMaryland degree. If he wants to work in Maryland, a UMaryland is probably better known than UMass. Getting away from your family and friends is cool and all, but being 8 hours away for 4 years is a large distance and time to be away if he intends to pass on the locational advantage.

As a personal tip, take the slow lane on your drive out to Amherst, complain about the length of te drive - namely that you won't be able to visit frequently.
posted by Nanukthedog at 11:57 AM on March 30, 2011 [4 favorites]

Totally different approach: what are the schools like for programs other than physics? As you note, we don't know where we'll end up. I picked the best school overall when I went to college, which gave me lots of options for figuring out majors.

Otherwise, and I mean this gently, there's a lot about what you want in your question - you liked the school; your opposition to debt; etc. What about just laying out the options for him, the pros and cons as you see it, tell him how much you'll give him for school, tell him you won't co-sign any of his loans, and let him decide. Perhaps he can get some kind of work-study job. Perhaps he can just plain get a job; that should help eat away at some of that $40K. Perhaps he's willing to live in squalor; or get three roommates; or do other things to reduce those expenses; lots of college kids do. Or he might decide it's easier to stay closer to home and have the whole thing paid for.

(I have loans; subsidized and unsubsidized; and I don't think any of that is theft. They're fair trade - low interest loans that I used to pay for my education. But that was a decision *I* made. For myself. After getting a lot of information from my parents.)
posted by dpx.mfx at 11:59 AM on March 30, 2011

I applaud your restraint, and I agree that less or even no debt would be the way to go. But please understand: student loan debt is way less serious than credit card debt. I understand your concerns, especially given the bankruptcy note, but let's face it: if you don't go into bankruptcy, you won't have that problem. And while that's very easy for me to say -- not having faced bankruptcy myself, although I've certainly been in not-great financial straits now and then -- being prudent about your living situation is easy to do, especially when you have family members who are already concerned about such things.

The thing about debt is that while it's good to be wary, it also is the kind of thing that you NEED to know how to deal with. How can he expect to pay for an even-more-expensive graduate program? How can he expect to buy a house -- or pay for his own kids' college education someday? He needs to learn how to manage debt successfully. Without it, he won't have much of a credit history, and without that, no matter how much cash he has in hand, he may run into trouble buying big-ticket items down the line. The world is not necessarily built for people who are overly careful with money.

The other thing is that while he does deserve the best education he can get, there's absolutely nothing wrong with having him start at one school and transfer after a year or two. Unless he's already got junior standing thanks to AP credits/courses, his first couple of years will involve a lot of figuring out the social puzzle and taking prerequisite classes. Since he's choosing between large state schools either way, as long as he goes to a reasonably decent place he shouldn't have a problem.

That would also give him a chance to a) settle in and figure out a specialty or b) say, "Hey; this sucks and I want to be a journalist" (HA HA HA). College opens your eyes to all sorts of opportunities that few people know even exist. He may find a much more lucrative career, such as something in engineering; he may decide he wants to be NEAR physics but not IN the field. Who knows. Give him a chance to figure that out for himself.

You know what they always say (on South Park): there's a time and a place for everything, and it's called college.
posted by Madamina at 12:02 PM on March 30, 2011

Best answer: His grades in Math have not been stellar (A-/B+)
  • That's not "not stellar" if he's an AP kid. For chrissakes, go easy on him.
  • If you worry about math being a weakness, you should not be majoring in Physics. I made this mistake, and the funny thing is that although I thought I was quite good at math, my brain evidently is not wired correctly to calculate surface integrals. The "physics part of physics" is quite easy. The math behind it rarely is -- I know without a doubt that Physics majors will solve more equations and write more proofs than the average Math major. If you graduate with a Physics major, I'd be shocked if you didn't also complete the equivalent coursework for a Math Minor or 2-3 years of a Major.
  • Physics might as well be 3 or 4 vastly different subjects. Again, reflecting back on my own experiences, I found basic mechanics (ie. AP physics) and quantum physics to be a breeze, and got high marks. It made tons of sense to me. On the other hand, lagrangian mechancis and electromagnetism nearly made me fail out of my degree, and doomed my grad school prospects.
  • Basically, what I'm saying is....don't launch yourself into a Physics major just because you liked it in High School. Things can change and go quickly downhill. There's an incredibly high conversion rate from Physics majors to Math majors, chemists, and engineers. Make sure that there are backup options available. I realized in my Junior year that I wanted to be an Engineer, and had no good options to actually complete that path.
  • Why isn't your son asking these questions? You're about to send him off to live on his own. Let him make the decision.
If he really likes UMD (and the Great State of Maryland), it's also fairly easy to become a Maryland resident for the purposes of tuition. It only takes a year if you time it correctly. Most states are not remotely as lenient.

