Cost and Value: What You Need to Know About Public and Private Colleges

shutterstock_39798982On paper, if you’re going strictly by sticker price, it would seem that public colleges and universities are the much more affordable option as compared to private institutions. But as you may have guessed, as with most things related to paying for college, it’s a lot more complicated that that in an apples vs. oranges sort of way.

Here’s what you need to know about choosing between a public and private college or university, specifically as it relates to what it’ll cost you…

If you aren’t familiar with The College Board’s Trends in College Pricing report, it’s a great way to get a general sense of how expensive different college options are (on paper, at least). Here’s a quick breakdown of cost and net cost (which is how much students actually end up paying minus aid and tax credits). Worth noting: About two-thirds of full-time students pay for college with the assistance of grant aid.

  • Average published tuition and fees for in‐state students at public four‐year institutions is $8,893 in 2013-14. The net cost for students is $3,120.
  • Average published tuition and fees at private nonprofit four-year institutions is $30,094 in 2013-14. The net cost for students is $12,460.
So does that mean public institutions are the best bet when it comes to being able to afford college? Perhaps, but keep reading.
Private institutions definitely tend to be pricier, but not much more so than public college tuition for out-of-state students, especially once room and board are factored in. In other words, if you plan to go the public route to save money, you are most likely confined to your home state, and that could limit your options. If you’re OK with that, great.
If not, here’s something else to consider. Private institutions usually have more institutional aid at their discretion, so oftentimes, students are offered generous aid packages and can vie for school-based scholarships. If a school wants you badly enough, you could potentially be offered thousands of dollars, making the final cost comparable to that of a public university.
Another option is to start out at your local community college and transfer later on. This can save a lot of money, however, be sure to thoroughly research how your schools of interest will apply your earned credits so that you don’t have to retake courses (and ultimately waste your time and money). Many community colleges have relationships with certain four-year institutions so that the transfer process is seamless, but it’s not always that simple.
One last note: Sticker price should not be the only factor when debating between public and private colleges, or in choosing a college at all for that matter. You have to figure out where you’ll be most comfortable, which schools offer programs of study you’d like to pursue, etc. Public universities usually offer a big-campus experience and tend to be more commuter-friendly, while private schools, especially liberal arts colleges, tend to be on the smaller side, for example.
Ideally, you’ll want to research and apply to both a combination of public and private colleges to keep your options open. Once the acceptance letters and financial aid packages come rolling in, you can make an educated decision about which opportunity is best for you.

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