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The Public vs. Private School Debate

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In this current economic climate, families are increasingly “down-grading” their college of choice. Students who had their eye set on a private school are instead picking an in-state public school. Would-be public school students are instead starting their educational careers are the local two-year junior college. (I mentioned this in a post two weeks ago about creative solutions for paying for college.)

It seems at first glace that this “down-grading” is a more than reasonable thing to do when paying for college is a stretch. Just take a look at some of these numbers:

According to the College Board, the average cost for a full year of tuition and fees at a community college was just $2,360. At a public four-year university it was $6,185. And at a private, four-year university it was $23,712.

The question, however, is whether the numbers tell the whole story. In an article at About.com’s Guide to College Applications, Seth Allen, the Dean of Admission and Financial Aid at Grinnell College, argues that since public and private colleges assess need in the same way, the real cost of attendance will be the same.

Financial aid 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.

Furthermore, he argues that private colleges often offer more comprehensive forms of student aid.

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.

This point relates to a post I wrote last year about tuition breaks being offered by Ivy League colleges and other elite private schools to middle income students. In short, many of those top-tier schools were cutting tuition entirely for families with incomes under $50,000 – 60,000 and significantly reducing it for families earning less than $100,000 – $140,000.

Finally, Mr. Allen pointed out that the average time to graduation at a public university is longer than at a private school.

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.

I wonder, though, how much the time to graduation has to do with the institution as opposed to the students who attend that institution. Assuming students whose parents have greater financial means attend private schools, perhaps they graduate quicker because they are sidetracked from their studies by having to work full-time jobs. At public schools, on the other hand, students might be more likely to take lighter class loads or stop and start their studies in order to earn the money to pay for college.

What do you think about the public vs. private school debate? If finances are especially tight at your home, are you still considering applying to a more costly private school? Or do you assume that no amount of financial aid can compensate for the rates in tuition, fees and expenses?

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