(Oh. And consider Virginia Tech if that's one of your options.)

  • Speaking of grad school prospects and employability... A physics major tells employers that you are very smart, but have very few actual transferrable skills. A good minor and set of extracurriculars and work experience is vital to landing a job if you don't go down the grad school route (fortunately, the "you're very smart" part seems to give them confidence in your abilities even if you only have a tiny bit of experience). The grad school route for Physics is a weird one (but it's also usually free). A MS is only useful if you want to teach (you're better off getting a MS in another subject for other employment), and all of the research/academic jobs require a PhD. The route into academia is a rough one. After the 8+ year PhD course, you spend several years in low-paid postdoctorate slavery purgatory, and possibly end up with a tenure-track faculty position around the age of 35-40. There are probably 0.4 of these positions for every PhD graduate. It's impossible to tell what the situation will be like in 15 years, although the state of basic research in the US does not look good. Many of my colleagues at my last lab job were preparing to learn Chinese (and do not mistake this for xenophobic fearmongering -- the next "big project" in our field had lost funding/interest from the US and EU, neither of which seem to be making much of a commitment to increase funding for basic research in the short or long term future, while China was very eager to move forward on it and a large number of other projects that had been all but abandoned in the West)

    Honestly, I wish I knew more about the "endgame" for a physics major before starting my undergrad course. The old advice to "Major in what you love and you'll land on your feet" does hold very much water in 2011. I'm not saying that everybody should get a professional/trade degree, but you really really really need to consider your long-term employability and job prospects after graduation. This is daunting for an 18 year old, but should at least be something that he keeps in the back of his mind. Even if you love Physics, you may decidedly not love working in a lab or academic setting for the rest of your life.

    Also. Learn to write and give presentations. This will set you miles apart from most physics majors (or, really, most anyone these days.)

  • Sorry for rambling here. I'm contradicting my own "learn to write" advice.

    tl;dr: "IN A VAN. DOWN BY THE RIVER"
    posted by schmod at 12:03 PM on March 30, 2011 [12 favorites]

    Can the OP clarify if UMass-Amhearst and UM-CollegePark are the only schools that accepted him?

    How about private schools?

    For 40k a year, I will send him to a cute private school with small, intimate classes, e.g., Hopkins.
    posted by jchaw at 12:08 PM on March 30, 2011

    Tell him that you'll pay for everything if he goes in-state. But if he goes out of state...he has to take on the difference himself.

    $10k a year is nothing. You can do about 3K per year with a job in a physics lab inputting data and cleaning up paperwork. Then he has the summer to do the rest of the $7k...or take them in loans.

    Also...sounds like he's smart...$28K/year...for undergrad...WITH AID? Even for an out of state school...WTF?

    Also, college park has a thriving social scene...I know he's a physics guy...but it really helps.
    posted by hal_c_on at 12:08 PM on March 30, 2011

    $28K/year...for undergrad...WITH AID?

