Are Public Universities Really a Better Value than Private Colleges?

Advice from Seth Allen of Grinnell College

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Seth Allen, Dean of Admission and Financial Aid at Grinnell College, presents some issues to ponder when assessing the true cost of private colleges and public universities.

In the current economic climate, public universities have seen a surge in applicants because of the presumed lower cost of a state-funded school. However, in many cases, a private college may actually represent the better value. Consider the following issues:

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Public and Private Colleges Assess Need the Same Way

packages at both public and private colleges typically begin with the FAFSA, and the data collected on the FAFSA determines the Expected Family Contribution (EFC). Thus, if a family’s EFC is $15,000, that amount would be the same for a public or private college.

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Private Colleges Often Offer Better Forms of Aid

Students should look not just at the amount of financial aid they will receive, but also the types of aid they are offered. Public universities, especially in tight financial times, often have fewer resources than private colleges, so they may need to rely more on loans and self-help as they attempt to meet a student’s need. Students should look carefully at how much debt they are likely to have when they graduate from college.

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Public Universities are Often Less Able to Respond to Financial Crisis

When state budgets are in the red—as most are in the current climate—state-supported universities frequently become targets for cost cutting. For state universities, difficult economic times can lead to a reduced ability to offer merit scholarships, a reduction in the size of the faculty, larger classes, layoffs and the cutting of programs. In general, universities will have fewer resources to devote to student learning. The California State University system, for example, had to cap enrollments for 2009-10 because of dwindling resources.

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Time to Graduate is Often Longer for Public Universities

In general, a higher percentage of students graduate in four years from private colleges than from public universities. If educational resources are cut at public universities, the average length of time to graduation is likely to increase. When students calculate the true cost of college, they need to consider the opportunity cost of delayed income in addition to the potential expense of an extra semester or year.

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A Final Word

Prospective college students and their families need to look at the net cost of a college, not the sticker price. While the sticker price may show the private college to cost $20,000 more than a public university, the net cost may actually make the private college the better value.