Are Private Colleges Better than Public Colleges?

Some students and families have an implicit and unwarranted bias against public colleges and universities. In some cases, they may feel that states simply don’t have the funding or resources to dedicate to their public college systems. They may feel that state colleges are designed to provide the most basic level of higher education to citizens of that state. In many cases, these beliefs are true. Clearly, not all state college systems are high caliber, and within a state there exists a great range of quality from campus to campus. However, with careful scrutiny, one can identify several state colleges that are every bit as good as, or better than, most private colleges. In doing so, families can save a significant amount of money especially if the college you are considering happens to be located in your home state. Here are some numbers from US News and World Report to support this statement.

Average Annual Tuition and Fees at Ranked Colleges

(After financial aid and scholarships)

Private $38,185

Public (Out of State) $22,698

Public (In State) $10,338

It should be noted that averages are not actual costs. In reality, some students will pay more and some will pay less than these amounts. At the University of California, for example, out-of-state students pay a $30,000 nonresident supplemental tuition fee in addition to the normal tuition and fees. On the flip side, out-of-state students can be awarded merit-based scholarships. Need-based scholarships are also quite generous not only at state colleges but at private colleges as well.

According to the same source, more than one-third of colleges ranked in the top 50 are public schools. These include UCLA, UC Berkeley, U Michigan, UVA, UT Austin, Georgia Tech, UIUC, U Florida, UNC Chapel Hill, and many others. Furthermore, all of these top state schools offer both financial aid for both in-state and out-of-state students in the form of need-based and merit-based scholarships. The reason that they offer merit-based scholarships is obvious. Even with a scholarship, out-of-state students bring more revenue to the college than in-state students.

At most state colleges, the acceptance rate for out-of-state students is much lower than it is for in-state students. Indeed, state schools are typically mandated to maintain a certain percentage of in-state students in their student body. At UT Austin, UCLA, and UC Berkeley, for example, 90% of students must be in-state residents. At UMass, Amherst, 75% of students are Massachusetts residents. At UVA, it is mandated that 2/3 of its students must be Virginia residents. As a result, the acceptance rate for in-state students (36%) is nearly twice the rate for out-of-state students (19%).

There’s nothing inherently true about state colleges that makes them implicitly or actually less valuable than private colleges. This becomes exceedingly clear when you start to analyze the strengths of programs within private colleges. Looking at UIUC (University of Illinois, Urbana Champaign), for example, many programs are ranked higher than the same programs at Ivy League colleges. Its Computer Engineering, Computer Science, and Physical Science programs are considered by many to be among the best in the nation. UVA’s undergraduate business program is considered one of the best in the country, and Georgia Tech’s Engineering program is nothing less than world class.

One thing to consider about public colleges is that they tend to be quite large. Most have more than 20,000 undergraduate students on campus. U Michigan and U Maryland have more than 30,000 undergraduates. UT Austin and Ohio State have more than 40,000 undergraduates. Also, virtually all of them tend to be located in or around a big city. While attending a big college in a big city is right for some, it is clearly not right for others.

To reiterate the main point of this article, many public colleges offer world class programs while also offering significant savings to families. Do NOT exclude them from your list simply because they are public colleges. They do have commonalities, such as size and setting, that should be considered. Just like people, each college should be considered on its own merits, not only generally, but also according to the quality of specific program or major you are thinking of studying.