    Ha. Aid. Right. We stopped "doing that" a while ago for out of state students $28k might as well be a bargain.
    posted by schmod at 12:12 PM on March 30, 2011

    Response by poster: jchaw: He was accepted at UC at Boulder, Univ. of Rochester, Univ. of Pittsburgh and some other place, I think. The $40K was over 4 years.

    schmod: Very helpful and interesting. He's asking all these questions, but he doesn't read ask.metafilter. He has 3 years of Mandarin, and is a very good writer. He may be better than I am, and I think that's saying something.
    posted by vilcxjo_BLANKA at 12:29 PM on March 30, 2011

    Best answer: I graduated in 2001 with $16,000 in debt (probably about $19k in today's dollars) and a B.A. in Physics. I immediately forged ahead into graduate school, and am pursuing a career path in academia.

    First off, my gut reaction is that U. Maryland College Park is a better school for physics than U. Mass. Amherst. It's not a night-and-day difference, but it's there. That said, neither one would be viewed as a black mark by, say, a Ph.D. admissions committee, and so it's worth asking whether the extra debt is worth it.

    In my experience, my student loan debt has been for the most part manageable. During graduate school, subsidized loans continue to be subsidized — in other words, interest does not accumulate. After graduation, I took a postdoctoral research job. I was over-optimistic about the state of my finances at this point (basically, I signed a lease that in retrospect I couldn't afford), and ended up making interest payments only on some fraction of my loans while at this postdoc. (I was earning about $34k/year at this point.) I then took a faculty job down in Florida, with a salary that was nearly 50% higher. This is more than enough money for my needs (though I am, granted, single with no kids); I'm currently building up my savings and hoping to make a large payment against the principal of my loans later this year.

    If my loans had been over twice as large, would this track have worked for me? I think it would have, though I might have had to do the interest-only payments on a larger fraction of my loans during my postdoc job. But it's totally a feasible route to pursue — if your son knows how to manage a dollar, and if he can get a moderately well-paying job after grad school. The latter is too far off to know for certain either way; I've had no trouble with it so far (knock wood), but the market and the system are slowly changing, and the rate of that change may increase by the time your son has a Ph.D. in hand. But if you've instilled in your son the ability to live frugally, to not make impulse purchases, to cook for himself rather than going out to dinner every night, to draw up a budget — then the amount of debt you're talking about would certainly be manageable.
    posted by Johnny Assay at 12:30 PM on March 30, 2011

    "$28K/year...for undergrad...WITH AID?"

    I pay $37,000, with the maximum amount of aid from the gov't and merit scholarships at a private research university . $28k is significantly cheaper than that.

    If he doesn't want to go the academic route, as in going into a Ph.D program, then post-docs, and then look for a professorship, then where he goes doesn't matter *as* much since he won't be relying on faculty recommendations/research publications as the (almost) sole propellant of his future. What are his goals? He needs to have these articulated and somewhat solidified, even if they change in the end, as yours did. 4 years go quickly, and if you're wishywashy about majors and goals and end up not getting that position in that lab you needed, well, depending on what your son wants after he graduates, he could be out of luck.
    posted by lettuchi at 12:31 PM on March 30, 2011

    Aha, I see that he got into U of R. That's where I go. It's a good school for Physics if he is planning on being an academic.
    posted by lettuchi at 12:38 PM on March 30, 2011

    I would encourage your son not to consider academia.

    A person with a BA in physics is very employable after graduation, assuming he has decent personal, presentation, and writing skills.

    I wish I had the budget right now to hire about a dozen kids with bachelors' in physics (or another quantitative field) to do some programming/analysis for a project.
    posted by dfriedman at 12:38 PM on March 30, 2011

    He has 3 years of Mandarin, and is a very good writer.

    Ha. Awesome :-)

    Good luck! Don't let me dissuade you or him! Just....have options.
    posted by schmod at 12:39 PM on March 30, 2011 [1 favorite]

    You should know, for reference, that UMass Amhearst is a top-shelf school for polymer physics, etc. UMd is top-shelf for physics in general, but if he might be interested in polymers at some point, UMass is excellent, and describing it as a second-rate choice for grad school is a big mistake.
    posted by JMOZ at 12:39 PM on March 30, 2011 [2 favorites]

    Two points I have to make as a current junior in college:

    I find the whole physics aspect of this question to be irrelevant and I think you should treat it as such. It is very likely he'll go to college, find something he prefers, and end up majoring in that. Furthermore, majoring in physics is HARD! Perhaps it's just my perspective as a student at a top tier university but I've found that high-school aptitude doesn't mean much unless it entails a serious passion, independent work outside of class, national competitions, etc. I thought myself to be quite good at math until I came here.

