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


One Comment

  1. alan says:

    Punn State out of state tuition and room/board is $43,000. Nuff said.

  2. Michael P says:

    I’d like to hear about the difference between brick-n-mortar schools vs. online colleges….you’d think that an online school would be cheaper, but in actuality it is not.

  3. albert says:

    you might like to think an online school is USEFUL, but it’s not.

    I do a lot of hiring of college educated people. University of Phoenix? Kaplan? Any of the many other for-profits? Online only from a regular college?

    Right in the dumpster. Never give them a second look.

    1. HEY HEY HEY says:

      Albert throws them in the dumpster

    2. Jim says:

      I think that’s a terribly shortsighted way to hire people. Going to a four-year brick-and-mortar school does not make a good worker (I say this as a UofM graduate). In fact, people who have full-time jobs and still manage to go to an online school in their “free” time to better themselves have proven they have what it takes to succeed.

      1. albert says:

        My experience with hiring online degree holders in the past has shown that they do not have anywhere near the depth of knowledge nor the critical thinking or interpersonal skills of those who went to college along the traditional track.

        Wanna see why? Google “university of phoenix cheat hints” and see the huge list of site that provide info on how to pass these things without doing more than copying and pasting.

        1. Michael P says:

          But this applies to any college….online and brick-n-mortar.

        2. AJ says:

          I did a search via Google on that and got nothing…Google says “No results found for “university of phoenix cheat hints”.”…

        3. Peon Leon says:

          While an education is important regardless of how it is legally obtained, it is not an indicator of whether or not a prospective employee is going to do a good job. I have interviewed people who have obtained degrees in both manners – I have not found that brick-n-mortar folks are any better or worse than those with online degrees.

  4. JJ says:

    With scholarships I received out of high school is was cheaper for me to attend a private college in MN than a public university in MN.

    1. LiviaLou says:

      I had the same experience. Going to UMD would have cost me $6,000 out of pocket (with maxed out loans) but going to Gustavus cost me $4,000 out of pocket (with slightly less loans as I would have had at UMD). That was just my freshman year. Financial aid got better my sophomore-senior years, b/c there were two of us in college. My brother went to MSU for four years and graduated with more debt than I did.

  5. Tom says:

    Nothing wrong with a public college! People who send their kids to a private college have this theory that the more money they throw at their childs education the better off they will down the road and that is farthest thing from the truth. That is sort of like saying if they spend alot of money on anything the less likely something will go wrong and anybody with any common sense knows that. But considering the type of people who send their kids to a private college common sense never prevails. But the question needs to asked of these oarents is this ” if you spent all that money on your child private college would you consider your child a failure if they make anything under 6 figures down the road in what ever they choose for their careers?

  6. Tom says:

    And my typing is bad today! Sorry LOL

  7. Annette says:

    It is also cheaper to go to college when you are over 25 years old. The reason is the grant money is more available to you because you are an “independent” student. You do not have to declare your parent’s income only your own. I went full time at 30 and it did not cost me much because of that. I also worked 20 to 30 hours a week and had worked at several crummy jobs before I went to school so I was a lot more motivated to learn and work hard.

  8. Annette says:

    It is also cheaper to go to college when you are over 25 years old. The reason is the grant money is more available to you because you are an “independent” student. You do not have to declare your parent’s income only your own. I went full time at 30 and it did not cost me much because of that. I also worked 20 to 30 hours a week and had worked at several crummy jobs before I went to school so I was a lot more motivated to learn and work hard. I graduated from the U of MN.

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