Q: I have gotten accepted into two universities that I like: one is a prestigious private university, the other a prestigious state university. Both are highly ranked but the private university has the advantage in rankings. On the flip side, it is much more expensive and I can't gauge which one has a better science program. I'm torn as to which university I should choose. A college visit is off the table so I don't know what my options are to figure out which is better for me.
A: Choosing where to enroll is a very challenging proposition. You are to be congratulated on having such great options. I will ask you one question and then will give you my take.

You mention that both schools are "highly ranked," so my question is: ranked by whom and by what standards? Many students only want to apply to "top ranked" schools but often do not ask who is doing the ranking. A magazine? A consortium of college counselors? Some "rankings" are based upon what colleges report about themselves. So I am saying "caveat emptor" (let the buyer beware). Just because a school is "highly ranked" according to one set of values as opposed to another, this does not mean it is the right choice for you.

"Science" covers many subjects. If you know now which branch of science attracts you, look at the faculty. Both schools are major research universities, which means that faculty are going to be busy with their own work. So you need to look closely at undergraduate research and see where you are more likely to be involved with the professors in their work. Does each university have an office of undergraduate research? Is there a list of published papers? If so, are undergraduate students named on these, or just graduate students, or faculty alone?

Now let's look at the expense. Since you bring up the cost of the private institution, I will assume that your family (like most) cannot simply write a check for $69,000 a year and think nothing of it. State universities cost between $30,000 and $35,000 a year (and that was before New York Governor Andrew Cuomo's governor's this month that he wishes to provide free tuition to qualified students at New York city and state universities.) That is a huge difference! If you are offered as much in scholarships (not loans) that it would actually cost less to attend the private university than the state university, that would be a great, but very rare opportunity.

If you do not have huge cash gifts being flung at you, what should you do? Consider this: if you wish to enter a field of scientific endeavor, you are ultimately going to need a graduate degree—at least a master's, and perhaps a PhD. Once you are in graduate school, where you completed your undergraduate work is of lesser importance. Where did you do your advanced work? That is what will be examined. Now, if you choose the more expensive school you will need to work to re-pay the loans you have taken out to cover those costs. How can you go to graduate school while you are working? Even if you have the strength to do all that, re-paying debt upon debt can be crushing. Think about it. Do you wish to be in debt until you are 50?

Create a chart to compare the pros and cons of each school. Ultimately, you will gain an inner sense of which choice you should make. Good luck!