    He should go UMass Amherst. You should let him make the decision for himself, unless he chooses UMaryland, at which point should assert your authoritative power as a parent.
    posted by masters2010 at 12:40 PM on March 30, 2011

    I also agree with everyone who says he shouldn't go to a school just based on physics. 99% of people I know do something career wise that has nothing to do with what they thought they would be doing at 17.
    posted by roomthreeseventeen at 12:41 PM on March 30, 2011

    I strongly agree with masters2010 and the many other people who are saying the physics program issue is not important. He is still in high school. It is EXTREMELY likely that he will change his mind about what he wants to study or major in or what kind of work he wants to do after graduation. Especially if he's not crazy about math. Kids change majors, change goals, change schools. 17 is way too young to lock yourself into a career path.

    He should consider the schools in terms of their overall package, not just which one is maybe, possibly a tiny bit better as far as physics goes.

    For that reason, I would recommend UMass over the U of Maryland. The two schools in general are comparable in terms of their quality, and it sounds like he/you will take on significantly less debt that way.
    posted by fugitivefromchaingang at 12:53 PM on March 30, 2011

    I find the whole physics aspect of this question to be irrelevant and I think you should treat it as such. It is very likely he'll go to college, find something he prefers, and end up majoring in that.


    And that thing may not pay very well at all. Therefore, if he can stomach it at all he should go to UMass and graduate debt free.
    posted by Jahaza at 1:02 PM on March 30, 2011

    It is EXTREMELY likely that he will change his mind about what he wants to study or major in or what kind of work he wants to do after graduation.

    (Not sure if this is in response to me, but that was exactly my point, which I guess got a little buried in my post. Unless you've got a very specific interest, do not choose a school based upon a single program. Of course, it's really hard to get to know a school until you actually go there...)

    posted by schmod at 1:04 PM on March 30, 2011

    Response by poster: Thanks. I think it may matter where some people go to school, but not for many career paths. If one wanted to dance or play the violin or sing like Caruso, maybe it matters. (We'll have to make that decision for the second son, who does want to sing like Caruso.) It may matter if you want to write fiction, I don't know. But for science it may not be that important.
    posted by vilcxjo_BLANKA at 1:22 PM on March 30, 2011

    Best answer: One point about undergrad research: It's not the end of the world if UMass has fewer research opportunities. That's what the NSF REU (Research Experience for Undergrads) program is for. Paid summer internships! They're great!

    For what it's worth, I wanted to go to undergrad far, far from home, but I ended up at a college a 15 minute drive from home. I loved it there. And I graduated with a $1000 loan that I could pay back today if I felt like it. (Right now it's deferred while I'm in grad school, so I'm holding onto it and enjoying the smidgen of interest.) For the experience of truly getting away from home, there's always study abroad, which almost anyone in any major can do if they plan carefully.

    It is really freeing not to have huge loans hanging over you. I got a great education and had a great time, and I don't think that the experience of living in another state would have been $40,000+ worth of awesomeness.

    If he visits and really hates UMass and knows he'll be miserable there, obviously, then it's not a good choice. But if they're both pretty good... well, not having debt is really nice. And as others mentioned, the "everyone from my high school goes there!" thing isn't that big of a deal when your high school class is diluted by that campus of tens of thousands. At least that's the impression I had from friends in similar situations.

    Counterpoint: If your son can get a job during the academic year, and summer jobs or paid interships, he could potentially knock that $40,000 to $20,000 of loans, which is more manageable. I get that by figuring on an $8/hr job, 10 hours a week, for 30 weeks --> ~$10,000 over four years, plus another $10,000 in summer earnings. This may or may not be realistic depending on how competitive the job market is at that university. If he wants to go to University of Maryland, he could plan on working in order to keep his loans down. Unless more income would just reduce need-based grants rather than loans.
    posted by mandanza at 2:00 PM on March 30, 2011 [2 favorites]

    But for science it may not be that important.

