Public vs. Private Colleges

Loren Pope, the author of Looking Beyond the Ivy League: Finding the College That’s Right for You addresses the topic of differences between public and private colleges.

When building your application list, you don’t need to choose between public and private colleges. Including a mix of public and private colleges usually makes sense. When you are ready to narrow down the field, the considerations below can help.

Which College Is Cheaper? Many people assume a public college is cheaper than a private college because tuition and fees are reduced for state residents. But the posted “sticker price” of a private college is rarely the real price. If a private college strongly appeals to you, consider waiting for its financial aid offer before making a final decision. More often than not, private colleges offer scholarships and grants that significantly cut your actual cost, even bringing it close to the cost of a public college.
Public college cost gets trickier for out-of-state students. Public colleges are largely supported by state taxes. This means that out-of-state students, whose families have not paid these taxes, usually owe higher tuition than in-state students. Paying out-of-state tuition often puts the cost on a par with the cost of private colleges.

The Public Admission Advantage. Public colleges give admission priority to state residents. Because there are fewer spaces for non-residents, requirements for out-of-state students can be more strict and admission more competitive. At highly selective state universities, however, your state residency won’t give you as much of an edge because you are competing with many other highly qualified state residents.

Who You Rub Elbows With. One of the most important factors in choosing a college is how you feel about the students attending the school. Many private colleges attract students from a broad geographic spectrum. Others have a strong commitment to certain types of students, such as the historically black colleges or women’s colleges. Virtually all public colleges have egalitarian missions that support student diversity, if not geographic diversity. Students will tend to be from your own state and perhaps nearby states.

How Long to Graduate? Savings from lower tuition may evaporate if you need more time to graduate than you planned. This unfortunate scenario can happen if it is difficult to get into the classes required for your major, a common situation at many public colleges. On average, private colleges show higher four-year graduation rates.

Considering Out-of-State
Public Colleges? At most public colleges, “non-resident” students (students from other states) must pay higher tuition rates. But if you are interested in attending an out-of-state public college, there is hope.

Reciprocity agreements guarantee reduced tuition to students from neighboring states. Not all public colleges participate in these agreements, however, and restrictions often apply. To find out more, consult your high school guidance counselor and the college’s admissions office.

Out-of-state tuition waivers allow non-residents to pay reduced tuition if they meet certain criteria, such as a high GPA; interest in a particular field of study; or parents who are alumni, faculty, or staff. Eligibility rules for tuition waivers vary, so check with the college directly.

The rules for state residency status usually require a year of family residency or graduation from an in-state high school. But the rules may be less strict for some public college systems. Check those rules carefully if you have any concern about your eligibility.

Where You Want to Live. For some students, the location of the college is very important. Students wanting to attend college closer to home may find many public colleges within a few hours of their home town. Students wanting new environments and experiences may find that private colleges and even out-of-state public colleges fit their requirements.

Big Pond or Little Pond? Many students believe that private colleges, which tend to be smaller than public colleges, incur less red tape and offer more personal attention than public colleges. Students looking for a wide range of majors and lots of school spirit may assume a large public university is the best option. But in actuality, it is entirely possible to find small public colleges and large private universities that have these qualities. If college size is important to you, look carefully at each individual college and separate your assumptions from reality.

Prestige and Reputation. It is tempting to assume that an education at a selective private college is worth it because your degree will be more valuable. But in reality many highly successful people graduated from public colleges. And while many private colleges are highly prestigious, so are many public universities. If you are set on getting a name-brand private college degree, and plan to go on to a graduate or professional school, you can actually get the best of both worlds. Consider getting a lower cost undergraduate degree at a public college and attending a private college for your advanced degree.

Which Is Better? Once you have considered how well a college meets your needs, whether it is private or public might make a difference. The academic resources and diversity of a large public college system can be tempting. Or the personality and location of a private campus might be right for you. What is most important is choosing the college that meets your highest priorities at an affordable cost.

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