Should I go to a public or private university?

It’s a tale as old as time and a question we and school counselors everywhere hear often, “Should I go to a public or private university?”. Students and parents alike think and ask this question around the world as students enter their sophomore and junior years of highschool. In the end, this big idea question can come down to a much simpler and more personal one; where is the student more comfortable? One aspect of this question that can’t be simplified quite as much however is the financial aspect of going to a public versus a private university. There are a lot of misconceptions regarding funding a degree for a private or public education and one of the biggest misconceptions is the scholarships and financial aid offered.

To fully understand how the financials of the two different types of institutions work, you simply have to understand how the different institutions are founded. The difference in the schools, campuses, and classrooms themselves are another matter entirely that often comes down to personal preference. Financially however, public universities are dependant on the government and the taxpayers. Usually this primarily comes from the state but federal funding plays a part here as well. Private universities however are reliant on private donors, alumni donors, and tuition dollars.

Be it from TV, social media culture, or history itself; it’s become a common misconception that private institutions are there to educate only the well-off; because those are the only ones who can afford it. However, not at any point in time than now has that been untrue. In fact, the 2017-2018 school year reported the highest scholarship and discount rate at private institutions for freshmen students yet, reaching a discount of just over 50% off of full tuition. Mind you, this is just in terms of scholarship from the school, usually due to a student’s accolades. This is before even beginning to take grants, outside scholarship, or financial aid into account.

This isn’t to say college isn’t still expensive and a massive undertaking. Both public and private universities tuition rate has increased and continues to increase to exasperatingly high price tags. However, private universities tuition rates are climbing on average at a rate of 168% while public universities are climbing on average at a rate of 200%. This is before taking into account that in order to get the lower price tag at a public university, you must be a resident of that state.

So while the cost of public school and private school tuition both rise, public is rising faster and yet, the scholarship and tuition assistance offered at these schools isn’t rising at nearly the pace of the tuition or even at the pace of a private institutions scholarship and tuition assistance.

The difference here comes down to the very beginning, literally, going back to who founded and funds these schools. Public schools are funded primarily by the government while private institutions are funded by private donors. When was the last time anyone anywhere convinced the government to give them more money? A wealthy alumni who loves their alma mater is much more easily swayed to funding than an entire governing body. This is why scholarships at private institutions has grown so much over the years. The more alumni, friends, and advocates for the school, the more scholarship money that’s given.

Scholarship money coming in the form of donations for private universities may be what has allowed private schools to outstrip public schools in terms of merit scholarships given, however, it’s not the only factor to consider when comparing the two either. The government themselves also contributes to the lessening difference in price tags as well. While private institutions have donors, students that choose to attend these schools aren’t barred from federal funding either. They have the opportunity for both need and merit based funding from the government just like a student attending a public school.

This need or merit based funding comes in the form of grants and scholarships, both of which are ‘free money’; meaning neither the student nor the parent of the student has to repay the money given. These differ from need-based loans, also supplied by the government. Usually grants are need based while scholarships are merit based.

Grants offered through the government to both private and public students include the Pell Grant, Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grants, Iraq and Afghanistan Service Grants, and TEACH grants.

In addition to the government being able to offer these grants and scholarships to private and public students equally, students can often find scholarships to apply to or qualify for through other organizations such as non-profits, businesses, clubs, academic organizations, or even the high school you attend.

Colleges and universities themselves are also offering more of a variety of scholarships as well, getting creative with how they reward students and now taking into account the growing variety of skills and talents that students possess. In addition to the more traditional types of scholarships, such as athletic scholarships or honors society scholarships, there are schools offering scholarships for Esports, being a twin, art contests, duct-tape dresses, and even for anonymous good deeds. No longer are students rewarded simply based upon academic or athletic prowess. A variety of factors are taken into account. Alumni boards and government officials alike are beginning to open their minds more to non-traditional students and the skills they possess that will make them great students, and even better alumni. The cookie-cutter perfect A student or the track-star are no longer the only options available for students wanting to attend college, public or private.

This growing variety of factors can often even the playing field between the cost of public and private schools for many average to high performing high school students. Chances are, if you or your student did well enough to get into a public college, you also did well enough to get into and receive scholarship or aid to attend a private institution. Which is right for you comes down to your own preference and values. Knowing where those align in terms of your potential college options should play a bigger factor in your college decision than the cost. Private or public, college is an expense that you must view as an investment, however, that doesn’t mean you can’t be informed and capable of looking in the right places to lesson that price tag, be it a public or private institution that will be your home for the next four years.

Scroll to Top