    I kind of disagree, in part because some science programs are not that hard in some schools, some schools don't have as full-featured research programs for undergrad, etc. But for the most part, minor differences in departments between schools of similar caliber aren't going to matter that much in the outcome. If he turns out to be a superstar physics student, that will come out at UMass as much as it would have come out at UMD.
    posted by deanc at 2:03 PM on March 30, 2011

    I got my Ph. D. in physics from UMD college park. It's a great school with good faculty and an excellent physics education research group (innovative teaching). If you can make schmod's suggestion of in-state residency happen, hopefully there won't be too much of a cost difference.

    The reason I chose UMD for grad school over all of the other acceptances is that I knew I wanted to do physics, but didn't know what kind of physics. I figured the bigger the department, the more likely I was to find an area that I enjoyed. I ended up doing biophysics, which I had not even heard of as an undergrad. I don't know much about UMass Amherst, but I don't think the department is as large. If he's in love with a particular field, go with the highest ranked in that field. Otherwise, bigger is better (cost considerations being equal)!
    posted by bessel functions seem unnecessarily complicated at 2:05 PM on March 30, 2011

    It may matter if you want to write fiction

    Nah, not really. Though if it does, UMass has a really good creative writing program.
    posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 2:27 PM on March 30, 2011

    If it matters, Maryland also has a diverse and well-respected mathematics department.

    I respectfully disagree with posters who suggest that one can do anything about student debt by working part-time during the school year. I worked the above-mentioned 10 hours a week for $8.00 an hour for four years, and it covered my textbooks and meager weekly groceries, more or less. I never had any spending money, never partied, never went to the movies, and never bought alcohol (or whatever it is people think college students waste money on). In fact, I never did anything social that required any money and was a terrible shut-in. It didn't do a thing for my loans.
    posted by Nomyte at 2:41 PM on March 30, 2011 [1 favorite]

    He feels UMass is just the western branch of his suburban Boston high school. I am not unhappy with him wanting to leave the state, and have expected it all along.

    That's not a good enough reason when attending UMD would cost so much more. If it means so much to him, tell him he should take a couple of years off from school, work, and earn the money to cover the difference. UMass is huge, there are four other colleges, and I'm surprised he thinks it's anything like Boston. I live in the DC area now and am familiar with College Park, and it's a shady and boring place. Amherst, Northampton, etc. are very college focused and it's the ideal area for going to college. It's seriously ugly in College Park.
    posted by anniecat at 3:33 PM on March 30, 2011 [1 favorite]

    Best answer: Could you split the difference and send him to UMass, spending $5k extra a year to ensure his academic success? A cheap car, a nice laptop, tuition for a summer program, a tutor if he ever gets really stuck in a class, a semester abroad, less hours working so he can focus on his degree...these kinds of things may do much more to improve his eventual success than simply attending a marginally better school.

    (I know I would have preferred spending a bit less tuition so I could afford these kinds of things in undergrad...)
    posted by miyabo at 4:00 PM on March 30, 2011 [2 favorites]

    For what it is worth, I grew up in a Boston suburb and was an undergraduate at umass. A lot of people from my high school went there, including several of my better friends in my high school class, and a few years later, my sister. My set of college friends ended up being completely disjoint from the set of people from my hometown, and I ended up barely ever seeing the people from my town. Even running into them randomly on campus wasn't that common. So he shouldn't underestimate just how big UMass is (UMD is even larger incidentally), and also just how completely different it is from high school to be on a very large campus with 20000 other undergrads.

    I also ended up debt-free, which I can recommend, and in a major completely different from the one I went there for. (Also, a major more or less nonexistent at some of the other schools I was considering, though that shouldn't be an issue with college park.)
    posted by advil at 6:03 PM on March 30, 2011

    I don't have specific information about Physics (other than that it's an excellent program), but I am...affiliated...closely...with UMass Amherst. (Feel free to memail me if you have questions; I have been...affiliated...for a number of years and can quiz the students I know as well.)

