Public Vs. Private College: The Cost

“Public Vs. Private College: The Cost” is the first in a three part series examining how choose what type of college to attend. For a full picture of the process, also read part two, “The Experience” and part three, “The Bottom Line”.

by Karis Hustad

August is here and for many soon-to-be high school seniors, reality is beginning to sink in that college is only a year away.

While many students begin looking at colleges long before the admissions process begins, it can still be difficult to look past the brochures and tours to what an actual college experience will entail. Often the first decision in the college application process is whether to go to a public or private college.

So what to choose? Public or private? The answer isn’t as simple as the question.

There are many factors that go into deciding what is best for each situation, but the first issue that comes up is cost. Before writing off one school or another because of financial reasons, however, find out what the actual difference is, and how much tuition prices, financial aid and other factors play a role.

The Basic Difference

The defined difference between the two options is simple: money. In the “Ask The Dean” column on, the writer explains that public universities are largely supported by state funds and are subject to the state’s budget. This means in-state students get a break on tuition because the school is essentially set up to benefit state residents. Private universities, on the other hand, are funded by private donations and endowments.

The writer also notes, however, there are non-monetary factors that separate the options. Because public universities benefit students within a given state, preferential admission is sometimes given to residents. Private schools often have a more varied geographical base of students and applicants do not get special consideration whether they live two blocks or two states away from the school. Private schools may also have ties to a specific religion or discipline, which can influence curriculum and overall student experience.

The Cost

As mentioned before, the cost is the most blatant difference between public and private schools; however, tuition prices can be negated by different types of financial aid. Public schools will likely have a lower sticker price, meaning the total cost before financial aid is considered. Private schools can offer more financial aid in the form of scholarships funded by donors and endowments.

But financial aid isn’t the only factor that dictates cost. Donna Kelly, a partner and owner of College Connectors (a company in Minneapolis that assists students with the college-selection process) pointed out that a school’s graduation rate can quickly drive up the cost.

“It’s difficult to evaluate the investment of time and money if you aren’t taking into account how successful you can be in terms of graduating,” she said. “When we’re working with families, one of the things we emphasize is we’re not looking for a school for you to get in to, we’re looking for a school for you to get out of four years later.”

She pointed out that one school may seem initially cheaper, but if a student can’t get into the required classes, he/she may have to stay an extra year, causing that savings to deplete.

In addition to considering these factors, there are also tools that can help predict the cost of any given school. One example Kelly noted is the net-price calculator. Every school will be federally mandated to have a net price calculator on their website by this October, she said, giving students a better idea of what they can expect their tuition cost to be with financial aid.

The calculators take components such as expected family contribution, median amount of grants and scholarships and price of attendance to give families an accurate picture of what they will pay for any given school, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. With the October 2011 deadline soon approaching, many schools already have their calculators up, one example to test is Carleton College’s financial aid estimator.

Check back on Friday for part two of the “Public Vs. Private College” series, and find out how the experience of a given school can compete with the cost.

Karis Hustad is an intern at and a Twin Cities native, studying journalism at Loyola University Chicago. Reach her at


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