Public Colleges Vs. Private Colleges: What’s Really Affordable?

Many parents of college-bound students see the “sticker price” at private colleges and universities and grab their chests when tuition and fees are quoted at $30,000 or even $35,000 for one year. It’s true that the total cost of education at some private institutions is well over $120,000, a daunting financial hurdle for a bachelor’s degree. In comparison, while the cost of public colleges and universities is increasing even for in-state students, public institutions still seem, at first blush, to provide a more affordable education. But there’s more to the equation of tuition at public colleges vs. private colleges than just sticker price, so the question of what’s really affordable may sometimes have a surprising answer.

Public Colleges vs. Private College: A surprising story of financial “safety” and financial “reach”

Although it was ten years ago when I weighed the costs of public colleges and private colleges, my own experience is still relevant today, so I’ll briefly share my story. A top student at a large public high school (and a very needy student financially), I looked at colleges and universities all over the country and applied to a mix of schools, big and small. Despite the hefty applications costs – which I cashed in savings bonds to pay – I figured I’d have enjoy the most flexibility if I availed myself to multiple financial aid offers.

Eight of the ten colleges I applied to were private institutions while two were public colleges in my home state of Pennsylvania. My concern was not admission, as I got into all ten colleges; the question instead was “how on earth will I pay for this?” While the private college costs (even in 1996) were already cresting well over $25,000 a year for tuition and expenses, the in-state pricetag at the public schools seemed more reasonable, hovering at $10,000 and below for tuition and expenses. I considered the two public colleges to be my financial safety schools – the places I’d find a way to attend if financial aid at the other colleges didn’t work out. They were still excellent institutions, and I would’ve been satisfied with them.

Remarkably, though, as I lined up the aid offers, I was shocked to see that these two “cheapest” schools, the public colleges with costs of attendance below $10,000, had put together the least generous packages. Even with a significant scholarship to one of them, the amount of money they expected me to pay out of pocket was crippling, especially for a family like mine with next-to-no resources. As it turned out, every one of the eight private colleges included generous grants and scholarships in my financial aid packages, making schools as expensive as Northwestern, Lafayette, and Vassar not just within reach – but actually more affordable than their public school counterparts. It was a surprising result, and as I later found, not an uncommon one.

Public Colleges vs. Private Colleges: Whose pockets are deeper?

The truth is that, while public colleges usually have cheaper sticker prices, they generally have less money to give out than their private peers. Public colleges and universities are largely at the mercy of state legislatures, and their financial aid offices can’t always bestow the generous gifts they would like to.
Certainly, not every public college is stingy, and not every private school is wealthy. Still, year after year, talented students find that private colleges are competing for them by throwing dollars their way. Some schools have even been accused of “buying” their students with extremely generous aid packages, but if you’re on the receiving end of that equation, all you can say is “Thank you!”

Public Colleges vs. Private Colleges: A more recent story

I recently spoke with a student from Illinois who, although accepted to the first-rate public University of Illinois, chose Boston College because the private school wooed him with generous grants. They made it even cheaper for him to attend BC as compared to U of I. What’s more, the price tag at BC (one year of tuition and expenses estimated at $40,000) nearly kept him from applying in the first place, with his parents assuming out of the gate that it would be unaffordable. Can you imagine that this fellow and his parents were so concerned about the seemingly high cost that he almost didn’t try? Although U of I would have probably been a great experience, he got to attend his dream school for less than the cost of his financial safety school.

Public Colleges vs. Private Colleges: Other thoughts

Although it does cost more in fees to apply to a bevy of colleges, it’s worth spending a few hundred dollars extra up frontâÂ?¦in exchange for more options come acceptance time. For students who do their research and seek out good private colleges where they are average or (especially) above average in the pool of admitted students, they may be surprised by the grants and scholarships they receive from these generous institutions.

I should note here that private education is not necessarily better by definition. It’s possible that a student might prefer the experience at a public college or that a public university might be more prestigious or flat out “better” than a private one they’re considering – regardless of the cost. The specific schools in question and the student’s preferences will always have to be evaluated on their own merits. And admittedly, especially for the average college applicant, public colleges will often end up being a better value. My point is simply that the stated cost of a private college should NEVER bar the student from applying, especially if he or she is academically qualified and wants to attend. Given the deep pockets of competitive private colleges and the budgetary constraints that many public colleges face, the question of what’s really affordable does not have a predetermined answer – no matter what the sticker price says.

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