    Maryland and UMass are institutional peers, so they're roughly the same size, they're both high research level universities, and my guess is that unless your son actively seeks out people from his high school, student life at both schools is pretty similar.

    I know that you're focused on academics and avoiding debt and he's focused on not having to see that dude who sat behind him in homeroom for four years, but perhaps you both need to look more at your son's other interests and which school can fulfill more of them.
    posted by camyram at 6:08 PM on March 30, 2011

    Best answer: First off, in response to the poster who argued that physics is not a good idea if you have a weakness in math - I wouldn't quite agree. If you have a functional understanding of mathematics, that's enough knowledge to get by in any undergraduate program (coming from someone who is completing his BA in a competitive physics program this year). The difficulty comes in grasping the intuition of how to set up and approach problems, not in their technical mathematical details.

    I will say though that you do need to not be afraid of math, and take a good number of math classes to excel in physics, but it seems that your son won't have too much trouble with that given his performance in high school. After you run the normal gamut of math classes (multivariable calculus, linear algebra, maybe real/complex analysis, maybe some differential/point-set topology if you want to explore more advanced physics like general relativity), the mathematical details of physics become almost automatic - you'll spend much more time thinking about how to approach a problem and its physical and intuitive implications than evaluating the (admittedly potentially messy) integrals that it entails. That's what makes physics so awesome (the intuition and physicality), and part of the reason I switched from math to physics halfway through undergraduate.

    The one exception is if you want to focus in theoretical physics. Then, you'd better be prepared for intensive mathematical study. But my previous statements were coming from the perspective from someone who is mostly interested in experimental physics.

    In terms of what physics program to choose, I do empathize a bit with the desire to go somewhere new. My academic advisors did all but explicitly forbid me from remaining at my current institution for PhD, just because going somewhere new gives you novel and nuanced perspective, which is absolutely necessary if you want to pursue physics academically in the future. As to what physics program is better, since it would be ludicrous to expect your son to know what specific field of physics he is most interested in, here are a few factors (in no particular order) to consider:

    (1) The size of the faculty. Larger faculty means a better chance your son will have a better chance to find a lab he likes (and he definitely will want to do research). If you want to get into more detail, it might also help to know how many faculty are theoretically inclined and how many are experimentalists (or whether this distinction is even strongly made at the particular institution).

    (2) How much research undergraduates are allowed to do, and/or how much funding there is for internships and other ways to get research experience. Many schools offer substantial financial support for students who want to pursue independent projects (studying abroad, domestic research, etc.) in the summer or during the school year.

    (3) The prestige of the program. I mean, it's perhaps an unfortunate fact that especially if you want to eventually go to a good PhD program, it is a substantial help to go to a particularly recognized undergraduate institution. Of course, as long as you excel in undergraduate you shouldn't worry too much, but it does make it easier to come from a more prestigious school.

    (4) Degree requirements. How stressful is the courseload that your son must complete to earn his degree? Is a thesis required for honors? (I've seen people have very unpleasant experiences with thesis statements - I was lucky enough to go to a school where thesis statements in physics were not only optional, but actively discouraged).

    (5) The advising situation. How much of a support network is there for your son if he needs help? This includes available tutors, mentors, how easy professors are to get a hold of, etc.

    (6) Student culture. Does the physics department make a point of promoting student happiness? Are students in the department working together, or trying to tear out each other's throats?

    You also shouldn't be afraid to ask the department what people who earn undergraduate degrees in physics from that school usually go on to do, whether that be graduate work, jobs in industry, or other options.

    Admittedly, a lot of this stuff is difficult to determine from just a visit, so I just intended it as food for thought. I unfortunately don't know much specifically about either UMass or UMaryland, so I can't advise you directly on these schools, but these were all factors I believe are important to finding a physics program that will make your son happy.

