What Are the Cost Differences Between Public and Private College?

The debate over whether public or private college offers better education has been going on for decades but has no definitive answer. However, the cost differences between public and private college is a lot easier to define. Simply put, public college costs less than a private college.

Examining the Price Tag

The College Board published the following numbers in their 2016 study on trends in college pricing:

According to the study, the average annual charges for an out-of-state student at a public four-year institution is $35,370. Fees for in-state students have higher variation but are generally more than $10,000 cheaper than fees for out-of-state students.

For a private nonprofit four-year institution, the average annual charges amount to $45,370. While these fees vary, a private institution will usually be much more expensive than the public in-state option.

These numbers include tuition fees as well as room and board. The report shows a possible savings of $10,000 for students who attend public college versus private college. It seems straightforward, but deciding on college based on fees alone isn’t necessarily the way to go when it comes to your post-secondary education. You have to consider the bigger picture and the outcome you want to achieve.

“It’s a major investment,” says Jerry Slavonia, CEO of Campus Explorer, a search and resource site that helps students find the school that best meets their needs. “You naturally want a high return on your investment, but don’t kid yourself: Colleges have traits just like people do so it’s important to find a college that will be a good partner and create a successful outcome. You can do that by being smart about what you consider important in a school.”

No matter which option you choose, planning ahead plays an important role in your financial goals as you consider ways to lower the cost of college fees. The price difference between a private college and public college can be mitigated as well by taking certain factors into consideration.

Merit Awards

While a student’s skills and aptitude are the primary factors in determining who receives a scholarship, much of the financial assistance available at private schools is also focused on the financial needs of the particular student. This need is calculated differently at each school, therefore research is needed to determine each school’s criteria and how you can take advantage of the awards offered.

Merit-based and need-based scholarships are also available for public schools, but private schools tend to grant far more funds than public schools. This is often done in order to “win” students. In other words, competition factors into the price tag, where schools want to bolster their enrollment numbers and are willing to pay for it through scholarships and other financial opportunities for deserving students.

Financial Aid

Aside from school-based discounts and funding, financial aid can also help even the playing field between public and private schools. For those who qualify, the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA®) can go a long way toward cutting costs, so make sure you make the most out of this financial aid option.

Other Factors

Aside from funding, there are other elements to consider when determining whether private or public is the better post-secondary education option. Please note these are generalizations, and there are many exceptions to each of these points.

Programs and degree offerings: Due to the smaller size of the schools, private institutions may not offer the particular courses that will lead to the career path you want. For this same reason, private schools can offer more specialized programming.

Demographics and class size: Private schools offer smaller, more intimate classroom settings, which means students have greater access to professors. However, a smaller school may mean less diversity and therefore missed opportunities to learn and gain perspectives from students from other walks of life.

Prestige: Attending a private school lends a certain level of prestige to a student’s name, particularly on a resume. However, a local private school may not be well known outside of its community’s borders, which means the value of its name loses its impact in social and professional circles.

Graduation rates: On average, private school students require more than four years to complete their bachelor’s degrees, but 53 percent of private college students do successfully complete their degrees compared to 33 percent of public school students.

The answer to the question of cost differences between public and private colleges is an easy one, but the debate over which post-secondary option is best for you comes down to, well, you. Setting aside price, consider what factors mean the most to you for your future, then determine what financial options can help you reach your goals.