    A last note before I end this long rambly thing - perhaps I'm just a bit naive coming from a background in which funding my education was blissfully never a huge issue, but to me college is such a formative experience that I would find the extra money worth it if your son would truly be happier at UMaryland. And hey, it's a different experience from medical or biz school - even if your son decides to pursue a doctorate, he will end up receiving a substantial stipend in graduate school (potentially upwards of $30k/yr), so either way (unless he changes to premed for some reason) you won't continue to run up a debt after he graduates.

    Gah, super sorry for how long this got. It's also my first post on MF, so maybe I overdid it.
    posted by Event Horizon at 8:58 PM on March 30, 2011 [2 favorites]

    His grades in Math have not been stellar (A-/B+) but his Physics grades are very good (A/A-)

    High school physics is not a very useful indicator of aptitude for BS-level physics let alone graduate physics. Fortunately, both these schools have moderately difficult courses which he can take early on to see if he like it. If not, switching out to Math is often easy because of all the math pre-reqs for physics. Similarly other quantitative disciplines like econ; as long as you front-load the math (linear algebra, ODE, discrete math are all typically attainable first year, intro probability is also good if there's a schedule conflict for one of those) you have a lot of flexibility. You can do undergrad research at either.

    First, he really wants to leave Massachusetts. He feels UMass is just the western branch of his suburban Boston high school.

    This is probably what bothers him the most about it. When you visit have him talk to first years and ask if they mostly hang out with people from HS or not. The answer is no, because it's huge and everyone wants to break out. I made a similar fairly irrational decision (further away, more money, equivalent prestiege) and wish that I had the extra money in my pocket now. You can probably help as suggested above my making a promise that you can keep to stay out of his buisiness. Talk to the study-abroad people at UMass and see what it costs to spend a semester in Bejing; he might be interested in that as a superior use for the money than adding a few hours of distance.

    The extra $40K or so over four years will have to be made up with loans. I am deeply opposed to going into debt for any reason, and especially opposed to going into debt for college. Student debt cannot be discharged by bankruptcy for any reason. It's like being in debt slavery. It's worse than credit card debt, which I'm also opposed to.

    $40k is a pretty manageable amount of money at the favorable interest rates for subsidized student loans (4.5% with deferment is very different from immediate 20%). Play with this calculator to show how much per month/year that takes out of his pocket when he starts working. $2500/year is kind of a lot of money, but not debt slavery.
    posted by a robot made out of meat at 6:16 AM on March 31, 2011 [1 favorite]

    I agree with almost everything Event Horizon said (and apologize for beating this topic to death) except for one key point:

    The one exception is if you want to focus in theoretical physics. Then, you'd better be prepared for intensive mathematical study. But my previous statements were coming from the perspective from someone who is mostly interested in experimental physics.

    The second exception is if 90% of the college's teaching faculty are focused on theoretical physics.

    I mention this in my previous posts, but I actually completed the bulk of my physics degree at a university in the UK, thanks to a generous exploitation of my college's study abroad rules. Back home, all but one teaching professor was a theorist (the logic being that the experimentalists brought in funding, and were therefore too valuable to use for teaching undergrads). Overseas, the courses (ahem. modules) were taught by a mixture of theorists and experimentalists, and every single course (right up to graduation) broke into secondary study groups once a week that were led by a second, different professor, who could sometimes shed an alternative light on the subject if the main lecturer was being particularly dense.

    The difference was night and day. Of course, it's damned hard to find accurate information about actual teaching quality in a small niche department such as physics. (You also only tend to hear from students who liked the subject and department enough to keep with it).

    Oh. And REU early, and REU often. If you can knock some research requirements out of the way by doing summer research at your home institution, I'd jump at that. Otherwise, pick someplace fun/interesting, and try to do research there. I did one in Alaska, which turned out to be one of the most academicly and personally rewarding experiences of my life.
    posted by schmod at 11:34 AM on March 31, 2011

    « Older LA on transit alone?   |   Would love background on this half seen, half... Newer »
    This thread is closed to new comments.